It’s not every day you get to talk to an award-winning writer who is right at the top of their game, but that’s what The Killing Times did last week. Sally Wainwright is currently wowing all and sundry with her dark tale of kidnap and traumatic road to redemption, Happy Valley. Like most Wainwright dramas it starts off with one foot in one genre but ends up something much, much more. From At Home With The Braithwaites, Unforgiven, Scott & Bailey to the BAFTA-winning Last Tango In Halifax, Wainwright’s skill in wringing every last drop of tension from scenes while imbuing her characters with a supreme realness and believability has been her hallmark. Happy Valley is a continuation of her fine work, and it’s starting to get some momentum – people are starting to talk about it and starting to go to work the morning after the latest episode and say to their colleagues, “Did you SEE that?!” So after a stunner of a third episode what better time to speak with Sally? She proved to be engaging and insightful, and her words are after the jump.
The Killing Times: So, that third episode then…
Sally Wainwright: Yes, oh yes. It was quite dramatic!
TKT: There were some stunningly powerful scenes in that one, not least when Tommy ran over Kirsten. What made you take that decision?
SW: I’m struggling to remember it was so long since I wrote it! I’ve written so many other things since then! But yes… Kirsten’s death did a number of things. It illustrated how cold and ruthless Tommy really is (as if we didn’t know already!) but what he did to Kirsten was so spontaneous but calculating at the same time. He utilised what he had and what he had was a car. And he used it as a weapon. Also… dramatically, the point of it took Catherine another notch down into the process of having a nervous breakdown. Some people have misinterpreted what’s happening to her. She’s basically having panic attacks. When she’s hallucinating and seeing her daughter she’s having a panic attack and as someone who has suffered from panic attacks I know you can momentarily see things that aren’t there. It’s not exactly an hallucination; it’s brought about by the huge amounts of stress she’s under. Kirsten’s death was part and parcel of the drama and the stress of what Catherine is under.
TKT: Kirsten’s death also seemed to raise the stakes…
SW: So the police now are looking for a murderer. The stakes are indeed a lot higher!
TKT: That first 20 minutes of episode three was extremely powerful television…
SW: What I thought was quite ingenious about the drama is that at the moment Catherine isn’t actually investigating the crime that we’re dramatising. She doesn’t officially start investigating it until next week in episode four. Essentially it’s a detective matter but she’s not a detective matter at the moment. But by pursuing Tommy, or wanting to find him, she has unwittingly been investigating something she hasn’t even been aware that she’s been investigating!
TKT: The thing I’m enjoying is that it’s classic suspense writing: everyone knows what has happened to Anne, except for Catherine. And we’re following her as she slowly begins to uncover the crime. How do you keep those plates spinning and keep everyone on the edge of their seats?
SW: I think it’s just clever structure. I work very hard on structure and storytelling. As a TV writer I find writing dialogue second nature. It’s just something I can do. I find creating characters comes pretty easily as well. But structure and storytelling I have to work really hard on, because they don’t come easy to me. It’s just hard work. To really make sure you tell each beat of the story in exactly the right… the director of this episode restructured it in the edit and he totally fucked it up. Most directors think they know more than I do. And the whole point of the way it had been structured was that it didn’t evolve like a typical police series and every episode has a very different feel to it. It’s not a procedural; it’s not a weekly whodunit. Each episode has a very distinct feel and quality all of its own. One of the things that was unique in episode three was the way we told the story. We jump around – from Catherine seeing Kirsten’s body on the road we jump forward five hours to see her telling her sister about what happened. Then the panic attacks… I’ve never panic attacks dramatised before. I’ve seen post traumatic stress, but never panic attacks. Horrible moments. So the structure is something I worked really hard on and it’s that structure that creates the tension.
TKT: You’re famous for your multi-faceted characters. How do you begin to create them?
SW: I’m not sure to be honest. I think characters tend to come whole to me. I know very quickly who they are. Some characters you never get to know them and you feel you never quite get a feel for them. And I don’t why they come so complete to me, but it’s not something I’m ever conscious of ever having to work too hard at. One thing I learned when I wrote Unforgiven actually is how useful it is to have one person’s story start much earlier. Like in Unforgiven, Ruth’s story started 15 years earlier when she was in prison, and in Last Tango Alan and Celia’s story started 60 years before when they first fell in love. With Happy Valley, Catherine’s story starts eight years ago when Becky died. It’s something I’ve only become aware of in the past few years; how you can give a character so much more depth. What’s happening to them now is a product of what happened to them a long time ago.
TKT: Is Happy Valley essentially a story of redemption? Is Catherine, still so traumatised by the death of her daughter, using the search for Anne to find closure to her own problems?
SW: It is, but I don’t think she becomes obsessed because she doesn’t Anne’s missing yet! She kind of comes across her by accident. Once does find Anne it does become about redemption. The way episode four ends… well it’s like Catherine looks upon her own daughter. Hopefully there is something about redemption in there for Catherine.
TKT: I read somewhere that you described Happy Valley as a cross between Juliet Bravo and Fargo, which I thought was brilliant. The are certainly similarities with Fargo. Is Kevin’s plan for the kidnapping motivated by greed?
SW: I don’t think it is actually. I know a couple of people who have reviewed think it is and think the storyline is ridiculous (The Times were very rude about it), but I think that’s quite a superficial reason for doing it. It isn’t like he’s just decided to blackmail his boss to get money for his children’s school. Again there’s a grievance that goes back to his father’s time. His father had been cheated out of the company. And he’s also a man under huge stress – his wife has multiple sclerosis… he’s a man with a lot to deal with. It’s not just his children’s future but he’s wondering of his wife’s going to die. I don’t’ think he does it out of greed; I think he does it out of love. I think he’s misguided and he’s naïve. I think he’s human and you can actually empathise with him a bit. I don’t think he’s a bad man but he’s done what he’s done because of anger. But it’s a deep-seated anger with him, and not just to do with the fact he didn’t get the money from his boss to send his kids to a posh school.
TKT: And then there’s Tommy. The power dynamic between the three kidnappers has shifted…
SW: It was just working on the story and at some point I thought the dynamic between the three men was interesting. He’s the junior and been given a job recently. Lewis appears to be Ashley’s number two but then Tommy slowly takes over. By episode three and four he’s threatening Ashley. It was interesting to me to show the shifting power between them.
TKT: Am I right in guessing that pretty soon this becomes strictly between Catherine and Tommy?
SW: Yes. It becomes very personal. Episodes five and six it becomes very intense. Very intense between the two.
TKT: What’s next for you? I hear there’s a new series of Scott & Bailey just around the corner…
SW: I’m not involved Scott & Bailey anymore, I’m just Executive Producing. I’m writing series three of Last Tango… I directed episode four of Happy Valley so I’ve been in and out of the edit suite. Directing was a wonderful experience, I loved it. I’m going to do it again definitely, but it’s difficult because I’ve got so many writing commitments. So Last Tango 3 is coming and we start filming in June. Hopefully that will air in December in the lead-up to Christmas like last year.
TKT: Do you feel any extra pressure now you’re a BAFTA winner and so critically acclaimed?
SW: I think because I work hard and because I work with Nicola Shindler (Red Productions) and we’re perfectionists and if you know that you’ve worked hard and done your best and you’re proud of the product you’re ok. The only time I get nervous is the day before transmission. That’s when you know even though you love it, people might just not get it. And it might get bad viewing figures and people might say rude things about it. I’ve been very lucky over the past four years or so that everything I’ve written has been really well received. I’ve had programmes on in the past that haven’t been as well received and I know how awful it can be. That’s the only time I feel pressure.
Happy Valley: Tuesdays, 9pm, BBC1