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Ahead of the final episode of the hit BBC drama, Hannah Rich speaks to the real life vicar of Happy Valley. 03/02/2023
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
They are not, of course, but these familiar words of the Psalms could well be the mantra of Catherine Cawood (played by Sarah Lancashire), everyone’s favourite feisty Yorkshire sergeant. The valley she walks through – the ironically eponymous Happy Valley of the hit BBC Sunday night show – is undeniably marked by the shadow of death. Midway through the third and final series, I make the body count fourteen. It is gripping television, woven with big questions about good and evil and the in–between.
Robb Sutherland is the vicar of Mixenden and recently became area dean of Halifax and Calder Valley, making him responsible as far as the Church of England is concerned for most of the real life locations in Happy Valley. We first met when I spent a few days at the summer holiday club at Holy Nativity Church, in the middle of the estate, back in 2019.
The tower block Jake Bugg sings about in the lyrics of the show’s theme tune and where much of the action in series one unfolds is a stone’s throw from Holy Nativity. We caught up recently and I asked Robb what it’s like being the vicar of the real–life Happy Valley. He says that, as a local, it is a strange experience to see the community on screen:
“When the murderer was up the tower block, the zooming in shot went behind the park, across the school and over the church. Obviously it’s all fiction and that’s the key thing. But I’ve seen someone in series two get his head smashed in with a hammer outside my corner shop. That hasn’t happened. It’s not real, but there’s a sort of disconnect of what’s fiction and what’s reality when it’s happening in your back garden and you can literally see your church in shot.”
Part of the reason it has gripped people, according to Robb, is that it is in Halifax. As he points out, the same story could – and often would – be set in London, or Manchester, or maybe Leeds. Crime dramas set outside the inner city tend towards the other extreme: hyper–rural ruggedness or bucolic tweeness. To see a gritty, realistic police series set in this semi–rural community and its surrounding estates and small towns is a rarity. Robb recalls how the “massive football stadium lights” rigged up during filming on the hill above his parish were “pointing at this little bit of estate in North Halifax, literally shining a light on it.”
Religion is quiet in the on–screen Happy Valley. The material stuff of faith is there in the background to highlight the complexity of people: the palm cross in Tommy’s cell, the treasured St Christopher medal that winds up as evidence in a murder case and the crucifix on a living room wall during an arrest scene. One of the most unlikeable characters in the second series has a Proverbs 31 trinket on her sideboard and a church flyer on her fridge. There are primary school assemblies about the importance of forgiveness, which somehow never drift into moralising.
Where is the vicar in all this, I wonder aloud. There is no priest, save for a funeral cameo (“That’s my crematorium, that is,” Robb says. “I’ve done plenty of funerals there.”) and a handful of appearances from prison chaplains. Yet the grit of life in Happy Valley seems ripe for a character like Sean Bean’s parish priest in Broken.
“Thinking about my deanery and the people in it, we’ve got – the whole Church of England has got a lot of very on–the–ball vicars and priests who are very capable of speaking into situations like the ones we see Catherine and Clare (Siobhan Finneran) in. I think of my colleagues in parishes where when there is a murder or someone goes to jail, if you are trusted, you end up being invited into these situations sometimes by professionals, sometimes by family, sometimes by circumstances.”
Robb tells the story of a friend elsewhere who found themselves, as the local priest, having to pastorally support both the accused and the victim’s family at the same time after a murder took place, holding together a community in tension.
“I don’t like the word professional when we talk about clergy, but we are trained professionals. We are people who are turned to when it comes to chairing the governors and when it comes to tragedies. You do get tapped on the shoulder in Tesco, by someone who isn’t in the congregation but needs a priest and invites you into the worst parts of their lives….”
“When something tragic happens, very often the church is the place and the people that are turned to. When our primary school burned down in February last year, the church became the focus for where everyone went, because we had the space. It became the focus for where we can teach kids, where we can look after people in a time of crisis. It was where mental health services came and did their work from.”
“It would be nice to see a vicar on telly who isn’t just shaking hands and drinking tea, but in the midst of the community, saying ‘this is where I’ve been for the last ten years’ and this is what I know. This is the people and the place I love…
What would he say to Catherine, I ask, if she were a parishioner?
“Where would you even start talking about what she has experienced and what her family has experienced? The tragedy of her daughter and how that has affected her. How her own professional life has intermingled with her personal life and how it has changed her as a person, how it has changed the relationships she’s had and split her up from the people she loves. Those things are so massive to unpack. There’s so much in there when it comes to justice and redemption.”
“There are complex family relationships all through this, between sisters trying to raise a grandson and partners on the periphery who are just doing their best. Everybody seems to feel helpless. There is that sense of helplessness for almost every character. What do I do now? Everybody is just trying to do their little bit to get some form of happiness out of life. Even Ryan (Rhys Connah), going to visit his dad in Sheffield Nick, is just trying to make sense of life and find a bit of happiness.”
“Today, I saw someone buying a tenner worth of scratch cards because it’s a hope tax. When we are selling gambling at these levels, it isn’t for rich people. It’s for poor people who are hoping to get out of the mire they find themselves trapped in. It’s preying upon the vulnerable. That is the brilliance of Broken. It showed a priest who was standing with the vulnerable against the oppressor. That’s missing from our TV narratives. The church standing for justice in local communities.”
Robb and I are talking before the final couple of episodes have aired, and we muse about where the series will end and whether or not we want it to feel like reality. When Line of Duty ended with a conclusion about how corruption is much bigger than any one individual, viewers were split. Realistic it may have been, but in being so some felt it lost the satisfaction of a tidy ending that we look for in TV dramas precisely because it isn’t there in everyday life.
“We like it when TV talks truth about things we understand, but we don’t necessarily want it to point out that you have no control, no agency and that there is a massive crime thread going through everything… That doesn’t bring hope for anybody. You don’t sit at home going, ‘it’s all going to be OK because we can sort this out’ because you come to realise that’s impossible. Society has broken… You want to have the sheriff come into town, get the bad guy and throw him into jail. We’re not very good with mess.”
You sense that the nuance that has been there throughout the series – that almost no one is entirely or unilaterally evil and beyond forgiveness – might continue to the end. Most of the villains in Happy Valley start out not as villains but as humans who turn terrible through circumstance and brokenness. Every series featured a bumbling man – whether he is an accountant, a detective or a pharmacist – who ends up deep in crime through small but grave misjudgements that mount up. With one eye squinted, they are all worthy of forgiveness.
“When [Catherine] describes Ryan’s dad as a psychopath who was born with a kink in his brain… when she’s describing him as that, it asks questions about what is a human being. Are we born good and bad, or are we born a bit of each? Where is free will in all of this? Do we choose? Is there a parallel version of Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) who might have been good, had he been loved?”
The characters are somewhat divided on this last question, as the Cawood sisters’ confrontation in a coffee shop in one of the most recent episodes showed. Clare’s persisting faith that love might change even the worst of humanity stems from that fact that her own recovery from addiction has been down to love. Catherine on the other hand is convinced this belief is only possible because Clare doesn’t know the whole story or the full extent of Royce’s evil. James Norton has spoken in a recent BBC interview about the “Jesus complex” his character has developed as he has matured and got to know his now–teenage son. It remains to be seen if this love is transformative or, as Norton characterises it, just “narcissistic”. Perhaps it is really the truth, as Ann (Charlie Murphy), one of his victims and also now one of the family, put it that “all love means to him is a weakness in other people that he can use to exploit them.”
Ahead of the final episode, then, it isn’t clear that there is one ending that could tidily resolve all the threads of Happy Valley and offer justice and redemption in adequate measure to all the characters.
“You’ve made me think about it theologically for the first time, when I was watching it for a bit of escapism. It’s about redemption though. That’s what we’re all hoping for come Sunday, isn’t it?”
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Original publication by www.yorkshirepost.co.uk
Copyright National World: used by permission
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.