Happy Valley – Review

Worth seeing: for Sarah Lancashire's dominant performance as a fast-talking, no-nonsense police officer, trying to keep a dysfunctional family together, while keeping the streets clear of violent criminals
Featuring:James Norton, Sarah Lancashire, Alec Secareanu, Amelia Bullmore, Amit Shah, Charlie Murphy, Con O'Neill, Derek Riddell, George Costigan, Ishia Bennison, Karl Davies, Rhys Connah, Rick Warden, Shane Zaza, Siobhan Finneran, Sophie Rundle
Key crew:Euros Lyn, Fergus O'Brien, Neasa Hardiman, Patrick Harkins, Tim Fywell, Jessica Taylor, Juliet Charlesworth, Karen Lewis, Sally Wainwright
Channel:BBC iPlayer, BBC1
Length:60 minutes
Episodes:3 seasons of 6 episodes
Broadcast date: April 2014 to February 2023


When we first meet Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) of the fictitious Yorkshire Police force, she introduces herself to a suspect – and us – as a 47 year old, who’s divorced, lives with her recovering heroin addict sister, has two grown-up children – one dead and the other who doesn’t speak to her – and a grandson.

These all play key parts in the three six-part series that follow, as she leads a team of uniformed officers, keeping the peace in a not-so-sleepy part of West Yorkshire.

Season One opens with the release from prison of Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), whom she holds responsible for her daughter Becky’s suicide, eight years earlier. He’s the father of Becky’s son, Ryan – not that Catherine wants him to have anything to do with him. Royce has got himself a job as a labourer for a builder with a side-line in drug-dealing, kidnapping and extortion. Catherine’s investigation of the kidnapping sets her on a collision course with Royce once more.

In Season Two, Catherine’s officers are hunting a killer who’s targeting prostitutes – although one murder doesn’t quite fit the pattern; could it have something to do with a detective on the case, who’s being blackmailed by his mistress? Royce is, meanwhile, continuing to taunt Catherine from behind bars.

In Season Three, Catherine and her team are investigating the disappearance of a domestic abuse victim who’s been getting prescription drugs off the books from a dodgy pharmacist. But Catherine herself – approaching her retirement from the force – is all consumed by the discovery that her grandson Ryan has been visiting Royce – his father – in prison.

Set over the course of nine years Catherine finds herself dealing with killers, kidnappers and drug dealers, extortionists and rapists – as the threat posed by her nemesis continues to heap pressure on the family she’s having difficulty holding together.


Sarah Lancashire is the constantly beating heart of this powerful crime drama, whose story begins eight years before the opening episode and ends nine years later – spanning a full seventeen years, it could comfortably be described as a family saga.

Always surrounded by – and devoted to – her family – and her work family – Catherine Cawood’s loyalty, honestly and brutal efficiency is admirable. Her straight-talking, no-nonsense approach to both policing and her personal life are a lesson to everyone. Her wise-cracking is as delightful as it is surprising.

The detail of her character and the community adds to the authenticity, from offering – and accepting – a cup of tea being the equivalent of saying “hello” to her insistence on correct grammar, even during the most stressful moments.

Creator and writer Sally Wainwright does a good job of confining a coherent enough storyline to each season, while keeping the over-arching rivalry between Sergeant Cawood and Royce bubbling along both beneath the surface – and painted in bright red blood across the screen.

Each series concentrates on a different nebbish, unexpectedly finding themselves out of their depth in a serious crime, unrelated to the back story – while feeding and driving along the main narrative and generally maintaining our sympathy – or at least empathy.

In Season One, we have a put-upon accountant (Steve Pemberton) who makes a rash decision when knocked back for a pay-rise – and finds himself at the heart of a conspiracy to kidnap, rape, extort and murder.

Season Two sees a hapless detective take things a little too far when he’s blackmailed by his mistress, but tries to cover his tracks using knowledge from the case he’s working on.

Then, in Season Three, we have the pharmacist, who finds himself caught between the drug-dealing king-pin whose patch he unwittingly works in and the desperate client who won’t accept “no” as an answer.

Catherine sees to them all, while bringing up her own grandson, encouraging her sister back to sobriety, patching up a broken relationship with her son and helping her ex-husband further his career, while never forgetting the haunting memory of finding her daughter dead – and stopping the sadistic psychopath who destroyed her from destroying her family.

But there’s a sense that in ratcheting up the tension, rather too much is kept a little close to home, with a number of supporting characters encroaching into the family or returning for clunky reasons in future seasons. It’s almost as if budget constraints meant they couldn’t afford as many actors as they needed.

While much of the action is brutal and shocking in its intensity, there are times where characters just stumble conveniently into the next person they need to talk to to nudge the story along, leading to anti-climactic moments or half-hearted attempts to leave a cul-de-sac they wish they hadn’t entered.

Most of the character arcs make perfect sense, but there are handful of moments where the motivations don’t ring true.

And it felt a little arch that all the events of the final series were shoe-horned into the last few weeks of Catherine’s three decade career; will she manage to find the missing woman and secure justice for her daughter before she leaves the police station for the last time?

With the final season coming soon after the recent TV dramas, Without Sin and The Light In The Hall, the idea of a mother confronting the man she blames for her daughter’s death is beginning to feel a little tired, but this is certainly the strongest of the bunch. And it’s likely to be the case that binge-viewing the three seasons back-to-back will give a different experience to having watched each series as it first came out.

And while there’s some narrative shorthand used to get the sprawling saga to fit the formula, it’s never short of a compelling watch. Once you start, you’ll want to sit down – with a cup of tea, naturally – and watch them all.