‘What genre of t*** calls the police on his own wife?’: Why Catherine Cawood is the best swearer on TV

‘Kiss my ample arse goodbye’: Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood, the best swearer on television  (BBC/Lookout Point/AMC/Matt Squire)
‘Kiss my ample arse goodbye’: Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood, the best swearer on television (BBC/Lookout Point/AMC/Matt Squire)

Send apologies to Succession’s Logan Roy. Tell The Thick of It’s sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker to stand down. The title of “Best Foul Mouth on TV” now undisputedly belongs to a fiftysomething police sergeant with a fondness for rainbow-knitted scarves. Over the course of three seasons of BBC One’s Happy Valley, the bulls***-averse Catherine Cawood, played with deadpan brilliance by Sarah Lancashire, has turned profanity into an eviscerating art form.

Through 17 hours (and counting) of unrelenting drama, she has grappled with everything from devastating bereavement and family trauma to wayward colleagues and recalcitrant teenagers. And every time, she has found the perfect, expletive-laden way to express herself.

Like any true maestro, Catherine has got serious range. She can coin her own insults with fluency and flair. She shoves together obscenities to bring us compound curse-word gems like “wankatron”, “s***pot” and “twat-faced bastard”, to mention just a few recent epithets for nemesis Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), the rapist and escaped convict who is the father of her grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah). She can make an innocuous playground insult sound like the most disparaging comeback: when Ryan briefly went awol in the penultimate episode, she branded her ex-husband’s second wife Ros – who was meant to be watching him – a “pissed-up, lightweight, empty-headed... noo-noo”.

She also knows that sometimes, simple is best. Take one immensely satisfying moment from season three’s opener. Catherine reckons she has correctly identified some human remains, but the mansplaining officers from CID tell her to “let the pathologist decide that”. Her response? “I’ll leave it with you,” our heroine replies. “Twats.” Cue a nation of viewers jumping off the sofa to applaud her – because who hasn’t dreamed of lobbing a well-aimed T-bomb at a smirking colleague?

Moments like this are the purest expression of Catherine’s frank, zero-f***s-given persona. As she tells her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) in the same episode, now that she’s approaching retirement, she is finally “becoming the person who I’ve always wanted to be. I don’t take s*** off anybody no more, I say it like it is, and I know who I am”. She calls people out on their crap with a few carefully chosen four-letter words, rarely needing to raise the volume by even a decibel. And she voices the workplace grievances that most of us would just leave as passive-aggressive subtext. Not bad for “Ryan’s little old granny”, as she ironically refers to herself. It’s certainly liberating to watch a middle-aged woman who couldn’t care less about being liked.

Catherine can make harsh, plosive expletives sing with anger, disgust, even affection. When she tells her fellow officer Shaf (Shane Zaza) that he’s “a proper, consummate, nosy bastard”, it becomes the highest form of praise. Turning a scathing insult into a term of endearment is, of course, a time-honoured Northern tradition – it’s all in the flat vowels. Sometimes, she provides a much-needed jolt of silliness. Who else would allude to her impending retirement by telling colleagues: “On Thursday, you can kiss my ample arse goodbye”? When Happy Valley first aired in 2014, creator Sally Wainwright told The Guardian that she had “always planned to alternate really dark scenes with comic ones”, and that in future seasons, she’d “like to get that balance better”. Catherine’s profanities don’t just turn the air blue, they sometimes help to dissipate the miasma of gloom that lingers above Wainwright’s Hebden Bridge.

Amusing though they may be, many of her best zingers still hum with world-weariness. Returning home after a shift, she recounts how PE teacher Rob Hepworth (Mark Stanley) summoned the police after discovering his wife Joanna (Mollie Winnard) had been self-medicating with illegal diazepam. “So you rang the police on your own wife?” she sighs. “What genre of twat does that?” Catherine is a woman who has encountered countless wrong’uns over the years, enough to carry around in her own mental rogues’ gallery – but Stanley’s character, with his locked fridge and barely contained rage, really does present a new genre of awful. No wonder she still “looks tired. Haunted. F***ed off”, as the season one screenplay concisely notes. Much like her creations, Wainwright knows how evocative good swearing can be – her asides and directions are full of it.

Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in ‘Happy Valley’ (BBC/Lookout Point/Matt Squire)
Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in ‘Happy Valley’ (BBC/Lookout Point/Matt Squire)

Catherine, it seems, has always used spikey language as armour: to cut sexist colleagues down to size, to keep her work – and her past – at a manageable distance. It helps her brush things off, block things out, make light of potentially painful situations. But her straight-talking brusqueness can also hurt the people closest to her. Did she really need to go in so hard on Clare in those recent takedowns? When she reels off a particularly violent diatribe about her family in season two, her therapist explains how her “chosen, sarcastic, brutal” words are doing double duty – yes, they express “affection”, but they are emitting a misplaced, often destructive anger at the same time.

“On one level, you don’t mean it, these are people you love unquestionably,” he tells her. “On another level, you are angry, whether it’s with them or perhaps, more likely, with other people. People you can’t express your anger to directly the way you can with the people you live with.” Catherine’s response is typically caustic – “I’m a police officer... I’m not going to share the same vocabulary as Mary Poppins” – but you can tell that his comment has got under her skin. This is Wainwright’s – and Lancashire’s – genius. Catherine is not just a wise-cracking, cursing “Robocop”. She’s loveable and horrible, wounded and wounding all at once.

A fervent advocate for imaginative swearing, the American author Mark Twain wrote that “under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer”. By that reckoning, Catherine certainly has had a lot to swear about – God knows she has faced more than her fair share of urgency and desperation over the years, and that she deserves a bit of relief. We’ll have to wait until Sunday night to learn whether she drives off into the Himalayan sunset in her Land Rover, or whether her final ta-ra is a tragic one. Whatever happens, I hope that Catherine Cawood goes out in a glorious blaze of effing and blinding.

‘Happy Valley’ concludes on Sunday 5 February at 9pm on BBC One