When a crime show revolves around a male investigator, writers have a history of giving the hero a gimmicky handicap to overcome—a wheelchair (Ironside) or blindness (Longstreet) or O.C.D. (Monk) or a missing leg (C.B. Strike). On Luther, the detective played by Idris Elba has a sociopathic stalker.
A series about a female detective doesn’t need the added fillip. Her gender and family obligations are burden enough. And that’s one reason Happy Valley is so compelling. The heroine, Yorkshire police sergeant Catherine Cawood, played by Sarah Lancashire, has a small-town home life that is as complicated and demanding as any of her cases, and she is fiercely dedicated to both.
“One of the things we always said about the show was that it was not a cop show,” Sally Wainwright, who created, wrote, and directed the series, says in a Zoom interview. “It was a show about a woman who happens to be a cop. So it was never a procedural. It was never designed as a procedural. It was always Catherine-centric.”
Season Three, which began this week in the United States, brings Catherine’s complicated arc to a close, and there will not be a Season Four. “I’m a great believer, too, in not flogging things until they become a pale shadow of themselves,” Wainwright says, “which is what happens to a lot of successful TV shows.”
Wainwright is also a great believer in writing what she knows. She has set almost every series in the North of England, the flinty region where she grew up and where Happy Valley takes place. That includes Last Tango in Halifax, which is based on her mother’s late-life love affair, and Gentleman Jack, an HBO drama based on the real-life diaries of Anne Lister, a 19th-century landowner in Yorkshire who led a vigorous, if hidden, lesbian love life. As a child, Wainwright often visited Lister’s Shibden Hall estate, which was opened as a park in 1926.
Wainwright argues that the appeal of Happy Valley in Britain and abroad is partly due to its unglamorous setting in the Calder Valley, where she was raised. (“Happy Valley” is its local nickname.) The provinciality and the Yorkshire accents bring an authenticity—and a foreboding moodiness—that she likens to that of the movie Fargo and Scandinavian crime shows.
Wainwright grew up not on the moors but in front of the television. “I was obsessed” is how she puts it. Wainwright based Catherine partly on a 1980s British drama, Juliet Bravo, about a female police inspector in Yorkshire who tracked down criminals while battling sexism on the force. But it was Coronation Street, a long-running British soap opera that began in 1960, that made her a TV writer—she wrote 58 episodes between 1994 and 1999. She also loved the American cop show Cagney & Lacey, and that led her to being the lead writer for a British knockoff, Scott & Bailey, though Wainwright says it was someone else who came up with the idea to set Cagney & Lacey in Manchester.
“I’m a great believer, too, in not flogging things until they become a pale shadow of themselves.”
American television has clearly influenced her work. She says the HBO series Nurse Jackie, which starred Edie Falco, was pivotal to creating Happy Valley: “I really loved Nurse Jackie, and it was kind of an homage to Jackie, but not a nurse, a police officer.”
Influence works both ways. In the HBO hit Mare of Easttown, Kate Winslet plays a detective investigating crimes in a rusting, charmless town in Pennsylvania who has a lot in common with Catherine, including a child who committed suicide. The main difference is that, for much of the HBO drama, Mare, devastated by the death of her son, is a hard-drinking basket case propped up by her really hard-drinking mother and teenage daughter, who, together, mind the dead child’s son. Catherine, despite her shattering grief, gets on with life—which includes propping up her hard-drinking sister and raising her dead daughter’s son. It is perhaps a coincidence, but the weaker heroine was created by a man, Brad Ingelsby.
Wainwright is committed to female characters, strong ones, and complains that the industry is still shaped by men—despite the fact that she, along with Abi Morgan (The Hour) and Sharon Horgan (Bad Sisters) are among the most popular show-runners in Britain. When Wainwright got her start, television writers and directors were almost entirely men. Now she concedes that times have changed, a little.
“There are a lot of women, but I think we can’t be complacent about it. We do need to keep being aware of women’s stuff, and trying to make it more mainstream,” she says. “I think the problem is … women like watching men, and I think men like watching men, and I think women like watching women. But I’m not sure men like watching women, unless they’re ‘dirty chicks.’”
If she had to base a drama on a man, Wainwright says she would pick Van Gogh. “I think just the idea that someone could live their whole life in obscurity … I’m really interested by the artworks, and how a piece of art is now worth hundreds of millions, and its creator spent his whole life in poverty and obscurity, worrying that they were no good.”
That, however, would not be writing what she knows.
New episodes of Happy Valley Season Three will debut weekly on Acorn TV and AMC+, and on BBC America at 10 p.m. E.T./P.T.
Alessandra Stanley is a Co-Editor at Air Mail