It begins with landscape, the look and feel of industrial West Yorkshire. The smaller towns nestle in valleys between green hills crossed by dry-stone walls and narrow roads. The Calder Valley, where the river once powered the woolen mills of Halifax and Hebden Bridge, rises into the South Pennines towards Lancashire. In these towns, you can look up from the streets and see farm fields or open moorland across the way. Or you can look down from the tops onto the few mill chimneys still standing, streets of terrace houses curving away round the contours of the land, allotments (community gardens) cut into the hillside. This is the physical landscape you glimpse in the frenetic opening credits of the BBC/ Netflix contemporary police drama Happy Valley.
The social landscape is another matter. The show’s theme song, “Trouble Town” by folk-punk artist Jake Bugg, sets the tone:
There’s a tower block overhead
All you’ve got’s your benefits
And you’re barely scraping by.
In this trouble town
Troubles are found.
The Calder Valley is “happy,” in ironic police parlance, because it is flooded with drugs. Its criminality and addictions are symptoms of deeper troubles rooted in deindustrialization and compounded by decades of neoliberal social and economic policy. Initiated by Margaret Thatcher and continued under Tony Blair and now David Cameron, this policy entailed the breaking of trade unions, casualization of work, dis-investment in public services, and promotion of free-market opportunism. In some ways, the drug trade and human trafficking – the major crime patterns in Seasons 1 and 2 of Happy Valley – are direct expressions of this ethos.
Most of young men making minor trouble for the police in Calderdale are working-class lads “off their heads” on “skunk” or “smack.” They belong to the class of youths known in sociological terms as NEETs: Not in Education, Employment, or Training. The hands-on perpetrators of the area’s worst violence – kidnapping, rape, and murder, including the serial killing of prostitutes – are also young white men, but with particularly chaotic or abusive family backgrounds. Writing in the Guardian about a recent study showing poor white kids losing ground in school achievement, Paul Mason explains the cultural shift that formed the NEET generation:
A specific part of their culture has been destroyed. A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid. It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer. . . Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave-drivers.
“Thatcherism didn’t just crush unions,” Mason writes. “It crushed a story”: the story of working-class community. Oddly enough (for US viewers accustomed to lethal and militaristic policing), it is the cops – the best of them anyway, along with other caring adults — who in this TV series enact that lost cultural ethic. They operate not only to solve horrific crimes but also to restore some of the threads of shared responsibility for the community’s wellbeing. There’s nothing sentimental about this project, however. Happy Valley is thrilling action TV in which the menace and suspense rarely let up.
Ed McBain, godfather of the American police procedural, quotes Mel Brooks as saying, “The essential ingredients of any hit show are a family and a house.” In his 87th Precinct series, McBain created “a family of working cops. Their house is the squad-room; their backyard is the precinct territory.” The Calder Valley police call their territory “our patch” and their house is the Northern Road “nick” (police station) in Sowerby Bridge. At the moral hub of their extended family, by turns its mother hen and its wild child, is Sergeant Catherine Cawood, played to perfection by Sarah Lancashire. (Fans of British TV may recognize her from Coronation Street, the perennial working-class soap opera set across the Pennines in Salford). Catherine is a tough 49-year-old local mother and grandmother with a sharp tongue, wicked sense of humor, deep affection for people in trouble, and a face that both expresses and suppresses feeling in ways you can’t take your eyes off. Her accent, like most of the characters around her, is broad Yorkshire, which will leave some viewers wishing for subtitles. But you’ll pick up the idiom if you stick with the show.
It’s crucial to Happy Valley’s success as a working-class police procedural that its star is a sergeant in “community policing,” rather than a detective in an elite squad (as in Law and Order SVU). She’s in the middle of the chain of command, with loyalties tending mostly towards those down the line, especially young women recruits. The “brass” above her, while not caricatured as feckless, are compromised in their usefulness by the politics of rank and influence, to put it politely. In most episodes, we see Catherine giving the morning briefing to her charges, beginning with “Now then, you lucky people.” Then she’s out in the street with the “wooden-tops” (uniform coppers) in a hi-viz jacket dealing with routine disturbances as well as the series’ major crimes — without a gun, it’s worth noting.
Alongside “the nick,” the show’s other anchoring location is Catherine’s home, the terrace house where she lives with her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) – a recovering alcoholic and keen allotment gardener – and her grandson Ryan. As in any good soap — such as, in a different class register, Downton Abbey (where Finneran labored downstairs as the odious Sarah O’Brien) — there’s plenty of “history” in this family. Catherine’s daughter Becky was a heroin addict. Raped and pregnant at age 17, she gave birth to Ryan, but hanged herself weeks later. Catherine’s husband left and her son withdrew in the aftermath of this tragedy, and she took on the raising of Ryan, a skinny kid played by Rhys Connah as both adorable and infuriating. It is the reappearance of the rapist “father” of Ryan after years in prison that kicks off the first series’ action, links the domestic and police narratives, and makes for intense emotional complexities. Catherine’s kitchen table and back steps host dramatic conversations over endless cups of tea during which much of the healing and the informal detective work of the show is managed. Becky’s gravesite in the hillside cemetery at Heptonstall – with Sylvia Plath’s marker nearby, another young mother suicide – is Catherine’s place of retreat and reflection.
I haven’t said much here about the specifics of crime and detection, the narrative arc of Happy Valley’s action, so as not to risk dropping spoilers. Some critics have complained about the show’s graphic violence. I don’t find it excessive, since the origins and consequences of physical rage and cruelty are fully explored. It’s important to note, too, that operating above the few psychopathic NEETs who perpetrate the worst violence are older middle-class men who initiate crime while mostly keeping their hands clean — that is until they are inevitably tracked down by Catherine and her crew. Suffice it to say that writer Sally Wainwright and her excellent cast have produced top-quality drama with heart, edge and purpose — and a working-class ethic at its center.
Nick Coles, University of Pittsburgh