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INSIDE RED: An interview with Sally Wainwright

Welcome to Inside Red, a series of exclusive interviews with actors, writers, directors and the other talented people who create the Red shows you love. Today we’re talking to Sally Wainwright, the writer of BBC smash hit Happy Valley as well as Last Tango in Halifax, Scott & Bailey, Unforgiven and Sparkhouse. The second series of Happy Valley finds strong-willed police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) wrapped up in a serial killer investigation,while the menacing Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) plots revenge from his prison cell.


RED: The first series of Happy Valley ended in a very satisfying way but also clearly had the potential to return. Did you ever consider leaving it as one series or did you always want to tell more stories with these characters?


SALLY: I always wanted to do more. I am always careful these days to wrap each series up in a satisfying way just in case you don’t get to do another series. You never know if you’ll go to a second series when you’re making a first series, because you don’t know whether you’ll get the viewing figures or not, but I always plan to go on if at all possible. Through choice I would never have left it at one series, those characters are so rich and full of potential.


RED: Do you tend to have actors in mind when creating characters? Were you thinking of Sarah Lancashire when you wrote the part of Catherine Cawood?


SALLY: I do yes. Not always, but more often than not I have someone in mind. It helps you to visualize them, it helps make them seem real to you as you’re developing ideas for them. It’s a bit like having a name for a character, I can’t write for a character until I’ve got a name for them. So yes, imagining what they look like and what their mannerisms are oils the imaginative wheels. Yes, Sarah was always in my head for Catherine. Ever since I saw the way she was playing Caroline, even though Caroline and Catherine don’t appear to have a lot in common. I could see how thorough she was and how much she cared about the language and the detail and the humour. She’s a very rewarding person to work with because she puts so much thought and care in, and then of course she’s so compelling to watch once she’s made all those choices about how she’s going to do it.


RED: Catherine is one of the most memorably straight-talking television characters in recent memory. Was she inspired by anybody you know in real life?


SALLY: It’s not always obvious where characters come from even to me. They’re often an amalgamation of all sorts of influences and ideas. I don’t remember a specific starting point, other than knowing I was writing for Sarah, which is pretty awesome/inspiring in itself. Lisa (Farrand, my police adviser) influenced me a lot, and there is a lot of Lisa in Catherine, but at the same time it’s not a portrait of Lisa. I think a lot of my more robust characters are fantasies; people I’d like to be. Even – well especially – when they have a dark side. It gives them a richness and makes them real. Catherine says things and does things that I wish I could do and say. She’s a hero. But she’s very real too. She gets things wrong and feels daft about things afterwards. She’s heroic and funny.


RED: James Norton’s character Tommy Lee Royce has struck a chord with viewers, quickly becoming infamous. Can you see yourself exploring his background and history in a potential future series of Happy Valley?


SALLY: I’d love to. I think we have explored his background quite a lot already; we know a lot about him, and I sense we often see the damaged child in him because of James’s subtle, sympathetic performance. I think it’s a measure of the intelligence of James’s performance that he personally never set out to demonise Tommy, he set out to be fair to Tommy. He presents Tommy as Tommy would present himself, and no-one chooses to resent themselves badly. I think that’s why it’s struck a chord. James makes us care about this man who somehow we feel we shouldn’t care about because he is so cruel. There are other aspects of his life I’m sure I could tap into. It’s always useful looking back into a character’s past for story, it’s always rewarding to consider what significant things may have happened to them in the past that have shaped the person they are now, and it often lends itself to story.


RED: You directed an episode of the first series and this time you’ve directed four. Has knowing you’ll be directing your own material changed your approach to writing it?


SALLY: Not much. I always imagined how a scene would be staged when I wrote it. Things will change though. The more I direct the less I will be able to write. Directing is very time consuming. But now I’ve done it I can’t imagine going back to not directing my own work, so there will be less writing. But maybe that will eventually lead to me writing in more concise forms. Less is always more. The more you can pack into less, the richer it becomes. Then if I can direct that too… it’s wonderful. I am very lucky.


RED: What TV have you been enjoying as a viewer lately?


SALLY: My eldest son George told me that I had to watch Orange is the New Black, which I should’ve watched ages ago, but have only just got round to it, and it is excellent. Witty story telling, as dark as it is funny, complex characters, the vast majority of them women (so rare!). I have also been really stunned by how wonderful Transparent is. It’s an unprecedented binge-watch for me, as soon as I finish one I have to see the next. I don’t think I’ve ever found a tv show so compelling. Jeffrey Tambor’s performance is subtle, clever, powerful, beautiful. It’s perfectly cast, with unexpected, delightful story-telling that take telly to a new level.


The last episode of Happy Valley series 2 will broadcast on BBC One on Tuesday 15th March at 9 p.m.