Love wins – what Sally Wainwright taught us in Happy Valley

Warning – this contains a few spoilers

Sally Wainwright’s epic three series BBC drama set in the area around Halifax, West Yorkshire came to a satisfying end last night. It has rightly been hailed as one of our best ever TV dramas. Much has been written about it already but I thought I would share here some of my own reflections.

You might also like to listen to this interview I gave on Premier Radio this morning:

Life is not black and white

One of the most refreshing things about Sally Wainwright’s writing is that nothing in her stories is clear cut and black or white. You find yourself at once sympathising with and then despising certain characters like the central villain Tommy Lee Royce or the hapless chemist Faisal. Wainwright doesn’t allow you to turn a character into a monster and leave them in that box. There is a core of humanity running through every character in the series, including the most despicable in terms of what they have done to others.

In our culture at the moment there is little room for nuance. You’re either in or you’re out, you’re either leave or remain. It feels like we’re not allowed to take a nuanced view. Happy Valley was so refreshing in that it reflected the reality that we are all capable of good and evil and that life is messy.

Character over plot

The plot of Happy Valley has lots of wonderful twists and turns, but the engine of the drama is its central relationships. The most iconic scenes in series three were not police chases or fights but tense one to one conversations, first as Catherine confronts her sister Clare in the cafe in Sheffield, Ryan’s meetings with Tommy and then the final confrontation between Catherine and Tommy in the last episode.

The beauty of the drama is in the little details such as when Ryan says his tea is going cold and Catherine asks what it is and he says ‘stew’ and she replies ‘that’ll be alright’. The script is so well written that much is conveyed by what is not said. The setting of the confrontation in the cafe means that both sisters are restrained from outbursts because they are in a public place, it adds to the tension.

There is such a lot in the conversation between Ryan and his grandma Catherine when he (perhaps uncharacteristically as a 16 year old) says ‘I love you’. Catherine doesn’t respond by saying it back but rather ‘what’s brought this on?’ – this is then picked up in the next episode.

I’ve realised, so often in dialogue in dramas, people say far more than they do in real life in one to one conversations. Wainwright is confident enough to leave conversations incomplete – just as in real life.

Love wins

Finally, the beauty of this drama is the love that runs through right from the beginning, chiefly, the love Catherine has for Ryan and the sacrifices she makes for him and the love she has for her ex heroin addict sister, Clare.

Clare is motivated by love and often gets things wrong because of it. Ultimately, though, she is vindicated as it is love that saves them all. Tommy’s perspective is totally changed as he sees the life his son Ryan has been given by his arch enemy, Catherine. He can’t argue with the love Ryan has received and how it has made him a happy and secure young man. Ironically, Catherine’s upbringing of Ryan has made him empathetic towards Tommy and able, in quite an adult way to see the situation from all sides.

Although Catherine is somewhat motivated by revenge it is really grief (or love) that drives her. Even to running to try and save Tommy at the end (‘I think I singed one of your crochet blankets’ – probably one of the best lines in the series!)

The message of the whole series is that we are all human, all capable of tremendous acts of love and hate but that ultimately love wins.

You can’t get much more of a gospel message than that!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s