As ‘Happy Valley’ Returns for Its Final Season, Writer Sally Wainwright Questions Her Portrayal of British Police

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Try as you might to banish the image of James Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce brutally assaulting Sarah Lancashire’s Sergeant Catherine Cawood in Season 1 of “Happy Valley,” chances are it’s emblazoned in your memory of the iconic British crime thriller.

Writer Sally Wainwright, who is about as nervy as her flawed but heroic Yorkshire policewoman, never shied away from baring all with the hit police drama. In fact, she barely blinked when the show’s depictions of violence against women came under attack. But in writing Season 3, which returns to the BBC on New Year’s Day after seven years, Wainwright says the state of policing in the U.K. gave her pause to bring back her noble police protagonist.

“TV dramas about police officers usually make heroes of the police,” Wainwright tells Variety. “I did that in this, and in ‘Scott & Bailey,’ and [recent events] have made me question that — stories like Sarah Everard and the two sisters that were murdered, [Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry].”

Both cases have been extremely high profile in the U.K. and have brought intense scrutiny on police actions. Everard was walking home from a friend’s house when she was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a male off-duty police officer. Meanwhile, Smallman and Henry were celebrating a birthday in a park when they were murdered; the male cops who guarded the crime scene were found guilty of taking selfies with their bodies, and received prison sentences.

“It does makes me question my decision to make heroes of the police,” says Wainwright, “but not police women, because my experience of police women is that they are often very different.”

In Season 3, audiences will follow Catherine, who’s now on the cusp of retirement, as she discovers human remains in a drained reservoir. When they turn out to be the body of a gangland murder victim, she’s soon following the trail right back to Tommy Lee Royce, while still battling the Calder Valley’s drugs epidemic, which is finally coming to a head. Meanwhile, her grandson Ryan (played by a now-grown Rhys Connah) is deciding for himself what kind of relationship he wants with his father, Royce.

Wainwright won’t spoil her ending, but promises there will be an open-and-shut conclusion to the show. “There is a proper, big showdown where they really get to explore each other’s opinions about one another,” she says coyly of Catherine and Tommy.

Read on for Variety’s full interview with Wainwright.

Had you always planned to take such a long break between Seasons 2 and 3?

It was always the plan to leave the gap because I wanted Ryan to be old enough and have agency in the world to make his own decisions and form his own opinions that aren’t a childish reaction. So, more or less the right amount of time has elapsed. He was nine in the last series and he’s 16 in this series. I think if he’d been any younger, it would have felt a bit less credible, but he is now able to make choices and be slightly more independent.

I’ve also been busy with “Gentleman Jack,” which has been an extraordinarily time-consuming project. But it’s worked out and it was always the plan to do the third series and for it to take a little bit of time to get to it, because of that reason. It’s good to know when to stop — to put that signal out there that this is very definitely the final series. We’re not going to end it on one of those compromised ‘we might come back or we might not’ endings. We’re very definitely not coming back.

I’ve seen the first two episodes, which are brilliant, but it’s a slow burn, and it does feel like it’s leading up to something big. Is that fair to say?

Hopefully. I think I’ve done it in all three series really, but what I’ve done is introduce several different plotlines, and you start to realize that they are all connected. And you realize that connection at the end of episode one, and it builds, and by the end of episode two, it’s very clear where it’s going.

One of the big things I’ve done in this series, which has been implied earlier but not done, was explore where the drugs are and have Catherine get closer to figuring out who supplies the drugs — the people who actually matter. In the first two series she was talking about always mopping up at the bottom end of things. But in this series, we do get closer to the [drug lords].

Sally Wainwright says she hasn’t yet seen HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” which has flavours of “Happy Valley”

When Season 3 was first announced, Sarah Lancashire had a pithy quote about it being “time to let the dog see the rabbit.” What’s that all about?

I wanted to dramatize a real, proper— I mean, the way I’ve had [Catherine and Tommy] encounter each other in the past: there’s a scene outside of the school in Season 1, there’s a scene in the crematorium in Season 2. But in this season, there is a proper, big showdown where they really get to explore each other’s opinions about one another. It was quite exciting to write that. It’s a huge scene.

Since the show was last on in 2014 and 2016, it feels like the crime drama genre as a whole has really boomed. Did you have that in your mind at all as you wrote Season 3, knowing it was back on air after seven years?

Well, you’re kind of aware of it. Things have changed so much. All the other projects that I have worked on and am working on are all co-funded with big American companies now. So you can’t not be aware of it. But I don’t really think about it when I’m writing; you’ve got so many other things to worry about.

But I don’t watch a lot of telly to be honest with you. I often find that with other crime shows, it’s very rare that they do proper research. One of the unique things about “Happy Valley” is that we do have advisors on board, and they’re a part of the process right from the beginning, right from the word “go.” I don’t write the script and then invite them to have a look and see if I’ve done anything wrong. We’ve got [Lisa Farrand], a retired police constable, and Janet Hudson, a retired detective chief superintendent, and they’re in right at the beginning of the process.

You know, I couldn’t help but think of “Happy Valley” while watching HBO’s “Mare of Easttown.” There are many similarities in Kate Winslet’s Mare and Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine, and their family situations as well. Did you see that show?

I didn’t watch it, no. I don’t get the platform it’s on. But people told me about it. In fact, Lisa rang me up and said, “They’ve copied ‘Happy Valley’!” And I kind of decided not to watch it because I thought, other people say it’s very much like “Happy Valley” but it’s not as good. And I thought, that’s good enough for me. I can live with that. I just decided it was taking influence from “Happy Valley,” and took it as sort of an homage.

I wanted to ask about the depictions of violence against women in the show, which I know you have always staunchly defended by saying, “This is accurate. This is what happens.” But having rewatched the show at the beginning of the year, with the case of Sarah Everard still playing in my mind, I found it quite difficult to take in some of those scenes. Do you think there could be heightened sensitivity to such violent scenes in the new season? I’ve noticed that, in the first two episodes at least, there is far less violence than in the past — is that a reaction to something?

The angle that worries me a bit is that I always portray the police in a good light. And the stuff that’s come out about [London’s Met Police] recently makes me worry that that’s not accurate. I predominantly work with female advisors, Lisa and Janet, and they’re both good people. And I believe they were extremely good police officers. I haven’t worked with any male police advisors. And I think there’s a very different big difference between female officers and male officers. Men can police just by being big and muscular and tough. Women have to police by personality. So I’ve enjoyed dramatizing that, and that’s why Catherine talks to people.

Talking to Lisa and Janet recently about the things that have emerged from the Met, they tell me about stuff that happened in the police when they joined 30 years ago. And you think, “Oh my God, that’s terrible.” And they both recently have said things like, “You think it’s better and then you hear things like that, and it isn’t.” You know, TV dramas about police officers usually make heroes of the police. And I did that in this, and in “Scott & Bailey,” and [recent events] have made me question that. Stories like Sarah Everard and the two sisters that were murdered, [Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry]. So, it does makes me question my decision to make heroes of the police, but not police women, because my experience of police women is that they are often very different.

And what about depicting the violence against women on screen? Have your views changed at all?

Lisa, again, made a really good point about this when we got criticized in Season 1. She said, she’s been beaten up, and was nearly killed once. And she said, you know, it does happen. It’s a bit of a whitewash if you pretend that police women don’t get beaten up within the line of duty, because they do. And they have to live with it and have to cope with it. And I think we did that very responsibly when it did happen to Catherine [in Season 1]. She was in hospital for several weeks. She became very depressed after it. She didn’t get up and rush herself down and carry on. I think we responsibly showed the consequences of what can happen when people are involved in extreme violence. I mean, I hate violence on screen as much as the next person, in terms of the sorts of superfluous, horrible, people being smacked in the mouth and then smacking someone else in the mouth. And then they have another fight. That’s what I find irresponsible and stupid — when we never see any consequences from it.

James Norton returns as an imprisoned Tommy Lee Royce in Season 3.

It sounds like, from what you’ve implied, that you’re not going to leave anything left unsaid by the end of this season. How did you make that decision?

I couldn’t decide whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about life. And so, you know, I did make a clear decision on which way to go.

And with this season, you were working with BBC Studios-owned Lookout Point, which is obviously different from Studiocanal’s Red, which produced the first two. What was it like switching gears with a different production company?

Well, “Happy Valley” has always been a tough show to make. And it’s always been tough — all for different reasons. All three seasons have been really tough shoots. Beyond that, I really don’t want to say anything else about that. It’s just the nature of the beast. You wouldn’t know, hopefully, watching this that any of them have been tough shoots, but they’ve all been tough shoots.

Were you directing at all on this season? Because that’s something you’ve been doing more of in your recent shows, isn’t it?

I co-directed the first three episodes of this season.

Ah, brilliant. So it really does seem like directing is very much part of what you’re doing going forward – both directing and writing?

Hopefully. I mean, I wasn’t supposed to be directing this season, but I had to step in.

What was it like having AMC as your broadcast partner on Season 3? What kinds of notes did you get from them?

AMC were on board right from the beginning. They’ve been great. [I received] very good notes, actually. They’re usually very poignant, and there aren’t many of them. And very similar to the BBC, actually. So it was a good relationship.

I also wanted to ask you about “Gentleman Jack,” which was canceled by HBO recently. Do you reckon it might land somewhere else? Are you shopping it elsewhere?

There are ongoing efforts to find finance. I don’t want to be too optimistic, for my own sake, but it’s looking like there are possible routes at the moment. I would personally love to be able to get back into [Ann Lister’s] diaries and tell the rest of that story. She’s just such an extraordinary, uplifting, engaging, inspiring woman. The response we’ve had to the show is just extraordinary. It’s kind of weird that [HBO] pulled out. I just think the show didn’t do as well in America as it did here, which is frustrating because I’ve had so many people from America be in touch. It’s had an extraordinary effect.

Is the BBC in for another season if you do find a new partner?

Oh, yeah. Charlotte Moore at the BBC has been really clear that she really doesn’t want it to stop. I mean, our execs at HBO didn’t really want [to cancel it]. I don’t think it was their immediate decision. There were politics that were going on with Warner Bros. Discovery. Things that were way above my head, which I didn’t understand.

“Happy Valley” Season 3 returns to BBC One on New Year’s Day at 9 p.m. A U.S. release date on AMC+ has yet to be confirmed but will likely be later in the year.