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Happy Valley, BBC1 - TV review: Homegrown, Yorkshire-set drama is better than Fargo

  • @GerardVGilbert

Sally Wainwright is on a roll. Not only has she written the best female cop show – okay, the only female cop show – since Cagney & Lacey, the slam-dunk Scott & Bailey, but with Last Tango in Halifax she has also rescued fictional Yorkshire pensioners from the long shadow of Last of the Summer Wine.

News that HBO in North America plans a remake of Last Tango in Halifax – presumably in Halifax, Nova Scotia – led to a flurry of eyebrow-raising in this country; but the suitability of Wainwright's material for the mores of US cable TV drama were last night underlined by her new BBC1 series, Happy Valley.

After all, does this storyline ring any bells? A weak, mild-mannered husband decides to stage a kidnapping in order to get him out of a financial hole, prompting pursuit by a homely female policewoman. It also happens to be the premise of the Coen brothers' movie Fargo, which has been re-made as an FX cable show and is now screening on Channel 4.

The milquetoast in Wainwright's new series is an overlooked company accountant, Kevin, played by Steve Pemberton. I nearly wrote "over-played by Steve Pemberton", because for a while I feared that the actor might be just a bit too Royston Vasey for the easy naturalism of the acting around him. Once the story got into its stride, however, it was evident that he was very well cast: a perfect cartoon of envy, cowardice and regret as his plan inevitably goes awry.

The homely policewoman is played by Last Tango's Sarah Lancashire, who introduced her character before the opening credits rolled, by way of keeping a suicidal junkie in conversation. "I'm Catherine," she told the man threatening self-immolation. "I'm divorced, I live with my 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." Wainwright probably saved herself at least 60 minutes of laboriously enacted exposition with this prologue.

The title is meant ironically. Nestling in the West Yorkshire Moors like a relic of the Industrial Revolution (a shot of the grandson's primary school seemed to locate "Happy Valley" in Hebden Bridge), the fictional town's sole growth business is drug-dealing.

In fact, it was to the resident narcotics kingpin that Kevin took his idea of kidnapping his boss's daughter and then sharing the ransom money – loot Kevin needed in order to send his own two daughters to the local posh school.

And then his boss offered to fund their schooling anyway, a burst of generosity sparked by the fact that his wife had terminal cancer – thus leaving Kevin's dilemma beautifully poised for next week's episode.

I really didn't expect to be writing this, but I think I actually prefer Happy Valley to Fargo. At least it's first-hand.