Have you noticed that for some reason the British have a knack producing better mysteries and police dramas than anyone else? Their mystery and detective series always are beautifully acted, superbly plotted, and consistently intriguing. The most recent stellar offering from the people across the big pond is “Happy Valley,” a wonderful six-episode series that some are referring to as the British version of “Fargo.” The show is available on Netflix.
Set in England’s Yorkshire County, “Happy Valley” revolves around police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), whom we find rushing to a playground where a very drunk man is in danger of torching himself because his girlfriend dumped him.
As she approaches the desperate fellow, Catherine introduces herself and in doing so reveals quite a bit about herself in very few words. “I’m Catherine by the way. I’m 47, I’m divorced, and I live with me sister, who’s a recovering heroin addict. I have two grown-up children. One dead, one who don’t speak to me, and a grandson.”
With the exception of being an outstanding and highly respected police officer, Catherine’s life is pretty much of a train wreck. The story picks up eight years after her daughter, Becky, committed suicide after giving birth to a son, Ryan (Rhys Connah) fathered by Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who raped her.
Although Catherine has been doing her best to raise Ryan with the help of her sister, Clare Cartwright (Siobhan Finneran), the boy is beginning to have real problems in school. If this isn’t enough of a worry for Catherine, her ex-husband, Richard (Derek Riddell), tells her that Royce has been released from prison.
Now while all of this is going on, some drama is unfolding in the office of businessman Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan) as Kevin Weatherill (Steve Pemberton), Nevison’s faithful milquetoast accountant, has just asked his boss for a raise. He needs more money to pay the tuition for a prestigious private school into which his daughter has just been accepted. Unfortunately, Nevison turns him down, and this rejection sets in motion the events that will drive the plot for the rest of the series.
Kevin is so incensed at being turned down for the raise that he hatches a plot to kidnap Gallagher’s daughter, Ann (Charlie Murphy). To do his dirty work for him, Kevin turns to Ashley Cowgill (Joe Armstrong), a scumbag whose land developing business is a front for his drug dealing.
Now it just so happens that Ashley has two thugs working for him. One of them is a guy named Lewis Whippey (Adam Long), and the second chap is none other than Tommy, the rapist who was recently released from prison. Ashley has little trouble convincing them to kidnap Ann, but in the tradition of “Fargo” things do not go smoothly, when Catherine learns of the crime, she jumps all over the case.
What makes “Happy Valley” such a remarkably good series is that it’s not only a great mystery, but also an intricate and intriguing character study of some really diverse people. There’s not really a happy person in the entire show because all of them have their individual burdens to bear, and the series takes us into the homes of Catherine and her sister, Kevin and his crippled wife, Jenny (Julia Ford), and Nevison and his terminally ill wife, Helen (Jill Baker). Additionally, the relationship between Catherine and her ex-husband is complex to say the least, and his reluctance to accept Ryan as his grandson further complicates matters.
The acting in the series is consistently outstanding, beginning with Lancashire, whose portrayal of Catherine is simply brilliant. Her character runs the gamut of human emotions during the story, and Lancashire makes us share in all of her feelings. In an online interview, the actress offered some insights about the series and her character, and she pointed out that the program is more than just another police story.
“I think the tone of the piece changes quite dramatically. Certainly from about halfway through, it becomes clear that the story isn’t really about Catherine’s job as a police officer but Catherine trying to find a way to come to peace with herself. It’s quite interesting because I had no idea how the story was going to unfold. It’s not about a police officer at all; it’s about a woman who is clearly very damaged by her experiences of losing a daughter and being put into a situation where she’s trying to get by day to day. Catherine has an incredibly emotional story, especially Episodes 4, 5 and 6 when it turns into an emotional marathon.”
In response to a question about why she liked her character, Lancashire replied: “She doesn’t give in; she never will give in. She wants revenge for Becky, but is such a diehard police officer doing everything by the book and this is one thing she has to do her way. But she does it as a mother. I do admire the way that she does the things that she does and they’re not always attractive, but they’re real.”
And like all excellent performers Lancashire did her homework for the role.
“I went out with the police in Calderdale during the day; they didn’t want to take me out at night because things change. It was fantastically useful because I’d always imagined in my head that these police officers were just people and that’s exactly what they are.
“Lisa [the police advisor] was always on set to help with the procedural stuff; she had a very keen eye on making sure everything was accurate. I really did need her there all the time, just for tiny things like putting handcuffs on, or in one scene I deliver bad news to somebody, and she said, ‘Look it’s OK to cry and hug them.’ That was a huge relief because it’s human nature and your instinct, but it tends not to be how we see that world portrayed.”
Complementing Lancashire’s performance are Finneran, who is excellent as Catherine’s supportive sister, Connah, whose portrayal of Ryan makes you want to slap the brat to sleep, and Pemberton, who is loathsome as the sniveling accountant who plots the kidnapping. Additionally, Armstrong, Norton, and Long are sufficiently despicable as the kidnappers, and Murphy suffers beautifully as the kidnapping victim.
If you like drama at its very best put “Happy Valley” on your must-see list. It has it all, and for that reason this outstanding series earns the final score of a happy 10. The word is the series already has been renewed, and I can’t wait.