Before the final episode of the hit BBC drama, Hannah Rich talks to the real-life vicar of Happy Valley. 03/02/2023
Yes, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.
They're not, of course, but these familiar words from the Psalms could very well be the mantra of everyone's favorite feisty Yorkshire sergeant Catherine Cawood (played by Sarah Lancashire). The valley he walks through, the ironically eponymous Happy Valley from the BBC's hit Sunday night show, is undeniably marked by the shadow of death. In the middle of the third and final series, I make the corpse count fourteen. It's compelling television interwoven with big questions about good and evil and what's in between.
Robb Sutherland is the vicar of Mixenden and recently became dean of the Halifax and Calder Valley area, making him responsible for most of the actual Happy Valley locations for the Church of England. We first met when I was staying at him for a few days.summer vacation clubin the Church of the Holy Nativity, in the middle of the building, already in 2019.
The high-rise block that Jake Bugg sings about in the show's theme song lyrics, and where much of the action takes place in the first series, is a stone's throw from Holy Nativity. We met recently and I asked Robb what it's like to be the minister of the real Happy Valley. He says that seeing the community on the screen is a strange experience as a local:
"When the killer was on top of the building, the zoomed shot was behind the park, over the school and over the church. Obviously this is all fiction and that's what's important. But I did see someone smash their head in with a hammer in front of to my corner store in season two. That didn't happen. It's not real, but there's kind of a disconnect between fiction and reality when it happens in your backyard and you can literally see your church in one sitting."
Part of the reason it drew people is because it's in Halifax, according to Robb. As he himself points out, the same story could and often would take place in London, or Manchester, or perhaps Leeds. Crime dramas set outside the city center tend to go to the other extreme: hyper-rural grit or bucolic kitschy. Seeing a gritty, realistic crime series set in this semi-rural community and the surrounding estates and small towns is a rarity. Robb recalls how the "huge football stadium lights" installed on top of the hill above his community during filming "signatured this little piece of North Halifax property and literally lit it up."
Religion is quiet in Happy Valley on the screen. The material fabric of belief is in the background to emphasize the complexity of the people: the palm cross in Tommy's cell, the prized St. Christopher Medal that appears as evidence in a murder case, and the crucifix on the wall of a room during an arrest scene. . One of the less likable characters in the second series has a Proverbs 31 trinket on his sideboard and a church flyer on his fridge. There are grade school meetings about the importance of forgiveness that somehow never veer into moralizing.
Where is the vicar in all this? I wonder aloud. There's no priest, save for a funeral cameo ("That's my crematorium," says Robb. "I've done plenty of funerals there") and a handful of appearances by prison chaplains. But the harsh life in Happy Valley seems ripe for a character like Sean Bean's vicar in Broken.
"When I think about my deanery and the people in it, we have: the whole Church of England has a lot of very active vicars and priests who are very capable of speaking up in situations like we see in Catherine and Clare (Siobhan Finneran). I think about my companions of the parishes, where you end up in a murder or in jail if you are trustworthy, sometimes invited to these situations by professionals, sometimes by the family, sometimes by circumstances”.
Robb tells the story of a friend in another place who, after a murder, became the local priest while also providing pastoral support to the accused and the victim's family, keeping a tense community together.
“I don't like the word professional when we talk about clergy, but we are trained professionals. We are the people to turn to when it comes to presidencies of governors and tragedies. At Tesco you get a pat on the back from someone who is not in the church but needs a priest and invites you into the worst parts of his life..."
“When something tragic happens, church is often the place and the people to go to. When our elementary school burned down last February, the church became the focal point for everyone because we had the space. It became a focus of where we can teach children, where we can take care of people in times of crisis. That's where the psychiatric services came from and did their job."
"It would be nice to see a minister on TV not just shaking hands and drinking tea, but saying in the middle of the congregation, 'I've been here for ten years,' and that's what I know. These are the people and place I love. ...
What would you say to Catherine, I ask, if you were a parishioner?
"Where would you start to talk about what she went through and what her family went through? Her daughter's tragedy and how it affected her. How her own professional life blended into her personal life and how it changed her as a person, how it changed her relationships and tore her away from the people she loves. These things are so huge to unpack. There's so much to him when it comes to justice and redemption."
“There are complex family relationships all the time, between sisters trying to raise a grandchild and couples on the fringes just doing the best they can. Everyone seems to feel helpless. There is that feeling of helplessness in almost every character. What do I do now? Everyone is trying to do their little bit to get some form of happiness in life. Even Ryan (Rhys Connah), who wants to visit his father in Sheffield Nick, is just trying to make sense of life and find some happiness.
“Today I saw someone buy £10 worth of scratch cards because it's a tax on hope. Selling games of chance at these levels is not for rich people. It is for the poor who are waiting to get out of the swamp they are trapped in. It takes advantage of the vulnerable. That's the brilliance of Broken. It showed a priest standing with the vulnerable against the oppressor. That is what is missing from our television narratives. The church stands up for justice in local communities.”
Robb and I are having a chat before the last few episodes air and are considering where the show will end and whether or not we want it to feel like a reality. When Line of Duty ended with a conclusion about how corruption is so much bigger than just one person, viewers were divided. It may have been realistic, but some felt it lost the satisfaction of a clean ending that we look for in TV dramas precisely because it's not present in everyday life.
"We like it when TV tells the truth about things we understand, but we don't necessarily want it to suggest that you have no control, no agency, and that there's a massive criminal thread running through it all... There's no hope in that. " for all. You don't sit at home and say, "It'll be okay because we can fix it," because you realize that's impossible. Society is broken... They want the sheriff to come to town, catch the bad guy and put him in jail. We're not very good with chaos."
They feel that the nuance that was present throughout the series, that almost no one is wholly or one-sidedly evil and beyond forgiveness, could last until the end. Most of the villains in Happy Valley don't start out as villains, but as terrible people by circumstance and brokenness. Each series featured a bumbling man, be it an accountant, detective, or pharmacist, delving deep into crime through small but serious misjudgments that accumulated. Squinting, everyone is forgiving.
"When [Catherine's] father describes Ryan's father as a psychopath who was born with a twisted brain... when she describes him that way, it raises the question of what is a human being. Are we born good and bad? , or are we born a bit of both? Where is the free will in all this? we choose? Is there a parallel version of Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) who would have been good if he had been loved?
The characters are somewhat divided on that last question, as evidenced by the Cawood sisters' confrontation in a coffee shop in a recent episode. Clare's stubborn belief that love can change even the worst of humanity stems from the fact that her own addiction recovery stems from love. Catherine, on the other hand, is convinced that this belief is only possible because Clare does not know the full story or the full extent of Royce's evil. James Norton recently spoke in a BBC interview about the "jesus complex“Her character has developed as she has matured and met her now-teenage son. Whether this love is transformative or, as Norton characterizes it, simply "narcissistic" remains to be seen. Perhaps it really is the truth, as Ann (Charlie Murphy), one of his victims and now a family member, says: "All love means to him is a weakness in other people that he can use to exploit them."
So, going into the final episode, it's unclear if there's an ending that can properly unravel all of Happy Valley's threads and offer all the characters a fair amount of justice and redemption.
“You first made me think about it theologically when I looked at it for a bit of escapism. But it's about redemption. That's what we all look forward to next Sunday, isn't it?
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