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An ode to Happy Valley’s Catherine Cawood: The best main character in British TV history

The toughest hero on telly is a middle aged woman from Yorkshire


You could probably count on your hand the amount of great TV shows where, unquestionably, the best character is the lead. Off the top of my head, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a prime example – but another is Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley lead: Sergeant Catherine Cawood. In what is the product of a perfect cocktail of Sally Wainwright screenwriting and Sarah Lancashire’s acting prowess, Catherine Cawood is the kind of lead role that you feel like cheering for after every line she says, and no matter how great the subplots are you watch episodes counting the seconds til she’s back on screen chewing up that Yorkshire scenery. But what is it that makes Catherine so great? Here’s my ode to Catherine Cawood, the best thing about Happy Valley and the greatest lead to a British TV drama in decades.

Northern powerhouse

Perhaps it’s my own personal affinity with the north (I’m from Manchester) that makes me love shows set up here above all else, but Sally Wainwright in all her shows really nails the writing of these northern powerhouse women like only someone born and raised in West Yorkshire can. The first key to how great Catherine Cawood is as a lead character is how real she feels, how lived in Lancashire makes her when she comes alive and kicks in a door or gives Ryan a hug.

What makes Catherine so great is that she’s as tangible as she is heroic. We all know her, or someone of the same ilk. It’s a believable hero that we can root for, relate to and feel at home with. That’s a hard thing to pen and act.

She’s flawed

I have no interest in watching heroes who overcome everything with ease, who are unphased and unblemished. Catherine Cawood is a woman ruled by grief and revenge, as one would be enduring the hell she has endured. This makes her a bit of a live wire, it makes her rash. She’s also not always the most pleasant person on earth – she lacks tact, she’s blunt, she’s savage.

But these things make her well rounded and human. She’s a machine when she needs to be, but she isn’t untouchably great either. She goes rogue, she acts dangerously but these all exist amongst the traits that make her a hero to root for.

You can be a middle aged mum and an action hero at the same time

But these things make her well rounded and human. She’s a machine when she needs to be, but she isn’t untouchably great either. She goes rogue, she acts dangerously but these all exist amongst the traits that make her a hero to root for.

You can be a middle aged mum and an action hero at the same time

What I love so much about her is that she is so tough, a literally door-bursting-down guns blazing action hero but still comes home and pops on the slow cooker and has a brew. She’s your mum and the toughest weapon at your disposal simultaneously, and I think what Sally Wainwright and Sarah Lancashire do with Catherine is show everyone you don’t need to be a man, or a size  six young model to be the tough hero of a story like this.

When Catherine Cawood storms into a room all heads turn because she’s a force to be reckoned with. She’s an icon, which is why I was in full Cath costume for an ‘icons’ themed fancy dress party last month…

There’s not been a character like this on telly for a long time, but with Happy Valley coming to its permanent end on Sunday I hope the wonder of Catherine Cawood and Sally Wainwright’s writing inspires more TV creators to tell stories with unlikely heroes at the forefront. Up the mums, up the north, up the Sarah, Sally and Catherine.

Happy Valley season three airs Sundays at 9pm on BBC One, but you can refresh yourself by watching the boxset on iPlayer.

All images courtesy of BBC.

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