‘Glassy-eyed and battered – I was that woman’: Mel B on how Happy Valley’s domestic abuse storyline resonates with her own trauma

Mollie Winnard as Joanna in ‘Happy Valley’ and Mel B (BBC/Getty)
Mollie Winnard as Joanna in ‘Happy Valley’ and Mel B (BBC/Getty)

I didn’t watch Happy Valley when it first came out. I was living in Los Angeles back then. I actually only got around to it very recently – just a week before the new series arrived. A close friend had recommended it to me but I always thought it looked too bleak. But I went back to the first series and within minutes I was hooked. It is absolutely bleak as hell but it is also brilliant in a way that only northern British drama can be. You get the rain, you get the backdrop flitting between beautiful countryside, concrete council estates and cosy cottages. You get the accents, the blend of cultures, the families sitting down for their “tea” in the evenings. Not their “dinner” like they do in the South.

And that’s before you get to the 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’s flawed, she’s tough, she’s morally solid and she doesn’t give a s*** what people think of her (except the people she loves). I am in awe of all of the actors, from James Norton and Siobhan Finneran to Con O’Neill and Ishia Bennison. I want to name every one of them because, like with Catherine, I know all these people. They are completely true to life, true to my northern soul.

But season three is the one that is everything to me. I went through a 10-year abusive marriage where, at my lowest, most desperate and isolated, I took to drink and drugs to self-medicate. I wrote about it in my book Brutally Honest, because no one talked about it. This coping mechanism may add to the shame, the guilt, the powerlessness, but more than 60 per cent of abused women self-medicate because their lives are hell. So when Mollie Winnard (as Joanna) appeared on screen – glassy eyed and battered, with low-level terror seeping from her pores – this wasn’t a woman I knew, this was a woman I was.

Given the opportunity by a concerned Catherine to open up about her abusive husband, Joanna said nothing. She sat in silence, just like I did when a lovely policeman – PC Cunningham – sat at my bedside in 2014 after I took an overdose. He knew something was seriously wrong. He gently asked me questions about my relationship, but could not get me to talk. So there I am, nine years later, sitting on my sofa back in Leeds and willing Joanna to talk but knowing that she won’t because life – abuse – is not that simple. It’s not the way things go. Those scenes made my blood run cold because they were so unbelievably real that I wanted to call the writer and creator, Sally Wainwright, to tell her how much this had moved me.

When I wrote my book in 2017, most publishers turned it down because they didn’t think domestic abuse was a palatable subject. Talking about being a mother, self-medicating, the bleak reality of daily life – it was all too much. When it was finally published in 2018, Teresa Parker from the domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid told me it was the most real account of abuse she had ever read. It was real. My story – regardless of its glamorous veneer – was the same story as every woman like Joanna. I became their patron and I now talk in conferences at parliament, about the epidemic of violence against women in our society. I have been given an MBE, not for being a Spice Girl, but for the work I have done with Women’s Aid. I have used my voice.

In the past five years, we have started to properly talk about domestic abuse. I am so proud to be one of the voices breaking the silence. And Sally Wainwright should be too. The abuse isn’t the main storyline in Happy Valley, it’s sewn in as a bright red thread in the stitching of the story. And that’s exactly as it is in life. It’s the grit in the road, the crack in the ceiling.

Joanna dies a violent death on the floor of her kitchen – not literally at the hands of her husband but undeniably because of the relentless cycle of abuse she was in. It horrified me when I saw it. But it also made me feel strangely triumphant that Winnard’s portrayal is so truthful, and that the reality of domestic violence has become an integral part of mainstream drama. We are talking. We are watching. Thank you Happy Valley.

‘Happy Valley’ airs on Sunday nights at 9pm on BBC One

Melanie Brown – Mel B – is patron of Women’s Aid

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, 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 organisations for support: actiononaddiction.org.uk, mind.org.uk, nhs.uk/livewell/mentalhealth, mentalhealth.org.uk.