Sally Wainwright: Production company CEO reflects on Happy Valley and Gentleman Jack on anniversary of BBC Across the UK strategy

Happy Valley’s critically lauded finale was a standard fixture of all the top TV end-of-year lists as 2023 drew to a close.Will Johnston, joint CEO of Lookout Point, the production company behind the Calderdale drama, had a front row seat to a television triumph.

Will Johnston, joint CEO of Lookout Point, the production company behind the Calderdale drama, had a front row seat to a television triumph.

"Sally Wainwright, she is a genius. Working on a script or a programme-making relationship with Sally is unbelievable, there's nothing like it. My experience, anyway, has been dealing with someone at the top of their game who, like me, just wants things to be the very best that they can be.

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"Happy Valley is a great example of something that is so particular to Sally and her style and so brilliantly unique. As a producer, you just get to go on the ride, and try and realise everything that's in this very beautifully constructed script, as faithfully as you possibly can with the help of an amazing team, a lot of whom had worked on the first two series, which I wasn't involved with.”

Sarah Lancashire as Sgt Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley.Sarah Lancashire as Sgt Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley.
Sarah Lancashire as Sgt Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley.

He is looking forward to the airing of Wainwright’s next show – Renegade Nell, coming to Disney+ soon – but is reflecting on the screenwriter’s success after the third anniversary of the BBC’s Across the UK strategy, which aims to better reflect and represent audiences and boost production across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Wainwright’s Yorkshire-set work captured audience imaginations in a way which embedded itself in the wider culture – whether than be the internet memes of Tommy Lee Royce after the final Happy Valley episode or the many LGBT+ visitors to Shibden Hall, the former home of Gentleman Jack inspiration Anne Lister.

"It's interesting, actually, with both shows obviously just because they're both set in Yorkshire or even just because they're both written by Sally Wainwright, it doesn't mean there's exactly the same kind of response to both. And I think both had quite different impacts, and both of which I loved.

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"Happy Valley, it was so watched that those memes that started to pop up like Tommy Lee Royce looming behind her when she's asleep on the chair – so good! I love that kind of saturation. Most of the time you only really see that now Netflix shows like One Day or Fool Me Once or something. Very little else produced out of the UK gets that kind of online buzz,” he says.

"The thing with Gentleman Jack, and I'm gay so as an LGBTQ-plus producer you're especially hopeful that a show will resonate with a community that's been underserved, and the fandom for Gentleman Jack is so inspiring and so motivated to go deep into that story – even deeper than Sally has in the show – and share it and scrutinise it and own it and carry it forward. That is really cool. And Gentleman Jack, more than anything else that I've worked on, has shown me how much a TV show can connect and inspire people.”

After Across the UK, one change is that more than 350 jobs have relocated out of London.

Lookout Point – which has worked with Wainwright on a number of projects – is based in the capital but Will believes the strategy has made a difference.

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“The reason it's so good to have initiatives that push producers outside of London is because there's such a breadth of storytelling that you can access by just making the effort to go further,” he says.

“I've worked more in Yorkshire than I have in the south because of the Sally shows. But as a result, I'd become very motivated to push to different places and go and see different things and hear different stories. And so it's this really nice gratifying circle of being inspired by somebody really established and brilliant, to want to find other fresh perspectives – and regionality is a big part of that.”

Calderdale Council’s Cabinet Member for Tourism, Towns and Voluntary Sector, Coun Sarah Courtney, says there has been a benefit to the area.

“Calderdale is known for its distinctive landscape, architecture and heritage, and when these are showcased on screen they become stars of the show, just like the characters.

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“We’re thrilled that a wide variety of major productions have been filmed in Calderdale in recent years. Shows like Happy Valley, Gentleman Jack and others filmed in Calderdale have, without a doubt, helped to put our borough on the national and international map.

“Our stunning natural landscape portrayed in these programmes has inspired visitors to come and experience our vibrant towns and villages for themselves, with a subsequent boost for local tourism and the economy. Filming also brings jobs and revenue into the area, further benefitting local people.

“Our filming and events team work hard to support event organisers and work with some of the best film and TV production companies in the UK.”

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