Film Noir Cinema – HAPPY VALLEY

Happy Valley

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:



Elvis Presley Challenge No. 50 – ‘Murder’

I lived in Nottingham for 12 months and it was the toughest year of my life. I have no fond memories. Most of the time I was broke.  Without roots, I had few friends. But the town is fine. Nottingham has the Castle where the Sheriff was always outsmarted by Robin Hood.  Each year all the fairground owners in Britain visit Sherwood Park and stage the Goose Fair.  I was young then and

Robin Hood

Robin Hood

believed everybody in Nottingham attended.  Who knows, maybe they did.   The building that houses the Council may be only an imitation of St Pauls but it is nicknamed affectionately by the locals as ‘The Council House’.   It inspires affection and flatters an appealing square.  And there is the River Trent alongside which there is a pleasant walk.  Oh, and finally, there is Robin Hood, himself, the greatest chav of them all.   Working class heroes rarely prevail in Britain so the legend was changed to make him into a gentleman.   Whether the people of Nottingham should worry about that is for them to decide.   The town attracts American and Chinese tourists and they all visit the 12th Century pub, Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem.   The pub has an old chair with special powers.  Women who sit in the chair become pregnant.  Many men have looked at the chair with envy.

Nottingham also has a reputation as a tough town.  Some years ago it boasted more murders than any other city.  There has been an attempt to calm the place.  Now the authorities, the planners, the developers and the police are angry.  They claim that the film, ‘Murder’ which has just been shown on BBC2, has damaged valuable work undertaken in developing communities.  Somebody at some point had to make a realistic film about working class life in neo-conservative Britain and they had to pick a city for a location.  Nottingham was simply unlucky.  This film could have been made in any UK urban spread.

Birger Larsen

Birger Larsen

‘Murder’ is original and very good.  So good, in fact, that you notice the few duff moments.  The line about the mother telling her son from Doncaster to be wary of Nottingham and to remember the first word in Nottingham is ‘not’ was laboured and obvious.  Birger Larsen who made the successful Danish crime series ‘The Killing’ directed the film.  Larsen is no sentimentalist but if anybody thought that he had a grim view of Denmark it is almost romantic compared to ‘Murder’.  In ‘The Killing’, the characters have a dark side but all of them have aspiration – political, business or human.  In ‘Murder’ the characters are interested in sustenance, gratification and diversion.  Larsen has come to Britain and he is not impressed.

Nobody in ‘Murder’ speaks to anyone else in the movie until the final scene and that is dominated by violence.  There are also a couple of flashbacks filmed silently on a mobile and CCTV.  The rest of the movie, the characters speak only to the audience.  This device works perfectly for two reasons.  First, the characters are unpleasant so the audience needs this level of intimacy to be engaged.  Second, it captures the alienation that exists in modern Britain.  The only time these characters are articulate, indeed allowed to be articulate, is when people are curious about the murder that has been committed.  The suspects lie to themselves and us and are indignant but eventually we realise that they are human and once had potential that has been wasted.  The police officer is so disturbed with what he has seen in his career he can no longer breathe properly.  He chokes on misanthropic disgust.  The lawyer who only meets the criminals in the sanitised surroundings of the police station or the court is intoxicated by the drama and his own cleverness.  More than one viewer will have decided that the film is ripe for Marxist analysis.  And it is.  The events begin when a man takes possession of the money of a girl.   The pizza he buys, like the unsatisfied appetites described by Marx, is found afterwards only half eaten.

The context may be Marxist but the motivation is Freudian.   The plot requires a female heavily dependent on her absent mother.   Still from 'Murder'This obsession distorts badly sibling rivalry and dependence.  The male who is involved is an opportunist ready for casual sex but prone to violence.   You can imagine.  This was never going to be one of the better nights down the pub.  Only dementia is gloomier than social chaos compounded by individual inadequacy.  Fortunately, in Birger Larsen, the BBC found the man to mix it into a satisfying nihilistic recipe.

The film probably needed a director who was not British.  In the hands of a native the film may have been perceived as politically incorrect.  The victim is less sympathetic than the murderer and none of the black characters in the movie would be selected as role models by anyone attempting to revitalise a city.    Robert Jones, the writer, has written a sharp script and it is clever because you feel differently about the characters as they tell and change their stories.  But this is a tale of a white British soldier who was discharged from the British Army after losing a leg in Afghanistan.  The soldier meets two black women and they create trouble.   This is material that needs to be handled sensitively.  Fortunately, Larsen delivers and everybody is repellent.   It is merely a matter of degree.

The case is progressed through the legal system.  I am not as cynical about the courts as some.  Establishing the rule of law was

Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford

one of our better moments.  In a dysfunctional society no legal system can be trusted to deliver a moral outcome.   The ending of ‘Murder’ is surprising because one of the downtrodden triumphs.  The conclusion offers no solace.  It merely confirms the absence of sense in modern life.  ‘Murder’ was shown on BBC 2 in the week ‘Parade’s End’ began.  In a strange way, the events are connected.    I am a great fan of the original novel by Ford Madox Ford but no admirer of Tom Stoppard who has adapted the book for television.   The film ‘Murder’ and the novel of aristocratic manners preach the same judgemental message.   Personal worth valued purely by the ability to make money creates a hell hole of awful people living lives without consequence.   There is a moment in ‘Murder’ when Stefan and Erin nearly have sex.   These two people do not like each other but, in a world where there is no neighbourly intimacy, sex between strangers is easy, even with those you neither like nor find attractive.  Christopher Tietjens from ‘Parade’s End’ would have been appalled by the behaviour in ‘Murder’ but after his own disillusionment with his fellow aristocrats he would have understood.

The connection with Elvis is remote, I suppose.  I said at the beginning that mostly I was broke in Nottingham.  It was the one year of my life that I never bought an Elvis record.  Indeed, I had to sell a few to survive.  The only two I kept were ‘Elvis Is Back’ and ‘Elvis’.    Since then there have been many compensations.   There may also be another connection.   ‘The Good Soldier’ by Maddox Ford is his masterpiece.  The opening sentence is ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’  Those who do not how this relates to Elvis need to watch ‘Aloha From Hawaii’.  What Elvis said, and why he said it, merits thought.


If you want to read about Elvis, rock and roll and much more click here.

If you want to read about places other than Nottingham click here.