This article was originally published in The Courier on 7th June 2014.
Happy Valley: Tuesday, BBC One
Amber: Tuesday, BBC Four
The time: May 2015. The place: London’s Royal Festival Hall. A noted luminary of stage and screen takes to the podium to make an announcement: “And the BAFTA for Best Drama Series goes to… Happy Valley!” Let’s face it, the bets are off. It’s a foregone conclusion.
This exceptional series, which ended last week, felt like a much-needed assault on the complacency of most mainstream TV drama. Relentlessly dark and unflinching, it’s hardly the sort of thing one normally associates with BBC One at 9pm. That’s why it was so refreshing. An intelligent adult drama, it combined social realist grit with the propulsive drive of a fine-tuned thriller. Hyperbole be damned: it was British TV at its best.
Writer Sally Wainwright has a proven track record with the likes of Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey, but here she surpassed herself with a tense, gripping triumph of impressive depth and assurance. Compassionate yet unsentimental, her scripts for Happy Valley were a master-class in story-telling and character development.
Despite a dramatic storyline involving kidnap and murder, it felt grounded in the real world. Its scenes of trauma and violence would’ve been stripped of their impact if Wainwright had treated Happy Valley as just another cop show full of gratuitous thrills. Instead she delivered an entirely believable, thoughtful treatise on nature vs nurture and the complex ties between parents and their children. That she did so while keeping viewers on the edge of their seats is testament to her prowess.
She was aided considerably by faultless performances from all concerned. Sarah Lancashire is rightly considered one of our finest actresses, but her powerful performance as Sergeant Catherine Cawood was her strongest work to date. Despite her tough, sardonic exterior, Catherine was no idealised hero. She was a flawed, convincing, three-dimensional character: a sympathetic woman trapped in a world of conniving, violent men.
Here was a matriarch trying to do the best for her family under inordinately trying circumstances. Consumed with grief and anguish, her gradual descent into depression felt unbearably real in Lancashire’s sensitive hands. Nuanced female protagonists are still a relative rarity on TV, so Wainwright and Lancashire should be applauded for bringing Catherine so vividly to life.
But it wasn’t simply Lancashire’s show. Steve Pemberton, who’s normally associated with darkly comic roles, was perfect as the pathetic worm whose desperate, selfish actions set the whole terrible ordeal in motion. And James Norton proved genuinely unsettling as a dangerous psychopath who was so much more than a one-note villain. Even the little lad who played Catherine’s troubled grandson held his own: he delivered one of the most affecting child performances I’ve seen in some time.
What a pleasure it is to heap such praise on a classy home-grown jewel.
Sadly, Amber couldn’t compete. Covering broadly similar territory to Happy Valley, it’s a four-part Irish drama about a missing teenage girl. Yet despite the emotive subject matter, it suffered from thin characterisation and rather stiff, quotidian execution.
With its muted tone, steely greys and overcast skies, it’s obviously indebted to Scandinavian dramas such as The Killing. Much like series one of that modern classic, it focused on the post-traumatic fall-out of the family concerned. But it's a curiously flat and empty experience.