Happy Valley: Real life Halifax vicar Robb Sutherland on Catherine Cawood and dealing with tragedy

Ahead of the final episode of the hit BBC drama, Hannah Rich, senior researcher at Christian think tank Theos, speaks to the real life vicar of Happy Valley.

As the vicar of Mixenden and area dean of Halifax and Calder Valley, Robb Sutherland is responsible, as far as the Church of England is concerned, for most of the real life locations in BBC crime drama Happy Valley.

We first met when I spent a few days at a summer holiday club at Holy Nativity Church, in Halifax, back in 2019. The tower block that Jake Bugg sings about in the show’s theme tune and where much of the action in series one unfolded is a stone’s throw from Holy Nativity. It is a strange experience to see the community on screen, Revd Sutherland says.

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“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.”

Reverend Robb Sutherland, vicar of Mixenden and Illingworth, outside Holy Nativity Church, Mixenden.Reverend Robb Sutherland, vicar of Mixenden and Illingworth, outside Holy Nativity Church, Mixenden.
Reverend Robb Sutherland, vicar of Mixenden and Illingworth, outside Holy Nativity Church, Mixenden.

Part of the reason the show has gripped people is that it is set in the Calder Valley, Revd Sutherland says. The same story could – and often would – play out in London, or Manchester, or maybe Leeds on screen. But to see a gritty, realistic police series in a semi-rural community made up of smaller towns is somewhat of a rarity.

The show, created by Huddersfield-born writer Sally Wainwright, is in its third and final series, with the eagerly-awaited last episode due to air on Sunday. A story about feisty Yorkshire sergeant Catherine Cawood, played by Sarah Lancashire, it explores, to use Wainwright’s words “this weird crooked relationship she has with this man –Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) – who affected her life so badly”.

It is gripping television, woven with big questions about good and evil, though religion is quiet in the on-screen Happy Valley. The material stuff of faith is there in the background to highlight the complexity of Wainwright’s characters but there is no priest, save for a funeral cameo and a handful of appearances from prison chaplains.

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“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 [her sister] Clare in,” Revd Sutherland says. "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.”

Happy Valley filming on Bath Place, off  Boothtown Road in HalifaxHappy Valley filming on Bath Place, off  Boothtown Road in Halifax
Happy Valley filming on Bath Place, off Boothtown Road in Halifax

He 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 in the community, holding people together in a time of tension. “I don’t like the word professional when we talk about clergy, but we are trained professionals...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,” Revd Sutherland says.

“When something tragic happens, very often the church is the place and the people that are turned to...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 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 [losing] 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.

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“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. Everybody is just trying to do their little bit to get some form of happiness out of life.”

Most of the villains in Happy Valley start out not as villains but as humans who turn terrible through circumstance and brokenness. Every series has featured a bumbling man – whether he is an accountant, a detective or a pharmacist – who has ended up deep in crime through small but grave misjudgements that mount up.

“When [Catherine] describes [her grandson] Ryan’s dad as a psychopath who was born with a kink in his brain, it asks questions about what is a human being,” Revd Sutherland says. “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 who might have been good, had he been loved?”

Revd Sutherland 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.

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“You’ve made me think about [the show] theologically for the first time, when I was watching it for a bit of escapism,” Revd Sutherland says. “It’s about redemption though. That’s what we’re all hoping for come Sunday, isn’t it?” - Happy Valley is on BBC One, Sunday, at 9pm.