Somewhere between the ’70’s retro, conspiracy-laden Red Riding trilogy and the comedic horror of The League of Gentlemen’s Royston Vasey is yet another twisted Pennine locale called Happy Valley. Nevison Gallagher is a local industrialist and self-made millionaire, the proprietor of an imposing 19th-century factory in an impoverished town, a character and setting that wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy. Steve Pemberton, seconded from Royston Vasey, is the embittered accountant (Kevin Weatherill) who plots to kidnap his boss’s daughter in order to fund his own daughter’s private education with the ransom. Julia Ford, the traumatised victim from Red Riding, plays his crippled wife. Sarah Lancashire is a straight talking police sergeant in her late-forties, haunted by her daughter’s suicide. In her off-duty guise we see her at the grave of her daughter, with her grandson, a stone’s throw away from Sylvia Plath’s own resting place, in Heptonstall, West Riding. This is an implicit suggestion within the context of an otherwise heavy-handed feminist show. Feminists and Plath devotees have long targeted Ted Hughes as being responsible for Plath’s suicide in the past, as much as our protagonist blames the psychotic misogynist Tommy Lee Royce for the rape and suicide of her daughter. It’s a comparison that is deliberately set up and cannot be ignored. The woman-as-victim agenda is given a final twist after we learn that Nevison’s wife has been diagnosed with liver cancer, a revelation that turns the hardened tycoon into an altruistic benefactor when he decides to fund Weatherill’s daughter’s education after initially turning him down. But the wheels have already been set in motion and fate has finally provided a vehicle for Cawood’s thirst for revenge. As Ann Nevison’s Mini is followed by the kidnappers onto the moors – the car wending its way through Bronte country – the literary theme continues as she sings along to Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, a karaoke lament, yearning for her Heathcliff, the Yorkshire Lascar who isn’t adverse to a little domestic violence and kidnapping himself. By the time the actual abduction is initialised, the Kate Bush Greatest Hits CD is blaring the empowering Babooska, but it’s too late: white van man from hell has already been summoned; rapist Tommy Lee Royce has just been released from prison and according to Ashley Cowgill, the local drugs baron (Joe Armstrong) – a dead-ringer for his father, Alun in his Get Carter days – ‘hasn’t had his leg over in eight years’, so we can assume, kidnapping will be the least of her ordeals. Sally Wainwright sets up a kind of middle-aged, feminist revenge fantasy and there is a whiff of vicarious wish fulfillment in her creation of the unglamorous everywoman/police sergeant, long-suffering in her responsibilities. The message that women suffer in life and shoulder all the responsibility makes its point, not only in the plot device of the kidnapping and a young woman’s exploitatively tortuous and protracted nightmare, but also with the fact that Cawood is burdened with raising a grandson who is the result of her daughter’s rape. This mini nemesis is the proverbial rotten apple. Having not fallen far from the patriarchal tree, his increasingly recalcitrant behaviour becomes a problem for earnest female school teachers who are forever hauling his grandmother in to address his unwieldy behaviour. The main problem with Happy Valley is that with no redeemable male characters, the misandry quickly becomes distasteful. There has to be a death in there somewhere and for that we get a young WPC as the sacrificial lamb, Kirsten McCaskill (Sophie Rundle) interestingly juxtaposed against Ann Nevison, a representation of the idle Daddy’s girl, swanning about with nothing to show for an expensive education. The stalwart and plucky WPC dies in the line of duty by getting crushed under Ann’s Mini, an expensive looking toy and symbol of youthful independence for the middle classes, used as a weapon by Royce. There is a woefully misguided and ultra-conservative Daily Mail social commentary that inexplicably singles out cannabis as the blight and ruination of this Calder Valley town, a kind of pre-war Reefer Madness time-warp that ignores the British binge drinking culture and looks ridiculous against Cawood’s sister’s recovering heroin addiction.
Rescuing Sarah Lancashire from the mediocrity of years spent on Coronation Street as a jobbing soap opera actress, pulling pints at The Rover’s Return (or whatever else she was doing there) and giving her such a plum role is, of course, laudable and just as long as she doesn’t become just a token example then long may it continue with other, older actresses rescued from the demographic ‘scrap heap’. The first episode at least was a tightly plotted piece of television that wasted no time is setting up the characters and converging narrative threads. It had a chance of being offbeat, surprising and as dark as the aforementioned Red Riding. Unfortunately Wainwright opted for a fairly standardised and safe drama and everything after the first episode adhered to the law of diminishing returns that betrayed its ambitions. The finale degenerates into the usual pedestrian sensationalism which risked sending Sarah Lancashire back to Coronation Street rather than a Last Tango in Halifax. Maybe it was the over reliance on one authorial voice as opposed to a having a team of writers employed on a show. The same mistake that led to the partnership of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis to oversee some interesting modern renovations to the Conan Doyle Estate in Sherlock, before gradually turning it into a fully-fledged wrecking ball (by season three). As flagship dramas go, the BBC really could do better.