Happy Valley (UK 2014) and Top of the Lake (New Zealand 2013)

Given the international focus of this blog, it’s not often that I watch home-grown British crime drama. But having caught the first episode of BBC One’s Happy Valley, I’ve been completely gripped, and tonight’s hotly anticipated finale did not disappoint. This hard-hitting six-part series, which traces the fall-out from a kidnapping in the West Yorkshire valleys, is superbly written (by Sally Wainwright) and directed (by Wainwright, Euros Lyn and Tim Fywell). Lead actress Sarah Lancashire gives an *absolutely outstanding* performance as policewoman Catherine Cawood, with an excellent supporting cast.

West Yorkshire policewoman Catherine Cawood strides forth. Image: BBC

I’m prepared to say that this is the best crime drama I’ve seen all year, with perhaps one exception … the New Zealand crime drama Top of the Lake, which I watched on DVD in March (aired on BBC Two in 2013). It’s equally well written (by Jane Campion of The Piano and Gerald Lee) and directed (by Campion and Garth Davies), with Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men in the lead role of Detective Robin Griffin. This time, the investigative focus is on the disappearance of a twelve-year-old schoolgirl, Tui Mitcham.

Tui at the lake. Image: BBC

Aside from their quality, the dramas have a striking number of things in common:

  • Both feature wonderfully strong female investigators, who have each experienced the impact of crime in their own lives. These past traumas – and their identities as women and mothers – shape their responses to the crimes that they witness in the present.
  • There is a focus on gender and power, with both dramas showing women having to negotiate and survive extreme male violence. (There’s been media debate about whether Happy Valley is too violent, but in my view, it effectively illustrates the reality of certain types of crimes and isn’t gratuitous). In each case, older women step in to protect younger women when they can.
  • Both dramas are set in socially deprived areas, where criminality has become a way of life for many. But they also point a finger at the supposedly respectable middle classes, who are not as morally upstanding as they pretend to be (there’s a nice touch of Fargo in Happy Valley).
  • Each makes excellent use of landscape – the importance of which is indicated by the series’ titles. Top of the Lake uses haunting images of New Zealand’s South Island to suggest the isolation of its central characters. Happy Valley’s ironic title and the rolling Yorkshire countryside are used to highlight the disparity between the physical beauty of the setting and the violence within it. (Thanks are due to Elena, whose cracking post on True Detective and its use of landscapes got me thinking about this aspect of the dramas).
  • And I know I’m repeating myself, but …. fantastic actresses in complex, nuanced, gritty, challenging, leading, female investigator roles. More, more, more of these women please!

Elisabeth Moss as Det. Robin Griffin.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to see these dramas, then you have a treat of the highest order before you. Enjoy!

Good news: it looks like there could be a second series of Happy Valley according to this Radio Times interview with Sally Wainwright. Warning: Lots of spoilers!

And here’s a review of the finale by Mark Lawson for The Guardian.

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28 Responses to Happy Valley (UK 2014) and Top of the Lake (New Zealand 2013)

  1. Mrs. P – I’ve not seen them yet, but they both sound fantastic. Thanks for recommending them. So nice to know that among all of the bilge that’s sometimes on TV, there’s excellent stuff too. :-)

  2. Clare Furlonger says:

    Superb stuff. Best UK production I have seen for some time. Numerous other series start well but just don’t manage to sustain the story or excitement. This one did – it had me begging for the next episode as one finished – that hasn’t happened since the original Killing. The last episode was full of suspense and was wholly satisfactory! So pleased to see your post as i had wondered what you thought of it! Clare

    >

    • Mrs P. says:

      Hello, Clare – yes, I totally agree. The story was beautifully developed over the six episodes and like you I was keen to see the next one straight away (especially after episode 4!). I was pleased with the finale as well – it’s such a make-or-break hour, and I remember the disappointment when the last series of Line of Duty didn’t quite pull it off. An excellent, well thought through drama. Glad you enjoyed :)

  3. angelasavage says:

    Thanks for this, Mrs P. I haven’t seen Happy Valley but I will certainly look out for it. I thought the first couple of episodes of Top of the Lake were outstanding (“like an explosion going off in a small, contained space,” as my partner described it); but I didn’t feel the series lived up to this early promise. I found several main characters’ actions inconsistent – including those of Det. Robin Griffin – while Holly Hunter’s character was just plain annoying. That said, I would still recommend it for the power of the early episodes and the *stunning* use of landscape.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thanks, Angela. Ooh, I like that description of the early episodes of Top of the Lake! I watched the series over two nights, and I wonder if that made a difference, in terms of hiding individual episodes’ weaknesses. If you lived closer (!!!), I’d drag you down the pub for a chat about those inconsistencies. Intrigued, but spoiler rule prohibits detailed discussion here… Hunter’s character I treated as a comic one, and enjoyed the eccentricities of those commune interludes. I really did love it all, and yes, the incredible use of landscape played a big part for me too. Made me want to visit NZ again soon.

      • angelasavage says:

        Mrs P, if I lived closer, you wouldn’t need to drag me down the pub for that conversation: I’d come willingly!

        Interestingly, my mum was almost offended when I shared my thoughts on the series – which she loved. Then just this week she phoned me to say she’d watched it again and thought I was right! I’m hazarding a guess that all the suspense of those first episodes, combined with the stellar performances and stunning landscape, masks the inconsistencies on first viewing. You could perhaps test this theory if/when you go back for a second viewing.

      • Mrs P. says:

        Splendid :) You could be right about that second viewing experience, although I’m almost tempted not to watch it again, to keep the memory of the first perfect time intact! Hope your mum still enjoyed all the good bits…

        Any good Australian crime series that we’ve been missing out on this end?

      • angelasavage says:

        Three of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels have been made into terrific films, Bad Debts, Black Tide and Dead Point, starring Guy Pierce. The films are set in a part of town where I misspent a great deal of my youth, so they have an added nostalgia value for me.

        Temple’s award winning novel, The Broken Shore was also made into a wonderful film.

        I recommend all four.

      • Mrs P. says:

        Thanks for those recommendations, Angela. I love Guy Pierce as an actor (he’s come a long way since Neighbours…!) I wonder if they are available over here – will check it out.

  4. Just finished Happy Valley and think it was the best UK series I’ve seen since The Shadow Line. The performances were so REAL!
    Top of the Lake was also good, but I saw it while highly medicated during recovery for a back injury so parts are a bit fuzzy! I probably should rewatch it, because I remember thinking how good it was!

    • Mrs P. says:

      Hi SmallHouseBigGarden. I think you’ve put your finger on one of the series’ biggest strengths: everything was kept very grounded and real. There was never any point where what was happening felt implausible, and that really added to its power.

      Your Top of the Lake viewing experience sounds like an interesting one! Hope the back is lots better now!

  5. Bugger my comment got eaten – always happens when I come from twiitter!

    I was saying thanks for this great analysis – I shall look out for Happy Valley as it hasn’t aired here yet. Sarah Lancashire is a terrific actor so it’s good to see her getting a meaty, central role even though she’s over 30 and not a size 2.

    I thought Top of the Lake was good, though like Angela I didn’t think the whole lived up to the promise of the first couple of episodes. Plus I kept getting distracted by the fact that a remote part of New Zealand was populated almost entirely by people from a very long way away (very unrealistic) and I didn’t think Moss carried off her supposed New Zealand/Australian accent at all. I think the series was a co-production with HBO which explains it but I still found it irksome. I’m also in agreement with Angela that GJ (the Holly Hunter character) was annoying at first then pointless by the end – though I am prepared to admit my opinion may have been clouded by Hunter herself who appeared to be a bit of a tosser in the making-of documentary that was included with the iTunes season pass. Still it was well worth watching and the scenery was completely absorbing.

    • Mrs P. says:

      I hate it when comments get eaten. Commiserations and thanks for persevering!

      DO see Happy Valley if you get the chance. Sarah Lancashire is absolutely brilliant – lots of talk here about it being a career-best performance – and yes, somehow she’s cracked the being a middle-aged woman and still getting meaty parts thing. I suspect it’s because she’s very, very good and has managed to forge a partnership with an excellent writer who creates great female parts (Sally Wainwright, who also wrote Last Tango in Halifax).

      Top of the Lake. Hmmm – shame about Moss’s accent. My British ear didn’t pick up on that, which was a stroke of luck in a way. I liked Eccentric Holly – as I said above to Angela, I saw it as a comedy role more than anything – a bit of light relief. But I know that character did annoy a lot of people…

  6. MarinaSofia says:

    I too have been riveted by Happy Valley – it was indeed Fargo-like at first, but lacked the sometimes nearly slapstick feel of the latter. It was indeed dark but also very human, with great performances all round. I am somewhat more ambiguous about Top of the Lake – I enjoyed parts of it, but felt it all got a bit over-dramatic and too morose in the end.

    • Mrs P. says:

      It’s a cracker, isn’t it? I really couldn’t fault any aspect of Happy Valley (except perhaps the appearance of the macabre ‘ghost’, which I thought was a bit overdone – but that was just for a couple of episodes). Dark, but also very human – spot on. I loved the relationship of the sisters – both there for one another through all the tough bits, but in a very warm, human way.

      I’m getting the feeling that my love of Top of the Lake is a bit of a minority thing ;-). I really did enjoy it all and thought the final episode was excellent drama. I’d worked out the solution, but it was still satisfying to see all the strands come together.

  7. herschelian says:

    You said everything I would have said about Happy Valley – and more. I thought it was a really gripping crime drama and brilliantly acted. I did wonder what the good folk of Hebden Bridge felt about it though!! If Sarah Lancashire doesn’t get a BAFTA for her performance I may well have to eat my (proverbial) hat; the writer Sally Wainwright also deserves to be decorated with awards.

    The Top of the Lake seemed much more hit and miss to me. I watched a couple of episodes with a New Zealand friend who was outraged by it, she felt it made the whole community look weird….well, duh! that was what it was meant to be.. she kept saying ‘but we’re not like this in NZ’ and I kept saying ‘Its just TV, its not real life.’

    • Mrs P. says:

      We’ll have to ask the Hebden Bridge Tourist Board! Really good to see northern (crime) dramas becoming more mainstream, because they’ve been under-represented, I think. And southern / London viewers get to see that it’s not all flat caps and ferrets in Yorkshire. Sarah Lancashire definitely deserves that BAFTA – her only competition may be from Keeley Hawes in Line of Duty – another standout performance. Some wonderful acting this year.

      Interesting to hear what your New Zealand friend had to say about Top of the Lake. Bernadette (see comment above) didn’t think the community was particularly credible either, so perhaps that was a weakness, at least for Australian/NZ viewers.

      Given all the comments above, I’ll have to accept that I’m out of step with majority judgement of the series, which is quite mixed. I’ll have to go back and watch again at some point (but really hope I love it as much second time round!).

  8. Elena says:

    I haven’t seen either Topf of the Lake nor Happy Valley, but now that I have some weeks off, I surely will. What is it with women writers and women policemen that almost always end up being so amazing? :)

  9. kathy d. says:

    I look forward to seeing Happy Valley over here across the pond. I liked Top of the Lake at first, but then it turned into a very violent show with a lot of very disturbing characters and scenes.
    Glad to see the Jack Irish series mentioned; found two dvd’s of it at my library. And I’ve added The Broken Shore to my movie list, and hope it comes here.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thanks for your comment, kathy d. Just so that you know, Happy Valley is extremely violent in places, and there was some debate in the press about whether the series had overstepped the mark in that respect. Sally Wainwright, the main writer, has responded robustly (and I think correctly) to those claims, but you probably wouldn’t want to read that coverage before seeing the series, because it also gives away the plot. I did want to warn you, thought, so that you don’t start watching and are caught unawares.

  10. kathy d. says:

    Thank you for the warning. I watched the three Swedish films of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, and I blocked some scenes or fast-forwarded. I liked them, but some of the violence was too much visually. So I’ll have to see about Happy Valley.

  11. kathy d. says:

    Apropos of British TV mysteries, just saw the superb “Escape Artist” over here on the weekend by PBS. What a good mystery and cast, featuring Sophie Okonedo and David Tennant. Could TV be better than this?
    What passes for “mysteries” on TV in the States these days is almost embarrassing. Wish producers and directors would take more cues from British movies and TV shows. It would raise the bar, so to speak.

    • Mrs P. says:

      I’d been dimly aware of The Escape Artist, Kathy, but haven’t seen it. I just read up on it a bit and it does sound extremely good! As you probably know, Tennant starred in Broadchurch too, so is doing nicely in the crime/thriller genre. He’s still most famous for his stint as Dr Who in the UK, but is an incredibly versatile actor.

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