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A field guide to Happy Valley, the show that isn’t even a little bit happy

A police drama set in a West Yorkshire village may not sound like a must-watch, but Ethan Sills finds that Happy Valley is a surprisingly tense and graphic thriller that packs an emotional punch.

A police drama? Yawn! 

Happy Valley is not your regular British cop drama. This is more psychological than procedural, a cat-and-mouse chase met revenge thriller, dealing in some of the heaviest subjects you can put on TV. Think Taken, if Liam Neeson’s daughter was already dead and he was actually a grandma from the north of England.

This is the only television show that’s ever made me get to my feet and yell at the TV.

Intriguing. What’s the story?

The show revolves around Catherine Cawood: she may not be chasing after international crime syndicates, but she’s certainly got a particular set of skills. Talking people out of burning themselves alive and putting a stop to a plague of drug dealers is all in a day’s work for this police sergeant. She’s also casually juggling her violent grandson and a casual affair with her ex on the side.

Eight years earlier, Catherine’s daughter Becky was raped and committed suicide shortly after giving birth. Catherine and her ex-heroin addict sister Claire look after Becky’s son Ryan, his existence serving a reminder of the tragedy.

When Tommy Lee Royce – Becky’s rapist and Ryan’s father – gets out of prison, Catherine is put on edge as she tries to keep him away from her grandson.

There’s also got to be a crime. Timid accountant Kevin Watherill is enraged when he doesn’t get the pay rise he was hoping. Feeling betrayed after years of service, Kevin arranges for local criminal Ashley Cowgill to kidnap Neville’s daughter Ann for a ransom.

The only hitch is that Ashley’s latest hire is none other than Tommy Lee Royce, and Catherine is right on the convict’s tail.

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A woman with a very particular set of skills: Sarah Lanchashire as Catherine

Who’s involved?

Sarah Lancashire leads the show as Catherine. She’s won a BAFTA for Last Tango in Halifax and raked up an impressive collection of awards for her starring turn as our depressed police warrior. The opening scene of the series alone is enough to let you know each accolade was well earned.

Most likely to play a cinematic supervillain at some point, James Norton is notorious for playing pleasant men in period dramas such as in War and Peace, Grandchester and Life in Squares. But it’s his role as the quietly psychotic Tommy Lee Royce that earned him his big break as well as a BAFTA nomination. He’s something else entirely.

Guilty of more than just hair crimes: James Norton as Tommy Lee Royce

Guilty of more than just hair crimes: James Norton as Tommy Lee Royce

The show is written by one of the most prolific women in British television: Sally Wainwright, creator of hits like Scott and Bailey and Last Tango in Halifax. The latter won her a BAFTA for Best Drama Writing, an award she scooped up again for Happy Valley – as well as picking up the Best Drama Series gong.

Half of the first season is directed by Euros Lyn. He’s won Welsh BAFTAs for directing Doctor Who and Sherlock, and has episodes of Broadchurch, Daredevil, Black Mirror and Torchwood under his belt, so you can be rest assured that as violent as it can be, at least it looks good.

What’s the vibe?

Happy Valley is a difficult show to describe. At its core, it’s a police drama in the same vein as The Killing. The focus is on one crime across the season and – like every British TV show ever – there are only six fast-paced episodes to zip through.

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A bit darker than The Bill: Ann Gallagher stares into the face of evil

Just how happy is this valley?

Not very. It’s one of those ironic, puntastic titles – along the same lines as calling the main location ‘Paradise’ and then murdering everyone there. Grey clouds hang over every scene, while a bleak, colourless town serves as a backdrop to all the horrors that unfold.

I’ll be honest, the show is pretty bleak. Most characters on the show are suffering in some way, whether it be cancer or depression. You’ll rarely see anyone crack a smile as they discuss kidnap, rape and drug abuse. The trauma experienced by Catherine and her family seeps through every moment they are on screen.

There are two scenes in particular that highlight the intensity of the show. One, an unexpected and brutal murder scene, will make your blood run cold. The second, a showdown mid-way through the series, is explosively violent and gives you a real battering. I’m talking worse than anything Game of Thrones has ever served up.

I thought you were trying to make me watch this…

You should! Is it depressing? Yes. Is it violent? Yes. Is it brilliant? Definitely. You will be shocked, you will recoil at times, but it will only make you cheer even louder for Catherine.

Convenience store glasses + high ves vest = British fashion icon

Convenience store glasses + high ves vest = British fashion icon

How do I watch it?

All six episodes of the first series are available right now on Lightbox – once you’ve watched one, you won’t be able to stop. Just make sure you watch it when your house is empty so you can scream without fear of odd looks.

You better get in quick though: series two comes back to TV One on May 30th, airing Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdays nights for a fortnight. This season’s got Juliet Hesmondhalgh (Coro’s Hayley), Matt ‘Neville Longbottom’ Lewis and his Potter co-star Shirley Henderson joining the cast – as for who returns, well, you’ll just have to watch and find out.


Click below to experience the thrills and chills of Happy Valley, with season one available on Lightbox:

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