Seeing an unremarkable, middle-aged woman having sex on TV has left me a little shocked

Scriptwriters usually have women of a certain age feigning headaches, if assigned a sexuality at all

Julie Hesmondhaigh is best known for playing Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper
Julie Hesmondhaigh is best known for playing Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper

Before I go further, apologies for the backhanded but genuine compliment I am about to pay three of British television’s great actresses – Sarah Lancashire, Siobhan Finneran and Julie Hesmondhalgh.

While “posh boy fitty” James Norton garners all the plaudits for his months of ubiquity on our screens as Russian aristocrat, Grantchester cleric and Calder Valley psychopath, it’s this trio of women who have made Happy Valley, the dark BBC drama, a thing of rare beauty.

All three honed their craft in earthy soaps, all are of a “certain age”, and none, I would hazard, have been able to use a pretty face as a role winner for several years. Their characters are ordinary women, with normal bodies, holding together an extraordinary plot.

Hesmondhalgh, best known for playing Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper, the first transsexual character to be drawn with real depth on British television, has less screen time than the other two, but last week she had one fleeting, pivotal scene that played on my mind for a few days after. I couldn’t fathom why, until it hit me: I had watched an unremarkable, at the very least perimenopausal, woman having sex, on the TV. I am still a little shocked.

Given her age – the actress is 46 – scriptwriters would usually want her to be feigning headaches or alluding wearily to routine nocturnal acts, assuming she was lucky enough to have a sexuality assigned to her at all. And that luck would completely run out as she turned 50, unless, of course, the actress happened to be Catherine Deneuve or Charlotte Rampling – the only middle-aged women ever allowed to get naked in the bedroom. It is probably no coincidence that Happy Valley is written by a woman.

So, here was a dowdy nurse, seemingly trapped in her kitchen by an invisible force field, fretting over teenage kids and a philandering husband while continually sorting shopping or dishing up food. And then her detective spouse, home early after a spot of dark murder – of a lover who fitted too closely the stereotype of the vampy middle-aged woman scorned – discovers her in flagrante delicto with a fellow nurse and married man.

The husband couldn’t have been more surprised than I was. Denied a satisfactory sex life at home, this character, Amanda had sought out compensation in the form of an affair, asserting an often hidden – almost taboo – truth: the end of the ability to have children does not end the ability to enjoy a sexual relationship. How very dare she.

Finneran’s character, meanwhile, engages in the more usual off-screen sleepovers with her alcoholic boyfriend, and Lancashire, the undoubted star of the show, is seemingly too busy being a bereaved police sergeant, sister, mother, grandmother, friend, counsellor and all-round protector of the world’s vulnerable, to miss the attentions of her ex-husband. But I bet she does.

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