‘Oh my God, was Happy Valley slow and wrong?’ The demons of writer Sally Wainwright

<span>Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Sally Wainwright is about to rock out on her new electric guitar. She has been learning to play as research for a new BBC drama she is writing. “It’s about a group of menopausal women who form a punk band and sing about their experiences,” she says, catching herself and, to my disappointment, popping the guitar back down in her home office (she keeps it by her desk). The renowned TV writer, who turned 60 this year, describes herself as a “bit of a recluse”. But she is clearly having a hoot with her punk era. “They realise they’ve got a lot to say as women of a certain age – they have a lot of anger.” She can’t stop grinning as she talks. “It’s very ‘feelgood’. I laugh just thinking about it.”

Guitar lesson aside, Wainwright is here to reflect on the final season of her hit drama Happy Valley, which brought 2023 in with a bang. Sarah Lancashire returned to our screens as Calder Valley’s ice-cool Sgt Catherine Cawood. Her grandson, Ryan (Rhys Connah), was now 16, and had reconnected with his incarcerated psychopath dad, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton). This – along with her impending retirement, sibling tensions with her sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran), and reports of aliens in Todmorden – drove Catherine to the edge once again. Supreme Sunday night television was back, and it was all everybody could talk about.

Despite having already watched it hundreds of times, Wainwright was on her sofa every week tuning in alongside us. “You suddenly think: ‘Oh my God, this feels really slow and wrong.’ You’re visited by all these demons,” she says. “But we all now know that it went down very well.”

What an understatement. The finale was one of the most-watched television programmes of the year, pulling in 7.5 million viewers. The showdown between Catherine and Tommy provided the ultimate watercooler chat – and some firecracker Wainwright one-liners. “You’re just not very … bright,” spat out a pathetic Tommy. Catherine’s response? To call him a “fucked up, frightened, damaged, deluded, nasty little toddler-brain in a big man’s body”, of course. She signed off by underlining the nurture v nature conundrum at the heart of the story, saying she is no longer worried about Ryan being like his bad dad: “That boy is a prince.”

It almost ended very differently. Lancashire wasn’t happy with the original script for the finale. She called Wainwright asking to visit her Oxfordshire home and talk through some changes. “It was two days before Christmas and she was here the whole day,” says Wainwright, who at that point was exhausted and ready to put the show to bed. But she trusted her star. “I’m so glad she picked me up on it because it wouldn’t have been as good.” What did she change, exactly? “The emotions were pushed much further, getting deeper into what was happening in Catherine and Tommy’s minds.”

The finale was only one part of an already great story. Another showstopper scene lasted 12 minutes: Catherine confronting Clare in a Sheffield cafe. “You never were overly bright were you, Clare?” said a seething Catherine after learning her sister had been taking Ryan to see Tommy in prison. “Nobody means more to me than you do,” replied Clare, as tears trickled down her reddening face.

“I was really pleased with that scene,” says Wainwright. “I think it was an earned big moment. Catherine feels that she’s been betrayed, and Clare feels as if she has betrayed her. Sarah and Siobhan had to perform that about 20 times. All the awards they are getting are deserved for that scene alone.”

But wait – isn’t this meant to be a drama about violence, drugs and murder? Yes, Tommy escaping court was gripping viewing. As was him killing people in a car while it rolled down a hill. For Happy Valley fans, though, its smallest moments are what provide the biggest joy – the family spats, eye rolls and talk of alien sightings. That’s why the most memorable line was about stew. Mid-argument on the doorstep, Ryan interrupted his gran to say his tea was going cold. “What are you having?” she asked. “Stew,” he replied. “It’ll be alright,” she sniffed, before getting back to her point. It was beautiful.

“It’s such a daft thing to say in the middle of an argument!” says Wainwright, revealing that it was inspired by a fight she had with one of her sons. “We’d had an argument earlier and I was thinking: ‘How dare you ask me what I’m cooking for your tea!’” But life goes on, she says. “No matter how bad things get, you need to know what you’re having for your tea.”

It is this sort of deceptively simple writing that has made Wainwright a household name, which is a rare feat for a British TV showrunner. After growing up in Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire, minutes from where Happy Valley is set, she left for London. She did a stint as a bus driver, before cutting her teeth on The Archers, Emmerdale – which she was sacked from (“It was shit,” she once said) – and Coronation Street. Wainwright then came into her own by penning ITV dramas At Home With the Braithwaites and Scott & Bailey.

But it was with BBC drama Last Tango in Halifax – a story based on her mother’s experience of reconnecting with an old flame when she was in her 70s – that Wainwright first struck gold (“I’ve never said there won’t be any more; if there was any interest, I wouldn’t say no”). She has always credited her mum for being her biggest inspiration. Her mum had been “thrilled” about Anne Reid playing Celia, the character she inspired. “Like Celia, mum called a spade a spade. She was so proud of Last Tango because it was such a beautiful story,” Wainwright once said. But at the start of the year, Wainwright announced that her mum had died just before Christmas, adding: “I wouldn’t have had a career without her.”

“She had dementia for the last six years,” she says quietly, explaining that her mum loved the first series of Happy Valley, but started to get ill around the time of the second series. “It was one of the great sadnesses for me when she couldn’t watch my shows any more and I couldn’t share them with her.”

It is not the only relationship to have shaped Wainwright’s best work. As a teenager, she saw where she grew up as a “cultural backwater” from which she needed to escape. But it has always been there in her writing. An adult Wainwright reconnected with her home county and went on to film all her hit shows in the Calderdale area. She now has a second house there. Samuel L Jackson was recently spotted in Halifax takeaway shops while filming a Marvel series at Piece Hall – confirmation that this is now an international cultural destination. When I tell Wainwright that so many locals say she is the reason Halifax is now known as “Haliwood”, she chuckles knowingly.

“I love being there! Everybody should visit Hebden Bridge,” she says. “I think it’s wonderful that local kids can see this is a reality – things are filmed there, it’s not just people living in London like when I was growing up.” Production for her new show, Riot Women, will also be in Halifax when it starts filming next year. “I guess it’s nice not to be in a big city; to be somewhere I feel at home in.”

But the Wainwright show that has had the biggest impact on the area is Gentleman Jack; a period drama starring Suranne Jones as the secret lesbian diarist Anne Lister. Set and filmed in Shibden Hall near Halifax, it has been coined a “lesbian pilgrimage” and has genuinely changed many women’s lives. “Women come from all over the world now for the Anne Lister weekend,” says Wainwright. “People from 17 countries came last time.” There was global outcry when HBO cancelled the show after two series, including a crowdfunded Times Square billboard calling to save it.

Related: From The Archers to HBO: how Sally Wainwright conquered TV

One way or another, Wainwright is adamant about telling Lister’s story to the end. “HBO don’t care about that; that we’ve raised so much awareness for an underserved community. It saddens me that they don’t see what good it’s done in the world,” she says. Reasons for cancellation have never been made clear to Wainwright, but low viewing figures in the US have been widely cited. “We’ve heard things to do with tax, that they decided not to back a certain number of shows and ours fell into that category.” This reliance on big US money, to boost BBC budgets, concerns her. It’s a bit worrying, she says, that it “wasn’t about the quality of the show”.

Right now, we are back to waving off Happy Valley and Catherine – wondering if she ever made it to the Himalayas in her Land Rover. “I don’t think she ever went,” Wainwright confirms, breaking hearts everywhere. What is she doing with her retirement, then? “Just touring around Scotland” is one idea she teases. Perhaps she is “back in the valley trying to control everybody’s lives” or being “a police adviser on the telly”. No mention, sadly, of her joining a local amateur punk band.