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TV review: Happy Valley, and Britain’s Most Notorious Prisons: Wormwood Scrubs

27 January 2023

BBC/Lookout Point/Matt Squire

Sgt Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley (BBC 1, Sundays)

Sgt Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley (BBC 1, Sundays)

SARAH LANCASHIRE’s Sgt Catherine Cawood towered over this week’s television in Happy Valley (BBC1, Sundays). Whether in uniform with hi-vis vest, bristling with phones and restraining tools of the trade, or autumnal jackets and scarfs thrown on to run to the shops, Cawood dominates every Happy Valley scene. After last week’s storyline-heavy Episode 3, overdosing on thoughtless blabbing as a plot device, Sunday’s show demonstrated writer Sally Wainwright returning to incredible form.

Opening with low-ranking criminals Ivan and Matja contemplating their fate for failing their boss, the focus moves to Cawood’s recovering addict sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran), trying to rebuild their sibling relationship and telling the weary copper “I love you.” The frame then widens with the consequences of Ivan and Matja’s failure colliding with the fallout from Clare’s betrayal.

As Cawood’s premonition of her family’s nemesis Tommy Lee Boyce (James Norton) escaping court custody, and being on the loose to track them down, comes true, a strand centred on prescription drug addiction and coercive control also takes a terrifying twist. Suddenly, the machinations of missing-persons procedures crashes into the life of an abusive husband. And, somehow, Ms Wainwright also fits into 60 minutes touching vignettes of a former prisoner, Alison Garrs, working on the old Land Rover that Cawood plans to drive to the Himalayas for her imminent retirement.

This is coupled with the desk officer’s announcing that she had collected more than £2000 for the sergeant’s leaving present. “Even people she arrested contributed.”

Happy Valley’s deft change of gear from individual foibles to family relationships operating within a matrix of social institutions and pressures, to organised crime and its interface with everyday life, is what makes it so enjoyable. And its world of clunky cars, chain-store clothes, and faltering articulacy in the face of shared human dilemmas makes it eminently believable.

Honour among thieves has been distinctly absent from the West Yorkshire drama, but the two reformed inmates in Britain’s Most Notorious Prisons: Wormwood Scrubs gave hope for redemption. Marvin Herbert and Noel “Razor” Smith spoke about the violence and drugs endemic in the prison system.

Mr Herbert outlined his cycle of crime and prison sentences running parallel to his belief that he was on track to be a criminal mastermind, and lawbreaking would make him rich. Removing his glass eye and showing it to the camera, he recalled the fight and injuries which set him on a new path. Now, he works with schools, demonstrating that crime does not pay.

Alongside the musician Pete Doherty’s possible behind-bars drug use and the spy George Blake’s escape, the documentary’s most shocking revelation was that, until late 1990s, Wormwood Scrubs prisoners had limited bathroom access. “Three hundred men slopping out is a smell you never forget,” a former Security Governor, Vanessa Frake-Harris, recalled.

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