Take it to the bridge

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In this trouble town
Troubles are found

Happy Valley concluded last night and pulled off a Godfather Part II: series two was even better than series one. (I’m pretty sure I can’t be alone in thinking this – Alison Graham at Radio Times certainly stated it for the record early on in this six-part run.) This defies science. Even TV’s finest dramas – and in fact, especially TV’s finest – struggle to match the freshly-picked novelty and from-a-height impact of a brand new series. A recommission remains the Holy Grail for all creators of TV. Suggest killing off a character for, you know, dramatic reasons, and at least one nervous producer will voice the concern: “What about series two?” A drama that doesn’t aspire to “return” is, in TV orthodoxy imported from the bulk-buying US, not worth a damn. The only series in town is a returning series. And a long-running returning series is gold. (A co-writer and I were specifically warned not to kill off a character at the end of a first series in the unlikely event that we would be recommissioned. We weren’t recommissioned.)

Broadchurch is was one of the cleverest whodunits of the modern era – keen sense of place, high-end casting, intricately plotted, franchisable police double-act – it packed the requisite revelatory punch (few saw the culprit coming) and left millions of us reeling. And satisfied. It was such a valuable “property” for ITV, who needed this kind of real-time, water-cooler hit, there was literally no way it wasn’t coming back as Broadchurch II. Creator and sole writer Chris Chibnall, a hardworking, far-sighted storyteller whom I happen to know (and have admired far longer than I’ve known him), rose to the challenge by extending the story in a direction he’d already mapped: following the court case and throwing a bag of spanners back into the precision works of his own completed, eight-part mystery, forcing us to reassess our certainties, and taking us back to Titanic. I enjoyed series two to the end, while ratings remained around the dizzying 10m mark, but it drew nitpicking complaints about legal intricacies and investigative plot-holes that I felt were actually symptoms of viewer disgruntlement with the very fact that ITV seemed to be diluting a show they loved. Like BBC Two’s The Fall, which I also rated highly, the second series was a challenge for the writer and the viewer. We had to believe that the detective and the serial killer would stalk each other for another whole series and it slid into parody.

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With the second series of Happy Valley, Sally Wainwright shows that she’d dug in so deep with series one that her little patch of West Yorkshire had sprouted new shoots. It’s hard to credit now, but I wasn’t too sure about the first scene in the first episode of the first series back in 2014 and almost bailed before it had got started. In it, Sgt. Sarah Lancashire reels off her curriculum vitae to a suicidal man who has doused himself in petrol:

I’m Catherine by the way, I’m 47, I’m divorced, I live with me sister, who’s a recovering heroin addict, I’ve two grown-up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson, so … It’s complicated, let’s talk about you.

I felt insulted by this expositional dump and my finger hovered over the “BACK” button on my remote. Luckily, I persevered, and by halfway through that episode, the whole thing just slotted into place and I was hooked. Just as I had been with Broadchurch, I was strapped in for the duration. And not alone. The final episode’s big showdown between Catherine and nemesis Tommy Lee Royce on a barge – also involving petrol (feel the circularity) – was as satisfying, conclusive and yet open-ended as it needed to be. (Again, like Broadchurch, and The Fall, it concluded with more viewers than it had started out with – something that goes against nature in television drama.)

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When we returned to the Calder Valley six weeks ago, I was as thrilled to be reunited with those vivid, flawed, red-blooded characters as any other fan: the taciturn Catherine, a mother hen with nesting problems and a voice that sometimes has to fight its way out from between her pursed lips (drawing ire in some quarters for “mumbling”, although not from me); Siobhan Finneran’s cuddly recovering addict, so real when she fell off the wagon (as was her taller sister’s reaction to this calamity); the indefatigable Ryan, played by Rhys Connah, who treats restlessness about his past and a new Scalextrix just the same; Charlie Murphy’s kidnappee Ann, now a PCSO and getting on with it. Against the same steep hills and the two-faced Hebden Bridge (desirable, yet at the same time deprived), we met new folk: Katherine Kelly, Vincent Franklin and Kevin Doyle’s detectives; Amelia Bullmore as the latter’s lover, Julie Hesmondhalgh as his wife; Con O’Neill as another recovering addict who establishes himself as Clare’s knight in minimarket employee’s armour and a man so nice he must be nasty. And James Norton, inconveniently back on ITV as Grantchester’s ecclesiastical sleuth and still fresh in our minds as War & Peace’s dashing Prince Bolkonsky, still looms over the entire valley as sex offender “That Man”, as Catherine calls him. And Shirley Henderson as the killer shrew. What riches.

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At the outset, I was filled with wonder that an actress as experienced and powerful as Susan Lynch could be slotted into what looked like such a peripheral part as a farmer with a picked-on son, but even though she would remain in a supporting role, she was anything but peripheral to the story. This is Happy Valley; actors of that calibre are understandably keen to be in it. Without going into the plot in any detail, what struck me once again, and all along, was the confidence of Wainwright’s writing. Scenes tend to be long and meandering, like scenes in real life are. An editor who’d been on too many courses might have suggested pruning some of them back, or cutting away more often, but Wainwright held her course, and the result was captivating. (That she took over directing duties, too, suggests an iron grip.) Clare and Neil’s first scene outside the shop (fabulously backdropped by an enlarged photo of some champagne being poured as if to mock the ordinary rhythm of these people’s lives) went on for too long. Clare and Catherine’s scene at the allotment went on for too long, and contained too much information about what Clare was doing with the planks. And yet it didn’t. None of it went on too long.

That kind of confidence has to be earned, and even though I never took to Last Tango In Halifax, or Scott and Bailey, I can see how hard Wainwright works to make it look as if she’s not working that hard. That blurt of exposition way back in episode one, series one (“I’m Catherine, I’m 47“), now sings out to me of a writer who knows exactly what she’s doing! She gets away with it laying the table: go on, tell me that’s the wrong way to introduce my central character! She’s mine! That this second series ended with Catherine trying to talk someone down, just as she did in episode one, series one, was no accident (and nor was the gallows humour she teased from the exchange, a trick that had me smiling and relaxing before I found myself gasping with my hands on my face, and inhaling audibly in my own living room). Happy Valley is what British TV drama should be all about: personal to the author, but of universal appeal. That it is being followed on the same channel a week later by Line Of Duty puts the BBC back in the frontline of fiction. Another drama whose second series was arguably better than its first.

 

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7 thoughts on “Take it to the bridge

  1. While the second series of Happy Valley grew on me, I still have a nagging feeling it would have been better left as a one-off. The life-changing events of the first series were shocking and engrossing because they depicted such an unlikely confluence of events. But if they’re going to keep piling more and more of them on to a small community, Midsomer or soap-opera style, series after series, they’re quickly going to lose impact and credibility.

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  2. Completely agree that this series has been an improvement on the (already excellent) first, even if only a little. Another indication of how well written it was is that despite the coincidences, and circularity of events, it never felt implausible. But i’m not sure that second series in television are so often a let down in comparison with the first. For every Broadchurch, The Fall, or Homeland, there is a Line of Duty, The Americans, Breaking Bad, and perhaps the Bridge too (although it’s the third series of that that has really raised the bar from an already high level. Perhaps doing a Toy Story 3?).

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  3. “The only series in town is a returning series.” I don’t think that’s true. Stag is meant to return? The Night Manager is meant to return? Mini-series not meant to return may be in a small minority, more so in the US than in the UK, but they still come about.

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    • You are nothing if not a scrupulous pedant! I work in TV. All I hear is talk of returning series. Clearly, the adaptation of a novel isn’t under pressure to return. Nor a murder mystery like Stag. But this doesn’t disprove my generalisation of the kind of show that Happy Valley is. So it is true in the context I intended. (Welcome, by the way!)

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  4. Glad to see you are keeping up the Telly Addict standards in print form. Excellent review of Happy Valley, which also manages to hit on the issue of returning shows – and whether they should return. I loved the first seasons of Broadchurch and The Fall, but gave up on the former after one episode of the second season, and suffered the massive disappointment of that horrendous end in the latter’s case. The logic that writer, producer and broadcaster want the gold of a continuing series is sound, and as much as I wish The Fall had been a one-off the second season did give us the scintillating cat and mouse of that hotel bar episode. However, there are some shows that feel like they have the one season in them and the attempt at extending that bends it all out of shape. Homeland’s first season was immense right up to the point where Brody bizarrely persists on. It felt like a ballsy self-contained series that was literally defused, only to drift on in diffuse form season after season. My favourite show of recent years, Jane Campion’s fascinating Top of the Lake looked like a text book example of one season, self-contained perfection. Yet recent news is a second Sydney-based season is to emerge, that has filled me with simultaneous excitement and dread. Maybe, there is a hybrid middle ground trailblazed by the likes of Prime Suspect, whereby a self-contained structure is played out over multiple seasons. American Horror Story takes this to the extremes of that format logic, as you point out above in the OJ review. As much as pragmatics dictate the desire for return, I cannot help but long for the small, quiet perfections of a one-off tightrope walk. Happily Happy Valley appears to be a breed apart and maybe some of tge reason for this is in Wainwright’s facility with character, which was a constant even in her earlier works.

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  5. Good stuff. Like some people and ‘Gone With The Wind’, I have managed to carelessly avoid ‘Happy Valley’, but you have finally sent me back to the beginning….as for the returning series issue, and specifically to the ‘Homeland’ reference, I was very unhappy they came back for No 2., wishing they’d left it at the end of the first for all time to marinate in the memory as ART. AND 2 was a teachable lesson in why. BUT I stuck with it and enjoyed the last season tremendously (and, yes, they are now into the Prime Suspect territory, but perhaps they got round to understanding that…). How proprietary we become over the characters of our entertainment….

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