Saturday, 13 February 2016


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 13th February 2016.

Happy Valley: Tuesday, BBC One

Annabel's Nightclub: A String of Naked Light Bulbs: Saturday, BBC Four

If it's not too late, can we install Sally Wainwright as the new Doctor Who show-runner?

One of TV's finest dramatists, the writer/director behind multi-award-winning crime drama Happy Valley would be a better replacement for Steven Moffat than new boss Chris Chibnall, the journeyman writer who scored a fluke hit with series one of Broadchurch, before destroying that good will with its dreadful, superfluous sequel.

It's an apt comparison. After all, Broadchurch and Happy Valley both gripped the nation a few years ago. They each felt like self-contained pieces in no need of a sequel. In the case of Broadchurch, that was agonisingly true. But when Happy Valley returned last week, it was immediately clear that Wainwright wasn't treading water.

The grimly compelling saga of tough, compassionate police sergeant Catherine Cawood and her murderous nemesis, Tommy Lee Royce, is far from over. Unlike Chibnall's mess, this follow-up feels necessary.

The opening episode was a master-class in assured plotting and smooth exposition as Wainwright reintroduced Catherine and co, plus some promising new characters.

Set eighteen months after the traumatic events of series one, it found Catherine (the magnificently deadpan Sarah Lancashire) trying to get back to normal while Royce languished for life in prison. Inevitably, her peace didn't last longer than a blackly comic prologue involving acid-addled sheep rustlers, which climaxed with her discovering a decomposing human corpse in a garage.

This, it transpired, was what remained of Royce's alcoholic mother. There was no love lost between Catherine and the deceased, hence why she's now a suspect. That family haunts her, even in death.

Meanwhile, Wainwright skilfully established a new sub-plot involving a married senior police officer (Kevin Doyle, alias Molesley from Downton) trying to extricate himself from an affair with a woman (the always impressive Amelia Bullmore) who refuses to go quietly. Prediction: this mire of blackmail won't end well.

We also met the unsettling, birdlike presence of Shirley Henderson as a woman seemingly infatuated with Royce, who in the versatile hands of War & Peace heartthrob™ James Norton continues his reign as TV's most convincing psychopath. A shaven-headed knot of pent-up fury, his simmering intensity is far more frightening than the kind of swivel-eyed scenery-chewing one normally associates with characters of this type.

Wainwright's sensitive underlying themes of grief, trauma, family dysfunction and women being abused in an aggressively male-dominated world continue to elevate Happy Valley far beyond its cop show peers.

Why does it reside in the upper echelons? Because of its dry wit, sharp dialogue, strong performances from a host of interesting actors and the way it fuses understated, character-driven realism with taut thriller conventions. Any budding screenwriter would benefit from studying Wainwright's impeccable work here.

Apparently the only nightclub the Queen has ever visited, the forbiddingly sophisticated Annabel's in London has been a discreet haven for the filthy rich and famous for over 50 years.

Its utter fabulousness was celebrated in Annabel's Nightclub: A String of Naked Light Bulbs, an unquestioningly affectionate documentary seemingly aimed at the kind of cosseted toffs who'd consider it a badge of honour to frequent such a rankly elitist dungeon.

Still, I did chuckle at some of the colourful anecdotes peppered throughout this glistening tribute. The one about a roaringly drunk John Wayne causing borderline actionable mayhem was topped only by the one about Shirley Bassey being banned for life after kicking the maĆ®tre d' up the backside.

As a forelock-tugging outsider, I found it impossible to feel the same warmth towards Annabel's as its staff and regulars – far easier to summon rancorous disdain – but despite my better judgement I can't deny that there's something vaguely charming about a ridiculous fantasy world where the five-star bathrooms once contained ticker tape machines spewing stock market info.

That's despite the fact that Annabel's 53-year-old guest list must surely include some of the worst human beings to ever draw breath. Viva le revolution. 

No comments:

Post a Comment