July 6, 2016

Beating Brexit: Sarah Lancashire Takes British Television to the Limit in “Happy Valley”

dvd revOne-hundred fifty years ago this month Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, was born in London. Peter entered the wider world in book form in 1902 and since then has reportedly sold more than 40 million copies in as many as 35 languages. Just to keep things in perspective on Britain’s place in that wider world amid the withdrawal trauma of Brexit, it’s worth noting that by 1903, six decades in advance of Beatlemania, there was a Peter Rabbit doll and a board game, the first items in a never-ending outpouring of English merchandise featuring Peter and his “Little England” community of friends.

A more recent example of Great Britain’s worldwide dominion is in the realm of cable TV. Besides Game of Thrones, where Walder Fray’s sons recently met the fate of Peter Rabbit’s father (imagine the EU as Mr. McGregor’s garden: “run home to mummy, British bunnies, or Ms. Merkel will bake you in a pie!”), we’ve had, among others, Penny Dreadful, Peaky Blinders, Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Outlander, Poldark, River, Luther, MI-5, Last Tango in Halifax, and the subject of this column, Happy Valley, winner of British television’s BAFTA award for Best Drama Series of 2015.

The creation of Sally Wainwright, Happy Valley is anchored by a damaged, driven, in-your-face-physical, morally steadfast and hair-raisingly courageous West Yorkshire police sergeant and grandmother named Catherine Cawood, whose character approaches mythic dimensions thanks to a no-holds-barred, pitch perfect performance by Sarah Lancashire. Sgt. Cawood has her hands full in the Calder Valley, where the word “happy” reflects the flourishing drug trade. Haunted by drug dealers, kidnappers, rapist/psychopaths, and a serial killer who sexually mutilates his victims, the night streets of West Yorkshire towns like Hebden Bridge can look as starkly sinister as the streets of East Baltimore in The Wire.

Going to Extremes

By all rights there should have been a marked let-down in intensity for people streaming the two six-episode seasons of Happy Valley on Netflix mere days after the climactic events of Season Six of Game of Thrones — cathartic orgies of vengeance, the battle of the bastards, Ramsay Bolton eaten by his dogs, Arya Stark cutting Walder Frey’s throat, Cersei torching multitudes. In fact, the small scale mayhem in West Yorkshire has an equal, if not even more lasting, impact, witness the visceral responses of two seasoned television critics, Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix and Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker. Admitting the show haunted her “for months,” Nussbaum found one scene so tense “that I nearly lost my mind.” Of an episode in the same season, Sepinwall says “as the scene went along, I stopped recording my usual notes and just stared at the television. I had to remind myself to take a breath a few times. I’m pretty sure I left my thumbprint permanently impressed to the underside of my desk from gripping it too hard at one point. It’s a cliffhanger ending, and the Netflix interface meant that resolution was only a simple click away, yet I had to put the show on hold for a few hours just to get that moment out of my system.”

When some viewers abandoned Game of Thrones last year it was because the show took brutality to unacceptable extremes, not because it generated anything comparable to the sort of straight-to-the-marrow intensity Nussbaum and Sepinwall are describing.

The Power of Evil

Nussbaum credits Happy Valley for discovering “something original to say about evil” and for treating “the ugliest behavior imaginable with humane insight” while viewing crime “as an act of weakness, not power.” All true, except that crime in Cawood’s West Yorkshire is a great deal more punishingly and complexly depicted than that. While the kidnapping that sets the first season in motion is plotted by a desperately weak individual (as in the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo), and while the serial killer turns out to be a bullied, emotionally disturbed child of rape and incest, the scarily handsome monster who dominates both seasons (in spite of being incarcerated during the second one) is the epitome of raw, primal power, raping, stalking, and murdering whenever it suits his needs. James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce is as compelling a creation as Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood, a character of such unbending, unrelenting will that he’s capable of inflicting moral chaos from a distance, outside the action, as he does from prison by breathing transfusions of deadly commitment into a meek, blindly infatuated, well-meaning woman (played with eerie whispery feline passivity by Shirley Henderson) who is brainwashed into very nearly betraying her core Christian goodness.

The Dynamic

While the best way to do full justice to Happy Valley would be to announce a spoiler alert and plunge right into a detailed account of dramatic highlights like the first season’s thrilling double rescue, I’ll stick to a general overview of the positive-negative dynamic connecting the psychopath and the cop. At the beginning of Season One, we learn that Royce raped Cawood’s daughter, who committed suicide after giving birth to his child. As a result Cawood’s husband walked out, she’s quit her job as a detective, taking it upon herself to raise the child, Ryan (Rhys Connah), who is eight and misbehaving at school. Catherine is living with her sister Clare, a former alcoholic and heroin addict (Siobhan Finneran, Downton Abbey’s maid from hell O’Brien). As the action begins, Cawood is back on the force and superlative at her job, whether she’s preventing drunks from immolating themselves on a playground or busting well-connected members of the city council for drug possession. Her dark side is all about Royce, who has been released from an earlier stint in prison. She’s willing to go beyond the law to catch him out and punish him for the mess he’s made of her life, all the more now that he’s at large in her territory and has learned that he has a son, her Ryan.

The one sign of humanity shown by Royce is his joy in finding that he’s a father and in his urge to make himself known to the boy, which soon becomes a determination to take Ryan away from his grandmother. So powerfully does Norton inhabit this emotional high, you can imagine some form of redemption might be in store for him; in spite of yourself, you’re sympathetic to his seeming wish to find salvation through his son. Meanwhile, however, he’s involved in the kidnapping plot, which has gone off the tracks, two people have been killed, and the kidnapping victim, Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy) is at Royce’s mercy.

Again, even though viewers know better than to give any more than a moment of sympathy to Royce, he acquires a dimension of interest, a kind of novelistic fascination, when he disguises himself with spectacles and clothes from a charity shop and goes around clasping a paperback copy of War and Peace (by coincidence Norton was cast as Prince Andrei in the 2016 BBC miniseries). It’s in this guise that he ingratiates himself with his son. The more we see the two together, the more we begin to wonder if Ryan’s behavior at school may be genetic. The possibility that he could grow up to be as damaged and dangerous as his father is one Catherine is desperately aware of as she tries to give the boy the family life and love she hopes will save him.

Still doing my best not to spoil this must-see series for potential viewers, I’ll only add that the harrowing hold-your-breath don’t-look-away sequences mentioned by Nussbaum and Sepinwall bring the two antagonists, Royce and Cawood, violently, nearly fatally, together, one scene in a basement out of everyone’s darkest crime drama nightmare and the other in a houseboat where Royce has found refuge.

The Last Look

What sent me away from the Season Two finale knowing I had to write about Happy Valley was the expression on Catherine Cawood’s face as she watches her grandson Ryan running about, stick in hand, slashing, swatting, in the hillside cemetery where she’s been visiting the grave of her daughter. Being by now intimately attuned to the thoughts and feelings of this extraordinary human being, we know why her expression is so grim, so sad, so shaded with dread. She’s not taken in by the superficial innocence of the stereotype of a child at play. She knows where Tommy Lee Royce came from, just as she knows the serial killer was born out of rape and incest, and that Ryan is the offspring of a rapist and coldblooded killer. There’s a grandeur in the moment because her expression, solid, steadfast, at once fearful and fearless, reflects all that she and we have been through, the last note of a performance as nuanced and delicate, rough and raw as anything you’ll ever see on television.

Fringe Benefits

Fans of Downton Abbey will surely be curious to see two of the strongest characters in that show, good-hearted Mosley (Kevin Doyle) and black-hearted O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), playing against those types in Happy Valley.

As with other English crime series, the scenery surrounding these mean streets is a constant reminder of Shakespeare’s “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm,” not to mention the moors of nearby Haworth where Cathy and Heathcliffe and Jane and Rochester find one another in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Another literary thread in Happy Valley in addition to Royce’s use of War and Peace as a component of his disguise, is suggested by the presence in the same Heptonstall cemetery of Sylvia Plath’s tombstone, with an offering of pens at its base, something noticed by Ryan on a visit to his mother’s grave early in the first season. Perhaps the pens were the ones left by Patti Smith, who describes and photographs the setting for her memoir, M Train, a reminder that in the world of literature, there’s no room for boundaries or Brexits.

In 2002 the highest paid television actress in England, a fan favorite for her longstanding role in Coronation Street, Sarah Lancashire can also be seen in Sally Wainwright’s Last Tango in Halifax as one half of a memorably odd couple, playing a Head of School to sister-in-law Nicola Walkers’s soulfully promiscuous sheep farmer. Season One of “Happy Valley” is available at the Princeton Public Library.