Warning: Contains mild spoilers for Happy Valley Seasons 1 & 2.
Much is made of the lack of diversity on our film screens, from #OscarsSoWhite to the sexist casting notes that would be hilarious if they weren’t so depressing. In Hollywood, women over 35 can play either the Queen or somebody’s mum. Meanwhile, craggy middle-aged dudes seduce stunning rom-com 20-somethings, or limp their way through another action franchise. So it’s heartening to see that, over in TV land, writers and directors are starting to offer female actors more of the complex, meaty roles that their male counterparts have long enjoyed.
Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Robin Wright; on the US networks, these ladies are bringing us compelling characters who kick serious butt in 6-inch stilettos. But the heroine who really speaks to me is more likely to be found in a woolly hat and a hi-vis jacket. Sarah Lancashire has long been one of British TV’s gems, from her Coronation Street days to her award-winning performance in Last Tango in Halifax. But to my mind, Happy Valley is her finest hour.
Lancashire plays Sergeant Catherine Cawood, a West Yorkshire police officer who won’t let the ghosts of her past stop her from serving her community. When the man who raped her daughter is released from prison and returns to his old stomping grounds, she must face her own demons while unravelling complex cases and holding her family together.
Catherine is a tough cookie with a mind is as sharp as her tongue. Yet we also get to see her flaws, her vulnerability, and the struggle she faces taking the lead both at home and in the workplace. The second season of Happy Valley, which just landed on Netflix, sees Catherine both investigating and suspected of a series of murders. The wonderful Charlie Murphy also makes a triumphant return, her character transformed from helpless victim to rookie police officer with her sights on CID.
TV detectives are so often talented loners, piecing together clues with their massive brains, but incapable of solving the riddle of other human beings. The beauty of Catherine Cawood is that she is a not a detective; she’s a police officer. From the opening scene of the first episode, where she talks down a drug addict determined to set himself on fire, she relies on people skills to solve problems. She cares, she listens, and it makes her brilliant at what she does. The message that order can be maintained not only through force, but through compassion, is a powerful one. Sometimes a simple conversation can be all that it takes. Other times, however, you just have to Taser someone in the crotch.
Luckily, she’s got that covered.