Towards the end of last year, I watched Happy Valley, a BBC crime drama written by Sally Wainwright and set in North Yorkshire. Series 1 aired in April 2014; series 2 aired in February 2016: both are available on Netflix. There are lots of reasons to recommend it but I want to focus on just one aspect of its success. And being an early modernist, I want to link it back to sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. Like the domestic tragedies of Elizabethan and Jacobean London, Happy Valley contends that tragedy happens to ordinary people too. Even ones from Yorkshire.
The early modern plays we now tend to think of as being domestic tragedies (as is often the case, the generic term was coined much later) contested a popular association of tragedy with royalty. Early modern dramatic theorists – many of whom, rather unhelpfully, were antitheatricalists – tend to assume that comedy is the preserve of the everyday and that tragedies were things that happened to kings. The tragedies of the period don’t really accord to these narrow definitions, but nor do they necessarily make it their business to challenge them. But in domestic tragedies like Arden of Faversham (recently attributed, in part, to Shakespeare), lower born figures were made the subject of tragedy. In these plays, the dignity of tragedy is conferred upon the everyday.
Tragedy does not seem to be a generic classification any more: a quick browse on Netflix reveals a variety of different genres – ‘Crime, Action & Adventure’; ‘Cop TV Shows’; ‘Films Featuring a Strong Female Lead’ – but Tragedy is not one of them. Nonetheless, the prevailing sense is that ‘serious’ drama, whatever that might be, is more important than comedy. And serious dramas tend not be set in Yorkshire; their protagonists do not usually have strong regional accents. Happy Valley riffs on the popular Nordic Noir genre which itself draws on older traditions, but rather than opting to set her cop noir in a gritty urban location, perhaps in a major city, Wainwright chose the Calder Valley. The Yorkshire accents are important because regional accents are often mocked or thought indecorous. The clip below, taken from a routine by Michael McIntyre, a popular UK comedian, is one example of the kind of mockery regional accents receive. It’s lighthearted and was apparently enjoyed by its Yorkshire audience, but the cumulative effect of such acts of mockery is to reinforce the sense that regional accents and serious, tragic, art, are incompatible. By challenging this commonplace prejudice Happy Valley participates in a tragic tradition that animated some of the finest writers of the English Renaissance.
In 1605, Thomas Middleton wrote a short play based on a contemporary account of murders committed in Calverley, West Yorkshire, on 23 April of the same year. The title of that play, A Yorkshire Tragedy confers the dignity of tragedy upon those events. The indefinite article suggests a lack of specificity, that this is one tragedy among several, but it is telling that the events are described as a tragedy at all, given the genre’s longstanding associations. The indefinite article is a riposte to tragic expectation; the titles of tragedies typically announce themselves with the definite article: The Spanish Tragedy, The Moor of Venice, The Tragedy of King Lear. The title of A Yorkshire Tragedy signals the play as different from the convention. But the indefinite article does not invalidate tragedy. That Yorkshire is in the title of the play is significant too. At a time when plays imagining the grotesque courts of European cities were becoming increasingly popular, A Yorkshire Tragedy offered a reminder that tragedy could be found further away from the centre of power and closer to home. In writing the play Middleton contributed to the genre of domestic tragedy, following in the footsteps of writers like Thomas Heywood, whose A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603) is set in Yorkshire rather than the Italy of its source material.
Before saying a bit more about how Happy Valley conceives of tragic experience in a way that seems, to me at least, reminiscent of early modern domestic tragedy, I need to issue a SPOILER. The scene I will talk about occurs in Series 1 Episode 4. It’s a wonderful and surprising episode and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who may want to watch it, but there’s no way of discussing it without mentioning some significant plot details. In the scene in question, Catherine (Sarah Lancashire), the police sergeant protagonist, rightly suspects something is not well with Helen (Jill Baker) who had tried to get in touch with her the previous day. Catherine is right that Helen is restless but her suspicion that she is the victim of domestic abuse is wrong. The full script of the episode is available here, but the extract below details the exchange:
Look, I don’t want to over step the
mark. And I’m sorry if I’ve got the
wrong end of the stick, but last
night. When you said, “I’m with my
husband” it occurred to me that
maybe you couldn’t speak, and maybe
that was your way of telling me,
and I wouldn’t be doing my job
properly if I didn’t ask, and –
No. My husband isn’t hurting me.
Are you sure?
I know people think he’s a bit of a
rough diamond – and he is!
(she manages a smile)
– but not like that. He’d never do
something like that.
It takes all sorts.
You really have got the wrong end
of the stick.
It’s not always easy to acknowledge
things sometimes, it’s not
something that it’s easy to face up
to, and –
It’s very kind of you to be
concerned. But you really have got
the wrong end of the stick.
CATHERINE’s not convinced.
Silence. They’re looking straight at one another. CATHERINE’s
giving her a chance to tell her the truth; that he is hurting
her. CATHERINE’s just about to speak again when –
My daughter’s been kidnapped.
HELEN can’t believe she’s said it. CATHERINE can’t quite
believe she’s heard it. CLARE comes over and puts a mug down
in front of CATHERINE.
The careful ratcheting of tension leading to Helen’s revelation is followed, seconds later, by the arrival of Catherine’s sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran). It is a comic, potentially bathetic moment; the oblivious Clare punctures the tension with an inappropriate response. But the inappropriateness of the response is part of the point: the cup of tea is comically inadequate in the face of impending tragedy. It’s tempting to register a grim joke here about the stereotypically British– and perhaps especially, Yorkshire – psyche; many a novelty mug has attested that tea solves everything, but it doesn’t save kidnapped daughters. By the same token, it’s also true that the making and drinking of tea is part of how people begin to confront grief, loss, horror, and despair. Clare’s cheery declaration is at once inappropriate and apt; it doesn’t attenuate tragedy, if anything, it accentuates it. It marks out Happy Valley as a modern domestic tragedy, interested in the ordinariness of tea, as well as the extraordinariness of murder.