ONCE upon a time people watched  TV for the entire evening, maybe with the Radio Times or the RTÉ Guide  giving some hints about channel choice. No more. Netflix, Amazon Prime, iPlayer, All4, Disney+  – these treasure-houses have changed everything. Now we watch what we want to, when we want to. 

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I come late to the Happy Valley party and would have missed it entirely if it wasn’t for iPlayer.

There are three series and from a standing start I’ve just finished series 2. It’s gripping but far from escapist TV, as is often the case when British dramas have good direction and superb acting.

And writing. Sally Wainwright – who also directs – knows the West Yorkshire dialect wonderfully well. And there’s a lot of it. For the first time ever, I found myself switching on sub-titles so I could guess what was meant by statements like "Us mam goin’ t’give yo’ a right tumpin’."

The series centres on Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), a police sergeant in West Yorkshire. She’s divorced and lives with her sister Clare, who’s  a recovering alcoholic and heroin user. Catherine’s daughter Becky was raped eight years earlier and killed herself a few weeks after giving birth to a son. Catherine has cared for the boy, who in series 1 and 2 is eight. (He's 17 in series 3, ach sin sceal eile.)

That’s the domestic. The public police plot follows the abduction of Anne Gallagher, the daughter of a rich local businessman.

Like real-life, Happy Valley is not for sissies. That’s not to say there’s an excess of gore, but the deviousness and the evil that radiates from some characters, and the way others slide from decency into evil, taking in minor lies and deceit en route, is totally credible.

Wainwright’s  script never takes the easy way out. One small example: two police officers, one black and one white,  are bawled out by Sergeant Catherine for sloppy investigative work. Instead of falling into virtue signalling, with the black cop led astray by the white one, writer Wainwright makes it clear it’s the black cop who’s the slacker. 

With Catherine a veteran police sergeant, the plot is allowed to travel along several different lines at the same time. There’s a detective who’s being blackmailed, a serial rapist who mutilates the bodies of his victims, Catherine’s sister Clare who wobbles and falls off the wagon. All of this with a script that’s strong and terse, held together by the central character Catherine. 

Tight dialogue, an intricate plot,  an inspired setting – this is British TV drama at its best.  Stop saying "There’s nothing on telly." Go to iPlayer and start Happy Valley at episode 1 series 1. You’ll be glad you did.