We all cheat. It is one of the reasons why we have the police. I am cheating now. HAPPY VALLEY is dark and disturbing. The violence shown in the latest episode has provoked complaints. But it is not film noir. It just happens to be irresistible, and if the seventies’ feminist breakthrough had arrived forty years earlier then film noir would have included dark dramas about haunted policewomen.
Wainwright is a name we associate with the mountains that the South does not have, or what Northerners like about the North, being supposedly different, friendlier and tougher. Sally Wainwright writes the best Northern working class dialogue since Alan Bennett and the comedian, Jimmy James. When the feel-good hit LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX appeared on British TV, Wainwright looked as if she merely existed to reassure Northerners about their feelings of superiority.
HAPPY VALLEY is set in Hebden Bridge, a small town in the Yorkshire Pennines. Life should be simple for the local police and, for a while, it must have been. Now, though, like its Lancashire equivalent, Colne, times are hard. Each year both towns have blues festivals and, while they are welcome, their presence indicates places struggling to survive. The cotton and wool mills have long disappeared. Many of the population struggles by on the benefit they claim. Drugs offer relief but there is a price. Lives are as wrecked as the houses they inhabit.
In traditional film noir the male hero is doomed by treacherous females and perverse fate. For the police sergeant, Catherine Cawood, the problems of existence are different. Cawood is obliged to hold a family together and do a job that involves being tough with unpleasant people. Thanks to the acting skills of Sarah Lancashire and a cracking script we sense the weight of that responsibility. Cawood cries often in HAPPY VALLEY but she is not grieving over failed romance. What makes Cawood question herself is the sheer difficulty of a day-to-day routine that involves responsibility, effort and role modelling.
Northern writers have often been accused of being too puritanical. D H Lawrence was a problem for them, so the sophisticates said he was a genus but narrow-minded.
HAPPY VALLEY is clearly inspired by FARGO. A kidnapping is proposed by an accountant and is undertaken by inept criminals. Unlike the Coen brothers, Wainwright is of Northern moral stock. In HAPPY VALLEY there is good and evil not mere sarcastic knowing. But goodness means keeping the house clean and tidy and telling the kids not to swear. This is how working people resist the slum of abdication. Cawood is different from those affected by the blight of drugs and indulgence. Her goodness depends on a commitment to how she appears to others and not revealing the chaos inside her spirit. When she has sex with her ex-husband, it is because she needs recognition, for herself and her struggle. The going is tough and this week Cawood was battered. But our strong Northern female will prevail. Trust me.
Howard Jackson has written a zombie story that is set in Halifax and Hebden Bridge and which will be included in ZOMBIE BITES. The anthology will be published in October. Click here for more on Howard Jackson’s books.
For more great Northern dialogue watch this clip: