The Canny Valley

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.

Taser

Luckily, she’s got that covered.

Murder, Moustaches and Mansplaining: The Abominable Bride

I LOVE Sherlock. I love everything about it; the cast, the writing, the fab background shots of London. As someone who has read all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories several times over, I love catching the references and feeling all smug and well-read and superior. So when I heard that there would be a special episode released on New Years Day, I immediately booked a flight home to London to ensure the optimum viewing experience. Oh, and see my family, I guess.

The bulk of Jan 1st was spent vanquishing my hangover in time for the main event, and by 9pm I had a pot of tea made and a tin of biscuits at the ready. The moment had arrived. And for the first few minutes I was…underwhelmed. I’m so familiar with the modern-day incarnations of John and Sherlock, that the 19th century Holmes and Watson seemed odd, jarring, like an old friend had suddenly acquired a foreign accent. Given the ingenuity with which Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat brought these well-loved characters into the 21st century, a slip back in time seemed a wasted opportunity. Oh, me of little faith.

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Once I let go of my inflated expectations and just watched the damn thing, I began to see the little clues that all was not as it seemed. And of course it bloody wasn’t. This is Sherlock, after all. In an early scene the mysterious lady in the parlour of 221B Baker Street, concealed beneath the eerie black veil of a Victorian in mourning, turns out to be none other than Mrs. Watson. The episode is full of veils, disguises and duplicity, with the identity of even the familiar characters thrown into question as we veer between centuries.

Much has been made of the heavy-handed feminist-or-is-it? message woven into the plot, which sees a series of murders attributed to an underground cult of hooded suffragettes. The internet was quick to accuse Sherlock of ‘mansplaining’ as he stands before the assembly of feminists and speaks of the ‘invisible army hovering at our elbow, tending to our homes, raising our children, ignored, patronized, disregarded, not allowed so much as a vote. But an army nonetheless, ready to rise up in the best of causes, to put right an injustice as old as humanity itself.’ But let’s take a moment to recall what’s actually happening here. Firstly, Sherlock isn’t explaining feminism to the collected feminists; he’s doing what he does every episode. He’s explaining the situation to John Watson, the 19th century everyman to Holmes’ forward-thinking genius. The ending of the episode hammers the point home; Sherlock Holmes was a man ahead of his time, a thinker not willing to be confined by the narrow social and cultural expectations of the society he lives in. To Sherlock (and indeed, Mycroft), female equality is a given, a logical conclusion to an intellectual argument. To his peers in the 1890’s, this still required explaining. They could not know that in a couple of decades, this army would indeed ‘rise up in the best of causes’, manning the nurses’ stations and munitions factories of the First World War. And that this work, alongside their many other efforts, helped render them visible enough to win the vote.

In some ways I see this as the writers wrestling with the constraints of their source material. As written by Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is a man in a man’s world – if they stick to the original, there are few primary female characters. Irene Adler is an exception, a mind to rival Holmes’, but she must work within the constraints of her gender, using her sexuality alongside her intellect to achieve her aims. The modern retelling certainly develops female characters further where possible; Mary Watson is far from the footnote of the books, killed off when it became clear she might cut into John’s crime fighting time. An updated setting allows the women in Sherlock’s world far greater freedoms than their 19th century counterparts could have dreamed of. This episode nods to this in Mary’s complaints about being abandoned by her husband, Mrs. Hudson’s observations on her lack of lines, and of course Molly Hooper having to don a fake moustache in order to be a scientist in the 1890’s. Yet despite these constraints, they are active participants – albeit in a slightly creepy/evil way.

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The second point we ought to consider, is that at this point in the episode we are actually inside Sherlock’s mind palace. When he’s explaining the solution to John, he’s really explaining it to himself. That was the purpose of this whole crazy ride in the first place. But why does Sherlock suddenly need to think about women? About a large but overlooked section of society, hiding in plain sight, exercising power though many believe them to have none? We know who all this is for, who is at the heart of this story Sherlock tells himself; Moriarty. Like the Abominable Bride, he is dead but not dead. When Emilia Ricoletti was shot in the head, she ceased to exist; but she lived on through the other members of her group, who were able to assume her identity whenever required. Before Moriarty revealed himself to Sherlock, he too existed only through his followers: what Victorian Holmes would call the ‘criminal classes’, numerous but with no social standing, overlooked by most and thus nearly undetectable. The ability to hide in plain sight is an obsession of Holmes’ in the original books, as well as these episodes; he makes use of his ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ to bring him information, beggars and the homeless who everyone overlooks. When he wants to hide Sherlock disguises himself; as a beggar, as a waiter, as somebody nobody thinks to look at, Think all the way back to ‘A Study in Pink’, and what Sherlock says about the murderous cab driver: ‘Who do we trust, even though we don’t know them? Who passes unnoticed wherever they go? Who hunts in the middle of a crowd?’ Are Moriarty’s followers not another ‘invisible army hovering at our elbow’? The difference is that the hooded ladies in this episode look sinister, they in fact seek the justice denied to them, whereas Sherlock’s enemies look to subvert justice through any means available to them.

Thus Sherlock solves the puzzle he has set himself; how can Moriarty still be committing crimes from beyond the grave? Even without its figurehead, Moriarty’s organization lives on, which goes some way to explaining the events of Series 3. Though seemingly unrelated, the crimes target those closest to Sherlock and John; even the seemingly generic threat to the Houses of Parliament in ‘The Empty Hearse’ links back to Mycroft, who at times ‘is the British Government.’ And in doing so, he also solves his existential struggle, for as this episode states, there can be no Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty. There is a reason that Conan Doyle sent them tumbling over the Reichenbach Falls together: what use is the great detective without the master criminal? The Abominable Bride argues that, though Moriarty is physically dead, as long as there are criminals willing to work for his cause, his spirit lives on. And these criminals are everyday people, people nobody even looks at; they hide in plain sight, blending in to the crowd. Only the keenest of observers, with an understanding of disguise will be able to single them out. There will always be work for Sherlock Holmes…so, roll on Season 4!

Setting the Standard

I’ve always had a weakness for magazines. Part of it comes from my need to be constantly reading something, anything, but there’s also the delightful glossiness of them, the bite-sized tidbits of gossip, the beautiful pictures of clothes I can neither pull off nor afford. I hate making small talk with the person cutting my hair*, but I live for that moment when the foils are in, the timer is set, and I’m presented with a cup of tea and a fat stack of that week’s mags. Heaven. They don’t have to be posh ones either. Since I relocated to Canada, my Dad sends me care packages full of the flimsy titles you can get for 60p in corner shops in the UK – Pick Me Up, Take Me Out, Closer… they’re full of made up celebrity gossip and ‘real life’ stories that veer between the hilarious and the terrifying. Often they meet in the middle: ‘My kidnapper fed me Findus Meat Pies’ is still one of my favourite headlines.

 

And now, the nation of my birth has given me yet another gift, and one that does not have to be a guilty pleasure. You see, the older I get, the more conscious I become of the negative messages that run through magazines aimed at women. The fact that every woman featured has to be categorized by her age, height, weight and dress size; that half the stories are about losing weight, putting stuff on your face and hair to make you look more acceptable, and which celebrities have done the best job at either of these things. I still laugh at Cosmopolitan’s more, ahem, ‘creative’ sex tips, and feel sorry for the unwitting boyfriends on the receiving end of all the ball nibbling and limb contortions. But I also have to think; why are we being told to try quite this hard to make ourselves desirable? **

 

So I thank my lucky stars for Standard Issue; an online women’s magazine that shows modern womanhood in all its confusing, wonderful, messy glory. There’s no full page spreads about shoes; it tackles the big issues head on, from the migrant ‘crisis’ to the battle for access to abortion. It talks about things like mental illness without being either overly dramatic or too general  – just real  people talking about real experiences. I’m also a big fan of the arts coverage – intelligent without being pretentious, fun but not frivolous. Standard Issue’s contributors are freelance writers, bloggers and comedians, and they bring a fresh and very funny perspective to life’s everyday woes and triumphs. Reading feels like having a good old catch-up with your best friend; the one who you can tell about your most embarrassing problems, and they always make you see the funny side.
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I was going to pick a favourite regular feature, but I can’t; there’s just too many good ones. But special mentions go to Slattern’s Diary, which never fails to make me feel a bit better about my own mess, Letter to My Hometown, an ode to the place that made you who you are, and Donkeys and Elephants, keeping you up to date with all the latest madness in US politics.

Best of all, it’s only available to read online, and it’s 100% free. I’m saving a few trees, and the $7.00 I would have spent on learning about the latest celebrity to slim down to a size 2, using only a dedicated personal trainer and secret gastric band surgery. Sounds like a win to me.

*My stylist is lovely, I’m just horribly anti-social.
** Not that this is exclusive to women’s magazines; Men’s Health and the like are just as bad. Boys, feel free to join us over at Standard Issue; no six-pack required.