Happy Valley: The dark side of Hebden Bridge

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After Last Tango in Halifax, screenwriter Sally Wainwright tells Sarah Freeman why in her latest series she wanted to expose the dark side of a picturesque Yorkshire market town.

Gritty is not a word often associated with Hebden Bridge. Quaint, picturesque, achingly middle class even, but not gritty.

An enclave for artists, writers and poets - it even boasts its own juggling shop - over the years it has been variously declared the coolest, quirkiest and most creative place to live in Britain. Hebden Bridge is not on the up it’s already there and it says something about a place when the biggest controversy in recent years came after the council decided to ban a burlesque performance at the town’s Picture House cinema.

All of which perhaps makes it an odd choice as the setting for a drama where drug dealing is rife and where even the central character - a middle-aged female police officer - has a sister who is a recovering heroin addict. Not for Happy Valley screenwriter Sally Wainwright, who grew up in Halifax and went to school in Sowerby Bridge.

“The idea came to me after I watched Shed Your Tears and Walk Away,” she says referring to the Jez Lewis’s 2009 documentary about drug abuse in Hebden Bridge. He grew up in the town and returned to make the film after a number of his childhood friend’s died from overdoses. “Like a lot of people I guess I thought those kind of things just didn’t happen in a place like Hebden Bridge, but of course they do.

“I’m not saying, it’s worse than anywhere else, but everywhere - even market towns with lovely cafes and restaurants - has its dark side.”

The title is a reference to the name given to the area by some local police officers in a nod to the drug culture, but Wainwright hasn’t shied away from naming Hebden Bridge in the series.

“I don’t like making up place names, I never have. I just never think they sound real and when you’re doing a drama like this, the one thing you need is for people to believe it’s an actual place. I was setting it in Hebden Bridge and I wanted to be honest about that.

“Yes, there was a little bit of me which was concerned about how the people who lived there would react, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. There was the odd negative comment on Twitter, but I think in general viewers appreciate a drama which is honest.”

The first episode of Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire as police officer Catherine Cawood went out earlier this week. Along with more than six million others, Wainwright, who studied English at York University before breaking into TV and radio, was in front of her own television watching the fruits of her labours.

“Of course I’d seen it already, but it always feels different when you see it in your own living room,” she says. “Often I am my own worst critic. I sit there thing, ‘Ooh that feels flat’ and ‘If only we could go back, I would do that scene very differently’. But not this time. There was something which felt right about Happy Valley from the start.

Wainwright wrote the part of Catherine with Lancashire in mind after they had worked together on Last Tango in Halifax and she joins a long line of strong female characters penned by one of the country’s most bankable writers of TV drama.

“I was completely blown away with Sarah’s performance in Last Tango and as a writer you feed off that. If you see a great performance you want to write another part for them. With a drama like this, it’s all about getting the right pace. I might think differently after episode two, but the story seems to be unravelling really well.”

For those who didn’t catch the opening episode it was a fairly breathless affair. The central plot revolves around an accountant and his botched attempt to kidnap his boss’ daughter in the hope of keeping part of the ransom to fund his own children’s school fees. Running the show is a local drugs king pin, but the focus is really on Catherine and her fight to redress the wrongs of the past which led to the death of her daughter.

The reviews have been unanimously positive and had she not been blessed with powers of diplomacy, the reception would have given Wainwright cause to gloat a little. It was the BBC who approached her to write the crime drama, but only after it had turned down her other police series Scott and Bailey, which went onto be a hit for ITV.

“They also initially turned down Last Tango in Halifax,” she says of her last award-winning series based on her mother’s own experience of finding love in later life. “But that’s television. If you have an idea which you think is worth doing you just have to keep plugging away and I have been very lucky in terms of commissions.

“Having done Scott and Bailey I didn’t just want to repeat the same formula. There are so many detective shows on television which is partly why I decided to focus the series on an ordinary police officer. “

The only murmuring of discontent - apart from those few who wished she hadn’t chosen Hebden Bridge - have been from those complaining about the depiction of violence against women in the series.

“It’s a tricky area and I do understand the concerns,” says Wainwright. “However, to pretend it doesn’t happen is equally abhorrent. I do have a problem with crime dramas which show the body of a naked female who is just a corpse, a victim and nothing else.

“However, in Happy Valley I hope all the female characters are rounded individuals and in some cases violence is part of their story.

“At the moment we are currently in discussions with the BBC about one scene in the final episode. It is particularly brutal and we have been asked to tone down the editing.

“It is a two way process, but I do worry that by trying not to offend anyone you actually damage the dramatic integrity of the piece. I’ve never been a writer who wants to shock an audience for the sake of it, but sometimes those moments are vital.”

Each episode of the four part drama took 13 days to shoot and for the final instalment, Wainwright got her first taste of directing since she was at university.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but it’s a bit of a vicious circle. It’s like any industry, people want someone with experience, but you can only get that experience if someone gives you a chance in the first place.

“I absolutely loved directing, it was a really happy set. Normally after I’ve written a script I hand it over to someone else and that’s pretty much it. As executive producer I get to see the rushes, but it’s really just to check that no one has gone off at a tangent. You’re an outsider and on the days you do go on location your conscious of not making a nuisance of yourself. On Happy Valley it was absolutely lovely to feel part of a team.

“As a writer you spend all the time by yourself going mad. As a director you suddenly feel like you’ve been invited to the best party on earth. I found it quite distressing being back in front of the computer; it was like going back into solitary confinement after you’d been to this fantastic do.”