Happy Valley: a solicitors’ busman’s holiday
By David Pickup
David Pickup considers practitioner perspectives on a popular BBC programme
The trouble with us lawyers is we cannot switch off. When we watch a television drama, especially a crime one, we think about what advice we would give the characters, how are the solicitors portrayed and what would happen at court! Usually, these television stories end with an arrest or an admission, but in real life, the baddies go to court, then prison. The plot does not conveniently end in real life.
I don’t want you to think I spend my life watching television. I do not, in fact, I avoid anything to do with my professional life which means hospitals and especially mental health units. However, occasionally we get a television show that grabs our attention and stands out as believable and entertaining.
Happy Valley is the everyday tale of West Yorkshire folk and it is, in particular, a police drama. That label does not really cover the intricacies of the plot. There have been three series. The first began on BBC One in April 2014, the second in February 2016, and the third and last on New Year’s Day 2023. I had missed the first two series, but saw them on catch-up last year, which meant the characters and their life events were remembered.
The story centres on a tough but caring police Sergeant, who by the third series is approaching the age of retirement. She has a complex family history, being divorced, but having an on-off relationship with her ex. She had two children, one of whom died, leaving her with a grandson whose father had allegedly raped his mother. As she lives in a small community she, her family and various criminals are all connected in some way.
It has some amazing acting and is set in various Yorkshire locations. The Sergeant is played by Sarah Lancashire, who has had a busy career and the cast includes other stars such as Siobhan Finneran, (Benidorm), Steve Pemberton, (Inside Number 9), George Costigan (lots of films and television work) and James Norton (Grantchester and War and Peace), all of whom have been in everything. The series quite rightly won a BAFTA Award for Best Drama Series in 2015 and is set and filmed in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. The old factories, back to back housing and misty moorlands are an important part of the show. It is written and created by Sally Wainwright who worked on the radio serial, The Archers and television’s Last Tango in Halifax.
The first series was about a kidnapping. A disgruntled employee takes his money-spinning kidnap idea to a criminal and it all spins out of control. He tries to put the brakes on but too late. There is murder, assault and a van with a broken back light. Plenty to get a solicitor’s interest in. The drama is realistic with believable characters who tackle everyday issues, such as illegal drugs and anti-social behaviour. I do not want to give away too much of the plot, but I could not help but wonder what sentence the gang members would get. Were there any mitigating circumstances? Probably not many. How seriously would the judge regard what happened? Would there be any procedural issues on admissibility of evidence? Most of all, would the whole gang be guilty of each dirty deed? So, if a member of the gang assaults the kidnap victim, would they all be guilty?
There are a few duty solicitors in the first two series. None, as I recall, had any lines to say. The solicitor in the third series had something to say (I have only seen the first so far.) The first series contains the ideas that expensive lawyers can get the guilty off offences, the system does not treat victims properly – and the police are doing an impossible job against drugs, poverty and mental illness. These themes are dealt with brilliantly and the characters are completely believable. The strong story lines are dealt with lightly, with humour.
We get whodunnits, locked room mysteries, quirky amateur sleuths and forensic scientists who conduct investigations and interview witnesses and even judges who sit on juries and cross examine. What we do not get is many lawyer-related dramas… So perhaps, in life, truth remains stranger than fiction.
David Pickup is senior partner of Pickup & Scott, and head of the mental health department: pickupandscott.co.uk