I did not watch Happy Valley when it first came out. I was living in Los Angeles at the time. In fact, I only recently got around to it – just a week before the new series came out. It was recommended to me by a close friend, but I always thought it looked too gloomy. But I went back to the first series and after a few minutes I was hooked. It’s absolutely grim as hell, but it’s also brilliant in a way that only a North British drama can be. You have rain, you get a background that flits between beautiful landscapes, concrete council estates and cozy cottages. You get accents, a mix of cultures, families sitting down for “tea” in the evenings. Not their “dinner” like they do in the south.
And that’s before you get into acting. Sarah Lancashire is off the charts. I know Sergeant Catherine Cawood – she’s as real as any of the women I grew up with on a council estate in Leeds. She has flaws, she’s tough, she’s morally solid, and she doesn’t give a damn what people think of her (except the people she loves). I am impressed by all the actors, from James Norton and Siobhan Finneran to Con O’Neill and Ishia Bennison. I want to name each one because, like Catherine, I know all these people. They are completely true to life, true to my northern soul.
But season three is everything to me. I went through an abusive 10-year marriage where, at my worst, most desperate and isolated, I started drinking and taking drugs to self-medicate. I wrote about it in my book Brutally honestbecause nobody talked about it. This coping mechanism can increase shame, guilt, and powerlessness, but over 60 percent of abused women self-medicate because their lives are hell. So when Mollie Winnard (as Joanna) came on screen – glassy eyes and battered, with a low level of horror oozing from her pores – this wasn’t the woman I knew, this was the woman I was.
Given the opportunity for a concerned Catherine to speak openly about her abusive husband, Joanna said nothing. She sat silently as I did when the lovely police officer PC Cunningham sat by my bedside in 2014 after I overdosed. He knew something was seriously wrong. He gently asked me questions about my relationship, but he couldn’t make me talk. So nine years later, I’m sitting on a sofa in Leeds and I want Joanna to talk, but I know she won’t because life – bullying – isn’t that simple. This is not how things are. These scenes made my blood run cold because they were so incredibly real that I wanted to call the writer and creator, Sally Wainwright, to tell her how much it touched me.
When I wrote my book in 2017, most publishers turned it down because they didn’t find domestic violence an enjoyable topic. Conversations about motherhood, self-medication, the grim reality of everyday life – it was already too much. When it was finally published in 2018, Teresa Parker of the domestic violence charity Women’s Aid told me it was the most realistic account of abuse she had ever read. It was real. My story, however glamorous it was, was the same as any woman like Joanna. I became their patron and now I talk about the epidemic of violence against women in our society at conferences in parliament. I received my MBE not for being a Spice Girl, but for the work I did for Women’s Aid. I used my voice.
In the last five years, we’ve actually started talking about domestic violence. I am proud to be one of the voices breaking the silence. And Sally Wainwright should be too. Abuse is not the main storyline happy valley, it is sewn as a bright red thread into the stitching of the story. And that’s exactly how it is in life. It’s sand on the road, a crack in the ceiling.
Joanna dies a violent death on her kitchen floor – not literally at the hands of her husband, but undeniably because of the relentless cycle of abuse she was in. I was terrified when I saw it. But I also felt strangely triumphant that Winnard’s portrayal was so real and that the reality of domestic violence had become an integral part of mainstream drama. we talk. We watch. Thank you Happy Valley.
Happy Valley airs Sunday nights at 9pm on BBC One
Melanie Brown – Mel B – is the patron Help for women
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247 or visit their website here.
If you have been affected by this article, you can contact the following organizations for help: actionaddiction.org.uk, mind.org.uk, nhs.uk/livewell/mentalhealth, mental health.org.uk.