It’s time for another match-up between female TV detectives — this battle sees Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison of the pioneering Prime Suspect taking on the formidable force of Sergeant Catherine Cawood from Happy Valley.
We came to know Jane Tennison of London’s Metropolitan Police, memorably played by Helen Mirren, through six series of gripping cases (1991-2003), all of them well plotted and superbly acted. As one of the first female Detective Chief Inspectors, Tennison fights against the entrenched sexism of a predominantly male service and holds her own. Professional success is her driving force, and she pursues it at the expense of her personal life.
To date, there have been only two series of Happy Valley (2014, 2016) in which to become acquainted with West Yorkshire police sergeant Catherine Cawood (a knock-out performance by Sarah Lancashire). And yet Catherine makes an emotional impact and seizes our imagination in a way which Jane Tennison never does.
I should point out that this isn’t, strictly speaking, a contest between two detectives as Catherine Cawood is a uniformed sergeant rather than an official detective rank but her scope definitely exceeds her work description.
Catherine’s work life is inextricably linked with her personal life. She brings a new twist to the familiar single-parent-valiantly-coping stock character.
She’s a divorced single woman holding together a household which consists of her grandson Ryan and sister Clare, a recovering drug and alcohol addict. Ryan is the son of Catherine’s daughter, who killed herself shortly after he was born. Ryan’s father is Tommy Lee Royce, an extraordinarily nasty and dangerous piece of work.
With Catherine, we’re not talking about amusing juggling of domestic and professional duties, we’re talking about a tough life lived with fierce determination to protect and nourish the damaged, vulnerable people in her care while fighting her own demons of rage and despair.
In Prime Suspect, the crimes under investigation reveal the dark side of contemporary society. Social issues of racism, child abuse, deaths in police custody, institutionalised sexism, abuse of power, political cover-ups, underage prostitution, war crimes, genocide are among some of the issues which are highlighted and explored in Jane Tennison’s pursuit of justice.
In Happy Valley, which is set in a troubled but bleakly beautiful area of Yorkshire in the North of England, criminal investigations into murder, kidnapping, drug-offences, human trafficking bring us face-to-face not only with the damage caused by lawbreakers, but also with the damage inflicted by families on each other.
We see parents, children, grandchildren suffering from the effects of crime, and we are drawn into a world where there is often no black and white, where good people do bad things and bad people are complex individuals who may at some point, in other circumstances, have earned redemption.
Both Happy Valley and Prime Suspect present fully realised worlds. All of these have their own rules and customs, their own players, their own language and terms of reference.
Tennison’s job brings her into contact with many closed circles – the world of prostitution and pornography, the world of the country club, the worlds of gangs and child molesters, and over-arching everything, the world of the police service. When these worlds collide, it is through criminal activity, the only uniting factor.
Catherine Cawood’s world has similar factions, but it is more cohesive and as an entity, more engaging. Lives meet and intertwine as they do naturally when people share spaces. So it makes sense that Catherine’s sister Clare’s new boyfriend is someone she went to school with, and that he has had a relationship with the woman who meets her fate at the hands of one of Catherine’s colleagues.
The nature and atmosphere of a small town in the Calder Valley is vividly evoked through the shots of the houses and the town and the moors. People speak with distinctive regional accents and a robust idiom. They have allotments and backyards and lived-in homes.
The lack of meaningful, sustained relationships in Jane Tennison’s life is relentlessly hammered home. Time and time again she chooses work over love. This theme is drawn very broad strokes, as when her colleague Richard goes home to be with his children — yes, yes, we get it. Jane has a distant relationship with her father, and when he dies, her sisters tell her that he was proud of her, but she was never around. Jane doesn’t play nicely at work, either. No heart-to-hearts in the cloakroom. No bonding. In some ways her treatment of female colleagues emulates the behaviour and attitudes of the male officers. She calls the WPC in the Vice division ‘love’ and tells her to make coffee.
We may feel a kind of grudging respect for Jane Tennison, but would you want her as your boss? Maybe not.
But you could hack Catherine, couldn’t you? Especially if being on her team meant nights out at the local club, drinking red wine and tequila shots and watching an Abba tribute band.
Jane Tennison’s character and narrative arc are compelling television, but strangely one-dimensional. When she bows out she is lonely, depressed and alcoholic, an end which becomes increasingly inevitable as the series progresses, and which has the unsatisfactory whiff of a morality tale.
Catherine Cawood, on the other hand, while lacking the series of powerful, attractive and successful lovers who people Jane’s life, has familial, personal and social connections which are tough and lasting. They are undoubtedly messy. When we first meet her she’s having sex with her ex and is estranged from her adult son. She rows with her sister Clare and threatens to throw her out, but at the same time loves and protects her, warning her new fella not to break Clare’s heart. Catherine is blunt, outspoken and uncompromising, a flawed character whose humanity and humour illuminate the screen.
One episode in particular illustrates the complexity and magnificence of Catherine’s character.
Warning: Spoiler Alert
The strange and troubled young man, Daryl, is revealed as a killer. The scene builds up as we see Daryl’s mother Alison realising what Daryl has done, and watch her prepare his favourite fried breakfast, talking to him as he eats it with relish. The talk is strange — a road trip in America, a visit to Vegas — and as Alison gets the shotgun, the homage to John Steinbeck’s Mice and Men seeps into your consciousness and you realise with horror what is about to happen. Just as Steinbeck’s George soothes his friend Lenny with stories of a Utopian, safe farm before he shoots him to save him from a worse fate, so Alison kills her son to save him from the prison he wouldn’t survive.
And Catherine has to arrest her. She does so while cradling Alison in her arms, her face and voice expressing the bewilderment and compassion of someone who knows what it is to love and lose a child, who understands the drive to protect those close to you, and whose job it is to put into practice the law which is there for the protection of everybody.
The winner? It’s got to be Catherine Cawood. Female TV cops have come a long way since Prime Suspect.
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