“This is sheep-rustling, north-Halifax style – just the one sheep and three lads off their heads on acid”
One of the televisual highlights of 2014 was Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley, anchored by an astonishing central performance from Sarah Lancashire as pragmatic Yorkshire sergeant Catherine Cawood. So the return of a second series on BBC One is good news indeed, especially given Wainwright’s decision to also direct considerably more of the episodes this time round.
It’s obvious from the off that she is entirely at the top of her game. Reintroducing the startlingly mordant vein of humour on’t’moor, this opening sequence sees Cawood recounting a day’s work to her sister, namely sheep-rustling gone unfortunately wrong on a housing estate but leading to an even grimmer discovery, one which links directly back to James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce, the father of her grandson after raping her daughter (who then committed suicide) and Catherine’s nemesis from the first series.
For the dead body is his junkie mother’s and in a quietly astonishing scene, Wainwright just holds the camera straight on Royce’s face as he receives the news, realms of emotion working across Norton’s face and somehow deepening a character that has been well established as a bona fide monster. Cawood initially falls under suspicion for the death but the larger picture soon emerges as other similar crimes are unearthed and the scene seems set for another slice of exceptional drama.
There’s something rather wonderfully audacious about the scope of Wainwright’s writing here. Existing characters have their storylines continued organically (one of the victims from last time is now starting out as a PCSO) and other multiple strands have commenced calmly, just going about the business of unfolding, some connecting with other plotlines, others not yet. It takes real confidence to allow such a leisurely roll-out but Wainwright hooks us in with every single one, and it will be fascinating to see how they pan out.
Another reason they work so well is in the quality of cast who are presumably beating down doors to get to Wainwright’s work. So Kevin Doyle’s police officer is cheating on wife Julie Hesmondhalgh with lover Amelia Bullmore; his colleagues just happen to be Vincent Franklin and Katherine Kelly who think they’ve alighted on a serial killer; Matthew Lewis barely has time to grunt as the angry Sean, though looking like a red herring methinks; and Shirley Henderson is perfect casting as Frances, a woman terrifyingly in thrall to Royce (that prison scene, eesh!).
It may be grim up north but Happy Valley remains compelling watching and looks set to continue as one of the finest British dramas in recent years.