Happy Valley proves Sally Wainwright is TV’s greatest writer

Having such acting heavyweights such as Sarah Lancashire (pictured) and James Norton in one place is quite the gift (Picture: BBC/Lookout Point/Matt Squire)

With fog blanketing the Calder Valley, bonus hair on Tommy Lee Royce and a whole extended sequence about farting during yoga, Happy Valley has finally returned for its third and final season.

For those who haven’t yet acquainted themselves with the hit BBC drama, Happy Valley centres on the life of Sergeant Catherine Cawood as she solves tough cases in West Yorkshire following the suicide of her daughter.

Having such acting heavyweights as Siobhan Finneran, James Norton and Sarah Lancashire in one place is quite the gift – but of course it wouldn’t exist at all without Sally Wainwright, surely a top contender for the country’s greatest living TV writer.

Yes, I am proud to declare myself a card-carrying Wainwright stan; every bit as passionate as a Swiftie, a Belieber or a Little Monster; just perhaps a little less feral. I don’t know what we’d call ourselves as a collective. Wainwrighters? The Wainers? The Wai-Hive?

It’s not hard to be a superfan.

Wainwright – who cut her teeth in the soaps before going on to slowly become the MVP of British telly – is the master of telling gripping drama with big characters, big (yet subtly deployed) emotions and, most impressively of all, big laughs.

It’s a skill many of us lesser writers can only dream of.

Sally Wainwright on the red carpet

Ever since Happy Valley’s breakthrough in 2014, Sally Wainwright has been routinely and deservedly mentioned as one of the contemporary greats (Picture: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

Just look at one of the many exquisite sequences in Sunday’s Happy Valley season opener; a scene that begins with Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood driving colleague Joyce (Ishia Bennison) up the wall by resisting the idea of a ‘little drinks do’.

We’re still chuckling from Joyce’s ‘God, you’re hard work’ when Catherine is summoned for a meeting, in which she’s told the horrifying news that her grandson Ryan might be visiting his monstrous dad in prison.

In Wainwright’s hands, the dry wit and the buttock-clenching tension are so subtly inter-woven that the gear changes don’t really feel like gear changes at all.

She can be having us laughing over a microwave being thrown at a parked car one moment and shuddering over the discovery of human remains the next, and it never once feels incongruous.

Ever since Happy Valley’s breakthrough in 2014, the Yorkshire native has been routinely and deservedly mentioned as one of the contemporary greats – but us in the Wai-Hive (yes, I’m going with that one) have long been familiar with her superiority.

Starting off in soapland in the late 1980s and 1990s (stints on The Archers and Emmerdale led to a fabulous stretch at Corrie), she joined the fun on Bad Girls and Playing The Field before her first original project made it to air – and what an original project it was.

At Home With The Braithwaites – in which Amanda Redman’s Alison won the lottery, flinging her extremely dysfunctional family into the limelight – was a four-series turn-of-the-century smash for ITV.

The show immediately established its creator’s knack for creating comedy-drama with an incredible ensemble of characters; each with their own clearly defined voices, problems, ambitions and quirks.

It was more gleefully outrageous than Happy Valley (shout-out to Megan’s gloriously camp bathtub death) but the beautiful little moments of levity and heart were all there; such as in the gorgeous scene in which Alison’s wayward daughter Virginia (Sarah Smart) came out to her.

Several other shows followed in the 2000s, each with great female leads and great casting: she reunited with Smart on Sparkhouse and then again on Jane Hall; she enlisted Jane Horrocks for The Amazing Mrs Pritchard; and worked with the iconic Liza Tarbuck on Bonkers.

When she teamed up with Suranne Jones for 2007’s Dead Clever, it was the start of a wonderful partnership that would lead to three-parter Unforgiven (recently adapted for Sandra Bullock in the US), the long-running smash Scott and Bailey, and of course the more recent Gentleman Jack.

Each show is different – yet at their core, each has those same unique ingredients that make Wainwright’s work so memorable, so watchable, and so satisfying to get lost in.

Just look at the contrast between, say, Happy Valley and Last Tango In Halifax.

Sally Wainwright with Suranne Jones

When she teamed up with Suranne Jones for 2007’s Dead Clever, it was the start of a wonderful partnership (Picture: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

Sure, they’re both set in Yorkshire; sure, they both have Sarah Lancashire. But while one is a gripping thriller in which people get shot through car windows, the other was a warm hug of a programme that ended its penultimate episode with the cliffhanger: But what will become of Celia and Alan’s unfinished kitchen?!

And yet, they’re both very clearly Wainwright’s babies: firmly rooted in their respective locations, with characters who talk and behave like real people, and stories that feel utterly immersive – whether they’re making us laugh, cry or both.

Halifax is likely finished now (although Wainwright said in 2020 that she’d love to write more for the show ‘until the cows come home’), and we already know the current run of Happy Valley will be its last. Gentleman Jack, too, appears to hang in the balance after HBO said it would not be proceeding with a third season.

And so we find ourselves in the thrilling position of waiting with bated breath to see what Wainwright delivers next.

We definitely have The Ballad of Renegade Nell coming to Disney+, with Derry Girls’ Louisa Harland in the title role. Following an 18th century woman as she goes on the run after being framed for murder, it looks set to add another string to Wainwright’s already hefty bow.

Between that, the five remaining episodes of Happy Valley and whatever else is cooking up in Wainwright’s fascinating mind, it’s as exciting a time as ever to be part of the Wai-Hive.


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