How Happy Valley changed the face of British TV drama

As Happy Valley comes to an end, actor James Norton and Halifax MP Holly Lynch explain the impact and legacy of Sally Wainwright’s smash hit

Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley

Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood. Image: Matt Squire/BBC

James Norton is sitting with a coffee in Soho, Central London, pondering the end of Happy Valley. Sally Wainwright’s masterpiece changed his life, changed the face of British TV drama and has had a lasting impact on the region in which it is filmed. But after three perfect series – in 2014, 2016 and now 2023 – it will finish, forever, this week. 

“It’s really wonderful to be in something that, in the moment, causes a real sensation,” says Norton. “This show really captures the collective imagination. By definition, it’s already in that category of ‘event television’. But I think Happy Valley is much bigger and more timeless than that.”

Norton is right. Happy Valley is a genuine modern classic. A strong argument can be made for it being the greatest British television drama of this century.

James Norton
James Norton Image: Matt Squire/BBC

“It has done important things for the way women are portrayed, how violence is portrayed, but also on the state of the nation,” says Norton. “The way Sally deals with the poverty and drug abuse and crime in that area. It is a perfect example of a community that was thriving in the industrial glory years of textile and coal, but when all that industry closed, were just forgotten. But Sally writes it as a community full of warmth and humour and this dry northern soul. There’s so much that contributes towards this being a special piece of entertainment. So it is elevated beyond just this moment when it’s airing.”

The intimate moments – Catherine and Clare (Siobhan Finneran) drinking wine and discussing the future at the start of this series, Tommy Lee Royce sitting uncomfortably close to his lawyer, Catherine interrupting her fury at grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah) to ask what he was having for his tea (it was stew) – are so sublimely written and acted. And just as vital as organised crime and the impact of drug addiction, austerity and de-industrialisation on the local community to the show’s power. Wainwright is modest about her achievements and shies away from the limelight. But there is no doubt that, by building the series around Sarah Lancashire as Sgt Catherine Cawood, she changed the playing field. 

“I’ve been praised for writing interesting, complex women,” she told The Big Issue. “And that’s regarded as being a bit of a novelty. I didn’t notice until people pointed it out.”

A tense moment between Royce (James Norton) and Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley
Royce and Cawood in season one. Image: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

The buzz around the final series of Happy Valley is building. Each new episode draws us deeper into the tangled web. By ensuring Cawood and Tommy Lee Royce were forever linked through the character of Ryan (Rhys Connah), Wainwright set up the Happy Valley trilogy beautifully. 

“I waited six years because I wanted to get to a point where Ryan would be old enough to start making choices about whether he wanted to have a relationship with his dad or not,” Wainwright says. “Could he have a relationship with his dad and how would Catherine feel about that? I really wanted to be able to explore that.”

So there’s Royce the abusive, damaged, unpredictable career criminal who drove Ryan’s mother to take her own life but who is, nevertheless, his biological father. Then there is his grandmother, Cawood, the finest uniformed officer in Yorkshire, pillar of the community and family who helped her sister through heroin addiction and raised her dead daughter’s son – all while leading her police squad with tough love and hard-won wit and wisdom. From this perfectly constructed foundation, two compelling, opposing characters can be brought together at will, and a show featuring drug gangs, organised crime, addiction and poverty is built around an intimate, complex familial foundation. As dark forces look set to bring Royce and Cawood together one final time, we can only imagine, until Sunday night, what might happen.

Holly Lynch MP
Holly Lynch MP

Holly Lynch is MP for Halifax, where much of Happy Valley is filmed. After watching the first episode, she was gripped. But she also admits to having initial misgivings about watching more, because of the show’s intensity and darkness.  

“But then it was all anybody wanted to talk to me about,” she says, when we meet in her office in Parliament. At home, in Westminster, and on work trips to the US, Happy Valley has been a major talking point ever since. And Lynch is now as hooked as the rest of us. “I get inquiries to my office about it too,” she continues. “It’s been quite contentious locally that the swimming pool closed down. So people were asking why the council was wasting money painting the railings outside it. We made inquiries and it was actually being used for the police station in Happy Valley – so it was the production crew tidying up the building, rather than wasting public money on what is now a disused council building. Things like that come my way as the local MP.”

The impact on the area has been huge. Happy Valley, along with the collective works of Sally Wainwright (Gentleman Jack, Last Tango in Halifax, To Walk Invisible), has boosted tourism. 

“I’ve joked before that Tommy Lee Royce brought down house prices in Halifax. But actually, the opposite is true,” says Lynch. “There’s so much buzz and interest. Almost every street name and reference – where it’s filmed, that’s where it’s set. And all those references are very real to local people. There’s been a bit of a renaissance in our town centre. And a lot of that is because of the work of Sally Wainwright. She’s been able to draw in tourists on the back of the shows she writes because they are so grounded in the places and the scenery and the communities.” 

Apparently Bob Dylan’s a massive fan. It’s mad, isn’t it? I love that Bob Dylan is watching this show

James Norton

Norton has also felt the global impact of Happy Valley’s beautifully observed stories. “One barometer is when you go to America,” he says. “Only certain shows pierce through the massive tidal wave of entertainment there, but Happy Valley is one of them. Apparently, Bob Dylan’s a massive fan. It’s mad, isn’t it? I love that Bob Dylan is watching this show.”

By making this global hit locally, Wainwright helped build a critical mass of skilled crew members and filmmaking infrastructure in West Yorkshire. The rewards are already being reaped. 

“We had Samuel L Jackson filming Marvel’s Secret Invasion series at Peace Hall in Halifax at the end of last year,” says the proud local MP.  “We’ve got Boat Story being filmed in Halifax for a BBC and Amazon co-production at the moment. I suspect all this wouldn’t have happened without Sally’s determination to film locally. Her whole body of work has done wonders for our area. She is an absolute heroine on the streets of Halifax.”

Hebden Bridge
Hebden Bridge. Image: John Davidson Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

The series also shines a light on local issues. Norton speaks of the way Hebden Bridge is polarised.

“In the 1970s and ’80s, a wealthy hippie generation moved in when the mills closed down and bought up all the real estate on the sunny side of the valley,” he says. “It’s one of the starkest representations of gentrification you could imagine – and the deeper you go into the valley, there is less sunlight, there’s this demonic darkness, and a thing called valley bottom fever.”

Norton mentions Jez Lewis’s stunning 2009 documentary Shed Your Tears and Walk Away, which looked at addiction and mental health issues and the increased instances of people taking their own lives in Hebden Bridge. It was one of the key texts (alongside 1980s police drama Juliet Bravo) for Wainwright when she began writing Happy Valley. Lynch, a shadow Home Office minister, even used the show to argue against austerity cuts in Halifax. 

“When courts were being closed during austerity under this government, I made a speech in the Commons that said, anybody that’s watched Happy Valley would quite rightly think there’s enough business in Halifax to keep both courts open.”

Wainwright has continued to keep her finger on the pulse of local issues. 

Sisters Clare (Siobhan Finneran) and Catherine’s relationship is tested to its limits in season three. Image: Matt Squire/BBC

“Sally approached me as she was writing Happy Valley season three,” says Lynch. “She was keen to make sure issues affecting local people now are played out through the storylines – particularly because flooding is such a constant battle.”

The local knowledge extends to the way Wainwright situates scenes within the landscape. Norton, who grew up in North Yorkshire, has spent more than a decade travelling back up north to film Happy Valley

“Sally always talks about the hills framing shots. She’ll want to film on a certain street to get shots framed by the slate roofs of the terraced houses, with this incredible view across the Calder Valley in the background. Sally’s very prescriptive in her stage directions. Quite chatty. The scene in episode five where I cycle up the hill? She described so beautifully the moment Tommy looks up to the massive expanse of sky, looks down on the hills and valleys, and he just breaks. Bursts into tears – the sheer magnitude and visceral beauty melts the heart of a psychopath. The beauty, the humour, the warmth, the family, the community – that is what translates and carries the show across the world.”

James Norton filming Happy Valley
James Norton films Royce in season three. Image: Matt Squire/BBC

The series has also helped carry Norton around the world. Is it worrying for him to be out in public when the show is on? 

“Nobody in West Yorkshire is sleeping soundly tonight!” was Holly Lynch’s reaction to the conclusion of episode four, when Royce had escaped custody. 

“I can feel the fervour and intensity building,” Norton grins. “But I’m not like Prince Harry going ‘woe is me, I can’t walk into a pub.’ I have enough anonymity. I cycled here this morning.”

By winning a role so removed from his real-life persona so early in his career, it showcased Norton as an actor capable of transformation. Again, Lynch can attest to this. 

“James was here in Parliament for something to do with [TV series] McMafia,” she recalls. “Part of me was reluctant to go because I’m so scared of Tommy Lee Royce, who haunts the back streets of Halifax. He’s so convincing as a dark psychopath so grounded in Halifax that it is quite terrifying. But he’s so charming in real life. My 75-year-old mother-in-law is in every one of his fan groups on Facebook!”

The impact on Norton’s career has, then, been nothing but positive. Among a diverse range of TV and film roles, he’s starred in 2016 costume drama War & Peace alongside Lily James and Paul Dano, played a crime-solving clergyman in Grantchester, took the lead in underworld thriller McMafia, and donned another frock coat for Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women.  

“This country is obsessed with categorising people. So for Tommy to be my first introduction to lots of people has meant I’m still fighting the pigeonhole,” says Norton. “I want to be able to play roles that aren’t close to me. But there is some crossover with me and Tommy. 

“He’s the shadow side to my personality. Tommy is this weird alter ego where I’m able to go into a headspace where he doesn’t live by the rules, he feels invincible and powerful.” 

He’s also genuinely unpredictable in his physicality and sudden, abrupt changes of demeanour. 

“Sally wants to keep mining Tommy’s boyishness,” he continues. “Because on the one hand, he had to grow up very, very quickly and fend for himself in this dog-eat-dog world. We imagined his mum was a heroin addict, there was no father present, she was possibly a prostitute and had men coming in and out. That’s the world we constructed for Tommy. Yet, despite having to grow up fast, he’s also infantilised. He never had anyone help him grow and mature. So we’ve got this vicious, manipulative sort of mastermind, but on the other hand, he’s this kid. So Sally has given me licence to play.”

Ryan is secretly visiting his dad in prison in Happy Valley
Ryan is secretly visiting his dad in prison. Image: Matt Squire/BBC

This childlike side is most visible in those poignant scenes where Ryan visited Royce in prison. 

“When Tommy is given the opportunity to love, it’s a very messy, very childish, almost puppy-like love. But it’s so pure and so powerful and it’s real,” insists Norton. “It’s not manipulative, it’s not demonic, it’s not fake.”

But the end is nigh for Happy Valley. Never again will Norton be asked to access whatever tools he uses to transform so completely into Royce. How is he feeling? 

“Selfishly, I love it. Creatively and commercially. So I’m slightly conflicted because personally, I would love to keep going,” he says. “Playing Tommy Lee Royce gives me the creative opportunity to really let rip – he is like your old idiot mate who went completely off the rails, but you check in with at Christmas. But deep down I’m with Sally. This is the right call. So I hope the ending doesn’t disappoint.”

And the ending? Nailing the ending would cement Happy Valley’s position as a classic.

“Well, we had one version of the end that didn’t feel quite right,” says Norton. “Sally knew it and Sarah spoke up and said it doesn’t feel right. A month later, we got a new script and it all fell into place. It was magical. I think it’s classy and elegant and explosive and surprising. And it’s heartfelt.”

Sounds promising…

“And it sits within the world Sally Wainwright has created,” adds Norton. “She has built something so magical and so thorough. I mean, she could do what the fuck she wanted. She could sell out – keep making Happy Valley for years and years, make a tonne of money, get Bob Dylan in for a little cameo. But what is wonderful about how she ends it is that it is so rooted in the show, so rooted in our characters and the journey. It feels surprising, but on the other hand, you’ll go, ‘of course!’ There was no other way of doing it.’”

Norton sits back. He grins, and apologises if this sounds too cryptic. Nah. For Happy Valley fans, like every episode that has gone before, it sounds just about perfect.

Sally Wainwright’s road to Happy Valley

Sally Wainwright and some of her characters
Images: Alamy

“When I was 12, I decided I wanted to write Coronation Street.”

In her Letter To My Younger Self for The Big Issue, Sally Wainwright recalled her childhood ambition. By 1994 she’d achieved it but, she noted, “Meetings were dominated by the loudest voices, they’d bring in lunch with a lot of wine, and the afternoon was a misogynist bloodbath.”

But she would channel everything she learned into her future work, emerging as the preeminent TV writer of recent years with quick-witted, heroic, flawed, compelling women at the heart of everything she creates.

In 2000, Wainwright wrote At Home With The Braithwaites – about a woman in Leeds who wins the lottery. It was a ratings smash. Then in 2007, Dead Clever spawned a fruitful collaboration with Suranne Jones (Unforgiven, Scott & Bailey). Last Tango in Halifax, about the reluctantly blended family that emerges when two widowed 70-somethings reunite six decades after first fancying each other, was also an award-winning hit.

And Gentleman Jack, which began in 2019, about the life of Yorkshire industrialist and queer icon Anne Lister in the 1830s, and starring Jones once again, is another huge hit.

Happy Valley’s final episode airs on Sunday February 5 at 9pm on BBC One. All three series are available on BBC iPlayer  

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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