Why Happy Valley is the drama of the year so far

Sally Wainwright and Sarah Lancashire have made a thriller to rival anything from the other side of the Atlantic, says Jack Seale

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Why Happy Valley is the drama of the year so far
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The word-of-mouth hit is still a thing, in this era of carefully marshalled promotion and endless pre-hype. It's odd to say that a drama shown at 9pm on BBC1, which got more than 7m viewers for the first episode, was this year's biggest word-of-mouth hit, but it's true: Happy Valley, the latest by writer Sally Wainwright (Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax), steadily became a success outside the normal audience for the slot and channel. Why? Because when dramas this surprising, this memorable, this obviously superb come along, you have to tell everyone you know.

It started with a kidnap plot. Steve Pemberton must have been the production team's easiest casting decision as middle-aged accountant Kevin, a furtive, bitter drone who saw a chance to take revenge on his boss. Episode one set him up as a kind of Walter White character, turning to crime as a desperate solution to his need to provide for his family. He even had very nearly the same source of underlying resentment as Breaking Bad's anti-hero: his kindly mentor, Nevison Gallagher, employed him as penance for swindling Kevin's family out of their rightful stake in the company years ago. (Wainwright's character names are unerring: Nevison Gallagher, the charismatic owner of a small town's biggest business. Known locally just as Nevison. Perfect.)

But this was Yorkshire, not magic New Mexico. Kevin wasn't luckily the best cooker of crystal meth in the Western world, or implausibly hiding vast reserves of cruelty and daring. No, he was a meek loser who was cornered after one error of judgement. And that need to secure his family's future? Nobody was dying; Kevin just wanted to save his girls from the rough local comp by educating them privately.

A man wanting to pay school fees sounds trivial. It sounds like exactly the sort of thing that makes British dramas fundamentally less exciting than their bold, exotic American rivals. The Yanks have programmes about drug lords, mafia bosses, terrifying biker gangs, orgasmically cool advertising execs. We have programmes about families in semis, arguing. Happy Valley turned this on its head, by finding a powerful middle ground between real and extreme, heightened and mundane. The enormity of what Kevin had done hit home because we'd seen his family's modest but regular caravan holidays, and their glass-walled dining room, slightly showy, probably with a mortgage that little bit too big.

Happy Valley's scenes of violence were where the power of this sharply drawn normalcy hit hardest. Hundreds of other dramas feature the beating, murder and rape of women, in scenes that either make the crimes cartoonish and meaningless or, even more offensively, take a sweaty-palmed delight in studying a terrified face or bloodied chest for a few seconds too long. Happy Valley provoked discussion about whether it was too violent, despite being much less violent, pound for pounding, than any number of inferior shows.

What made it disturbing was the feeling that among dismal, defeated, poor people, awful things are happening all the time, behind that neighbour's door or in the corner of your eye - and not just in obviously rundown areas, either. Happy Valley was deliberately set in Hebden Bridge, a market town with a reputation for quaint beauty and a thriving, cosmopolitan arts scene. An underplayed but effective political message about this genteel haven being flooded with dangerously poor-quality drugs, thanks to the folly of botched prohibition, provided context for the sense that one false move could put you in the crossfire at any moment.

In fact it was almost incidental that the victims of the two most talked-about scenes, in episodes three and four, were women. Male characters could easily have taken their place. A taboo was confronted thanks to the realism surrounding the barbarism. Bloodshed was never gratuitous. Happy Valley took to push home the consequences of violence. We always knew who these victims were, and we always saw how deeply they and their loved ones felt the blow. Episode five was all consequences and no action, but was as sad and startling as the rest of the series.

The real miracle of Happy Valley was Wainwright's ability to build a plot that twisted and wove and wouldn't let you breathe for 60 minutes every Tuesday night, without sacrificing character. Every person we met was believable, understandable, flawed, sympathetic. It is monstrously hard to create a thriller with a constantly engaging plot that doesn't either jettison any semblance of a life outside the action for the characters, or rely on people behaving in ways that their circumstances and personality make hard to justify, purely to move the story forward. (Line of Duty failed on the first one. Not wishing to overdo the comparison, since Happy Valley is a very different show, but: Breaking Bad failed on both.)

Even Happy Valley's monster, the serial rapist and murderer Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), was more than just a narcissistic psychopath. His flashes of vulnerability and failed attempts at compassion, as well as the hints at a backstory when we met his stumbling blank of a mother, made him hard to completely hate and more frightening for it. On the flipside: Siobhan Finneran, beautifully understated as Clare, the recovering addict resigned, contentedly perhaps, to living out her life as the junior partner of her braver, sharper sister, a tireless police officer who's taken her under her wing and into her home.

Fine creations were everywhere, to the extent that Wainwright was essentially just showing off. Yet this was still pretty much a one-woman show. Wainwright clearly relishes writing female characters more than any other, and her biggest achievement so far is Catherine Cawood, the police sergeant who had to solve the kidnapping. Not "had to" in a professional sense, but in a personal one: Catherine's excellent but futile efforts to clean up Hebden Bridge were fuelled by her lasting grief and guilt over the suicide of her daughter, an event that was threatening to define Catherine's life for ever.

There's no stronger motivation for a character in a drama than the desire to atone, especially if the wound can never really be closed. The series cleverly showed Catherine constantly being presented with surrogate daughters she had to try to save. The kidnapping of Ann Gallagher, another woman in her early 20s, would have been the most resonant even if it hadn't turned out that her attacker was the man whose abuse had driven Catherine's daughter to the grave.

Or had it? While we were left in little doubt, a bold scene in the last episode saw Catherine's estranged son float the idea that she had exaggerated her daughter's story into a fable of a faultless girl preyed on by pure evil. Equally risky was another moment where a rape victim, unaware of the history of the person she was speaking to, claimed to be coping well - both a light of redemption for Catherine and a thorn to the heart. Looking with dry eyes at such raw, knotted emotions and refusing to plump for black-and-white answers is where Wainwright shines brightest. 

Actors are very seldom given as rich a creation as Catherine Cawood. Direct, independent, irreverent, emotionally intelligent and painfully self-aware but at the same time irrational and heedless; skilled at internalising and compartmentalising but always feeling her own pain; aware of the hopeless task facing law enforcement but dedicating to doing it anyway; and never short of a joke: Catherine was a character that definitely couldn't be replaced by a male equivalent, and one of the best damaged heroes ever seen on a TV screen. Yet there's no point in being a writer at the peak of your powers if you don't have an actor in a similar run of unrestrained form. Fortunately, Sally Wainwright has Sarah Lancashire, who embodied every glint and grimace.

It's already become a cliché to assume that Lancashire will win next year's best actress Bafta for playing Catherine, so obviously outstanding was the performance. It's not how Bafta juries think but it does now seem faintly embarrassing that Lancashire, two days before the devastating fourth episode of Happy Valley aired, was accepting a Bafta for Wainwright's brilliant but comparatively lightweight Last Tango in Halifax. Perhaps in 2015 they can award her a double Bafta, or just a bag full of them.

Happy Valley is available in full on BBCiPlayer until 10 June.

Interview: Sally Wainwright on the reaction to Happy Valley and her plan for series 2