Right now I covet her boots. Those boots, the black boots she wears as she goes about her duties as the cop in charge of Happy Valley…a valley that is beautiful, but not so very happy, populated as it is with folk–mostly young ones –living lives of drug-addled desperation. I have spent hours on line trying to find the exact boots that my new hero, Sarah Lancashire, as the no-nonsense, middle-aged police sergeant, Catherine Cawood, wears to work in Calderdale, nestled in west Yorkshire.
It is Calderdale that gives us the ironic name, Happy Valley, something the local police call their town because of drug problems there. “Happy Valley,” you must know by now, is the newest offering on Netflix and was the most talked-about show in Great Britain when it first aired in April, 2014.
It is now one of the most talked-about shows this side of the pond and with good reason. It is so very, very good. Or to use their word over there, brilliant. This six-episode BBC production, written by Sally Wainwright who also writes “Last Tango in Halifax,” had over six million Brits tuning in and biting their nails each week, and now, lucky us, we can binge watch it to our hearts content and bite our nails, too.
The main character, Catherine, is a 47-year old grandmother, raising her dead daughter’s child, a responsibility she shouldered at great cost to her marriage and relationship with her surviving son. Lanchashire in the starring role will be familiar to us as Miss Audrey, in “The Paradise” and as Caroline in “Last Tango in Halifax.”
Catherine is raising 8-year old Ryan with the help of her sister, a recovering heroin addict, Clare, played by Siobhan Finneran. What I love best about the character Clare, besides the fact that she spends her time volunteering in a homeless mission, gardening in the allotment, and preparing meals for her sister and nephew, is that she is played by the same woman who gave us that awful O’Brien on “Downton Abbey.”
In this role, she is sweet and supportive, loving and sometimes at a loss, and I am thrilled to have a reason to really like her—the character and the actress–after all the torment O’Brien put us through.
The plot of “Happy Valley” centers around Catherine and her life eight years after the suicide of her daughter. She gets up every day and does a difficult and physical job, and she does it as a strong woman, not the caricature of the strong woman we are often treated to in the US entertainment industry.
She is kind, funny, and a good cop. She can also knock open a door with her shoulder and runs after a drug-selling ice cream truck, which of course she doesn’t catch, but she looks like she might, were she a bit younger. She pulls smart aleck smack-heads out of their cars by the fronts of their jackets, young males bigger than she.
And we believe it, believe it all, because this is not a jiggly kind of cop show, because Sarah Lancashire as Catherine is substantial and fierce in her fleece jersey and hi-vis vest. Then she goes home, worn out, and reads to her grandson, and we believe that, too. She carries the show on many levels, because, ultimately, it is her character’s story. She gives us Catherine in a package we want to receive.
In a strong but nuanced performance she shows us how Catherine moves through her day with competence and good humor, and we see with the subtlest of expressions the grief she still carries and the obsession that burns for Tommy Lee Royce, the man she blames for his part in her daughter’s death.
And we we understand it, or want to, because we care about her now, and we feel a little like Clare, making pizzas while holding our breath, hoping Catherine can keep it together when she discovers that Royce is now out of prison. Even so, this is no stoic repressed cop. Catherine is all business. Yet, when life’s events overtake her, she cries, and freely, and she is a more compelling character because of it. She cries as she should, as we all would.
Many reviews of “Happy Valley” refer to Catherine as a flawed woman. Too easy, I think. Catherine as Wainwright has written her and Lancashire portrays her is this–deeply human, a person suffering and persevering.
Committed, ultimately, to doing the right thing.
I’d like to think that Catherine Cawood is out there keeping me safe. And I’d like to know where she got her boots.