Sarah Lancashire and James Norton on set of the Happy Valley finale. Image: BBC
The Happy Valley finale was perhaps the greatest last episode in recent British television history. But James Norton, who plays Tommy Lee Royce in Happy Valley, has revealed that the original ending to the hit series was changed following an intervention from Sarah Lancashire.
“We had one version of the end that didn’t feel quite right,” said Norton. “Sally knew it and Sarah spoke up and said it doesn’t feel right.
“A month later, we got a new script and it all fell into place. It was magical.”
Norton is not wrong. On Sunday night at 9pm on BBC One, we finally got to see Sally Wainwright’s vision for the ending. The penultimate episode had seen all the pieces moved into position via Wainwright’s skilful storytelling. But there was still a lot of ground to cover in an extended final episode.
Catherine Cawood (the peerless Sarah Lancashire) and Tommy Lee Royce had been inching closer to one final head-to-head. And Wainwright confounded all expectations. “Hello,” offered Cawood, tentatively entering her house, suspecting Royce was inside. “Hiya,” came the response from the kitchen.
After previous violent confrontations, this one was different. A wounded Royce, a wary Cawood, a proper chinwag across the kitchen table. Royce covered in blood, having taken an overdose of pills, carrying a can of petrol, Cawood in full police uniform and pointing a taser.
This was the pivotal scene of the entire trilogy. And actors Lancashire and Norton nailed it. Both should be rewarded in awards season next year. Lancashire, as she has been since day one, was astonishingly good. The simmering fury. The disbelief when Royce ‘forgave’ her for not telling him that he had a son. And the sheer presence she brings to Cawood.
Meanwhile, Norton gave his finest performance to date in the biggest scene in the series. Again, expectations were completely subverted. Royce no longer hated Catherine Cawood. He’d come to understand that she had given Ryan a good life. And by extension, we caught a glimpse of what could have been different had Royce not been raised in an atmosphere of chaos, poverty, neglect, addiction and violence.
I’ll miss Sarah and Siobhan and Sally – but hopefully, we’ll work on something else
Sally Wainwright should also win all the awards, of course. Because whatever changes she made to the Happy Valley finale script following Lancashire’s intervention clearly worked.
Wainwright pitched it perfectly. Just the right level of redemption and rage. These two characters who have played such huge parts in each other’s lives yet have shared very little screen time finally letting everything out – before the dramatic denouement as Cawood tries to save Royce’s life in scenes that mirrored the very opening scene of the series one.
Norton’s portrayal of Tommy Lee Royce has been a huge part of the show’s success. And he admits in his interview with The Big Issue that he would like the show to go on forever.
“Selfishly, I love it, creatively and commercially,” Norton said. “So I’m slightly conflicted because personally, I would love to keep going.
“But deep down I’m with Sally. This is the right call. So I hope the ending doesn’t disappoint.”
It did not. It gave us everything we needed. We saw that Ryan was going to be okay. There was the healing of the rift between Catherine and Clare (Siobhan Finneran) that we were so desperate for. The Knezevic crime syndicate was brought down so residents of the Calder Valley can sleep safely at night.
Again, cleverly mirroring the opening of the final series, we saw Cawood casually solving the murder of Joanna Hepworth by drug dealing pharmacist neighbour Faisal as she packed up her desk and prepared for civilian life.
In the Happy Valley finale, as in the previous 17 episodes, Wainwright and her cast did not put a foot wrong. Happy Valley broke new ground and, in the words of local MP Holly Lynch, helped make “Halifax the new Hollywood”. Norton described the series as “revolutionary”.
“Happy Valley also did something important before #MeToo and the recent recalibration in entertainment,” said Norton. “Sally Wainwright put an older woman – a grandmother – in the lead. And she’s so flawed and messy but also so likeable and recognisable. That in itself was really revolutionary. And it has always had a social conscience.
“So I use this term tentatively, because it is a little presumptuous, but I think Happy Valley is a proper cult TV show. It defies its time and hopefully will continue to be talked about and watched for many years.”
Norton says he will miss his co-stars. But, while this is the end of Happy Valley, he is hoping for a reunion in the future.
“I’ll miss Sarah and Siobhan and Sally – but hopefully, we’ll work on something else,” said Norton. “I would love to keep working with them because they’re the best and they are at the top of their game.
“So on the one hand, it will be a wrench to say goodbye to Happy Valley. But on the other, I’m so in admiration of Sally and I’m so happy to have been in something so self assured. And the fact there will only be three series as opposed to eight feels really classy.”
And what was Norton’s verdict on the ending of this all-time great British drama?
“I think it’s classy and elegant and explosive and surprising. And it’s heartfelt,” he says. “And it sits within the world Sally Wainwright has created. She has built something so magical and so thorough.
“I mean, she could do what the fuck she wanted. She could sell out – keep making Happy Valley for years and years, make a tonne of money, get Bob Dylan in for a little cameo.
“But what is wonderful about how she ends it is that it is so rooted in the show, so rooted in our characters and the journey.
“It feels surprising, but on the other hand, you’ll go, ‘of course!’ There was no other way of doing it.’ And it’s definitely the end.”
Happy Valley is available on iPlayer
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