Why Happy Valley’s no-nonsense copper played by Sarah Lancashire is a heroine for our times, writes Special Constable PENNY LANCASTER, aka Mrs Rod Stewart
Full disclosure: I’m the viewer from hell when it comes to watching police dramas on TV. My husband Rod (yes, Stewart) says I spoil them because, as a special constable myself, I’m always yelling ‘That wouldn’t happen!’, or being pedantic about procedure.
So hurrah for Happy Valley, the only police drama I can remember in recent years that has me whooping with delight rather than shouting at the TV.
It’s one of the few shows featuring police officers that tells the truth — the whole messy, wonderful truth — about what it is to be a police officer, particularly a female one in her 50s, who clocks off at the end of a shift (yet never really clocks off) and goes home to an all-too-authentic family.
I do not have the sort of complicated and tragic home life the show’s heroine Sgt Catherine Cawood does (God forbid anyone would), but as someone who knows what it is to don that high-vis vest and big boots, I can say this: Catherine is my heroine.
Penny Lancaster said: ‘It’s one of the few shows featuring police officers that tells the truth — the whole messy, wonderful truth’
That woman rocks. Even Rod — who has been known to glaze over when I go on about policing — adores her.
Those leadership skills. That tone of voice. The way she walks — slowly, never rattled, showing that she has power but never abusing it. It’s like a masterclass in all the things you learn during police training, mixed in with the vast life skills she has developed along the way. I know she’s an invention, but she’s real to me.
In my house, we were Happy Valley virgins until this year. The first two series of the show somehow passed us by, but we settled down to watch this time, and gosh, was I hooked from the off.
The first scene had Catherine, played by the brilliant Sarah Lancashire, clumping through the mud after arriving first at a crime scene when a partial skeleton was found at a reservoir. Her (patronising, sexist) male detective colleagues came to take over, laughing when she tells them the deceased is a man. ‘What’s his favourite sandwich?’, they joked.
She didn’t flinch or break her stride. She didn’t confront them or even try to belittle them with her superior knowledge.
She just matter-of-factly, even nonchalantly, told them who the deceased was, and when he’d probably died, based on her intimate knowledge of local criminal activity.
‘You might want to check this out. I’ll leave it with you . . .’ she said, casually providing them with all her years of experience. Then she strode off, muttering ‘Twats’ under her breath. I think I did actually clap at that.
From what I hear, there was a round of applause from women across the country. The clip has spawned some extremely handy emojis, and the inspirational quote ‘Be More Catherine’, which is not a bad motto to live by, for any woman-of-a-certain-age, police officer or not.
It was a genius piece of writing by Sally Wainwright because this is what brilliant women who are brilliant at their jobs do.
This is a woman who doesn’t have anything to prove, doesn’t have time for silly power games.
Everything about her says ‘I know what I am doing but I don’t have to show off about it’.
Woe betide anyone who thinks they can get one over on a Catherine Cawood.
I’m now committed, a Happy Valley addict. Rod is, too.
Sir Rod Stewart is a big fan of the television programme. Pictured: Penny Lancaster and Sir Rod Stewart
He and I went straight back to binge-watch the first two series and he can’t bear it if I watch without him. He’ll say ‘I’m going to have a bath. Pause it. Don’t watch any more’. I tried to watch another few episodes before I wrote this, and he was not pleased. Granted, there are parts that can’t have made for comfortable viewing for him, knowing that I’m sometimes in similar situations.
In an earlier series, Catherine nearly dies and in one episode she ends up with a bloodied nose after grappling on the ground with a suspect. That has never happened to me, but it’s a very real reminder that it could. You put your life on the line with every shift, and you never know where the threat is going to come from.
Obviously, I’m not Catherine. Although we are a similar age —I’m 51, six years younger than her 57 — she’s way ahead of me in terms of experience and years in the job. She’s a career copper.
Unusually, I only joined the force when I was 50 and even then in extraordinary circumstances — after taking part in a reality-style TV show about policing. She’s a regular officer; I’m a ‘special’. Although I have the same powers as regular officers, I work on a voluntary basis, committing to 200 hours a year, or roughly one shift a week.
Our ‘patches’ are very different, too. She works in rural Yorkshire; I help patrol the square mile of the City of London, almost always on foot. I’m still in my ‘personal development’ stage, which means I’m always with another officer. But even when I get to the ‘independent’ stage, I will generally not patrol alone.
We are rarely on our own, which is why I get so anxious when Catherine, and other officers in Happy Valley, are. There have been incidents where they’ve had to call for back-up from the middle of nowhere. I remember once shouting at the screen as a junior officer tried to call in a vehicle numberplate, and the operator said ‘just give me a minute’. ‘She doesn’t have a minute!’ I yelled.
Thank Goodness I’m never so exposed, back-up will never be as far away as it is in the sticks.
On a more flippant note, people have said we look similar. Is it the high-vis, lack of make-up and the scraped back hair? It’s certainly not a glamorous look and Penny on a shift looks very different to Penny on the red carpet, but that’s how it should be.
You dress to be efficient, and it’s not about you. It’s about the people you serve.
I’ve never met Sarah Lancashire but I imagine that if I ever do — on a red carpet or not — I will bore her silly about police stuff. She’ll have to say: ‘Penny, you do know, I’m an actress.’ Acting or not, I still think of Catherine as the most authentic police officer on TV.
Why? Because I know Catherines. I’ve worked with them and come off a shift thinking ‘hats off to you, Missus’. These women have earned their stripes. They have the respect of the male officers as well as the women.
Lots of them are juggling home and professional life, as Catherine does, and I think it’s a good thing that we finally see that reflected on screen. Most police dramas might give you a glimpse of the home life, but mostly it’s about the job. With Happy Valley the two run alongside each other —just as they do in real life.
So many of the skills you require as a police officer actually come from your own experience.
I think it’s why women make great officers. The first skills you need are compassion, empathy and communication — all of which you use on a daily basis as a mother. The more I do this job, the more I see the parallels.
When you deal with someone who is drunk or being silly, it is like dealing with a tantruming toddler, or at least someone who has forgotten how to behave like an adult. You don’t deal with it by shouting back at them. You de-escalate.
And I do think that I approach difficult situations at home in a different way now.
I try to make it less personal, to put myself in the other person’s (my sons’) shoes more.
‘I think it’s why women make great officers. The first skills you need are compassion, empathy and communication — all of which you use on a daily basis as a mother’
A lot of it is just about communication and basic psychology. Of course, I’m not perfect, so a row with the teenagers might still result in (me) slamming doors, but I’ve changed enough to now believe that all those basic skills you learn during police training should be taught in schools. They are life skills, too.
One thing that makes viewers warm to Catherine is exactly that — her warmth and compassion. It’s dished up with a no-nonsense vocabulary, but she treats everyone, from victims of crime to suspects, with respect and compassion, which is how it should be.
I was struck by a scene in the first series where she dealt with a suicidal man by talking to him not as a police officer, but as a woman, telling him some of her life story.
There is this idea that police officers should shy from this, but sometimes showing your own vulnerability is the best approach.
We are human. We are not perfect. Catherine’s life is not perfect. It’s a stunningly accurate character that Sally Wainwright has created. I do hope that women watching Happy Valley might be inspired to join the police. We need female officers more than ever.
Catherine shows that it’s a tough job but that women can be as tough as men and actually, a lot of the time, do the job more efficiently because of their inner strength. It’s not about bravado or flexing muscles. And while we need young women, we also need to retain the older women in the force. I’ve gone on record as saying I’d like to stay in until I am 60, which would mean doing nine years — long enough for a Long Service Medal. I haven’t heard the word menopause mentioned in Happy Valley yet, but Catherine must have experienced it. Maybe with her it didn’t touch the sides!
It’s at this age — the age where women are brimming with all this experience and expertise — that we risk losing them.
Which brings us on to Catherine’s retirement. This series opened with her revealing her plans to step down, and go off adventuring. I’m not sure how she will deal with that. She’s a copper to her boots and, even in retirement, she will want to get involved, stuck in. I think she’d find it hard to let the job go because it’s not just a job.
This is one of the things my friends find hardest about my special constable work. Because I only work part-time they consider that when I’m not in uniform I am ‘off’. They will even ask, if we are going out for a night ‘are you PC Penny tonight or Beyonce?”. But you are never really off.
In Happy Valley someone asks an off-duty Catherine for some advice, and reveals a crime in the process. That friend asks Catherine not to ‘tell the police’. ‘But you just have,’ is her response. I say this to my friends: anything sensitive, don’t tell me. Because I’d be duty-bound to report anything untoward.
Does this make me a party pooper? No! Trust me, police officers can let their hair down, and actually they need to — to get through some of the things they do.
I may only do one shift a week, on average, but the job is now a much bigger part of my life than that suggests. I’ve had a bit of a cold this week and was debating whether I should do my shift as planned. It was Rod who said to me ‘go on, darling, do it. You will feel better for it because it’s like a drug to you’. He’s right. It’s an injection. It lifts me up.
I am still very aware that I am learning, though. I know where I need to improve, too. I worry that I am perhaps too empathetic and too soft. I do need to show more strength, to deal with suspects in a more robust and efficient manner — while retaining compassion.
It’s a tricky balance but I need to Be More Catherine. Maybe we all do.
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