If there were such a thing as Google Futures, someone could make a lot of money betting that the number of North American searches for “Sarah Lancashire” is going to explode later this week. The six-part BBC crime thriller Happy Valley, which hits Netflix on Wednesday, is superb, and although it features a dynamite ensemble cast, there’s no doubt that 49-year-old Lancashire, who plays dogged cop Catherine Cawood, is the star of the show. Lancashire is a big name in Britain, but because most of her career has been spent on U.K. television, and to a lesser extent musical theater, she’s barely known over here. So, who is Sarah Lancashire, and where did she come from?
British newspaper profiles still linger on Lancashire’s first big role, barmaid and would-be model Raquel Wolstenhulme Watts in the popular primetime soap Coronation Street, even though nearly two decades have passed since she left the show. Here in the United States, many actors get started in soaps, but there’s no comparison between viewership figures or cultural profile in the two countries: Raquel’s farewell to the Street in 1996 was seen by more than 20 million viewers. The U.K. population was about 61 million at the time.
It’s not hard to see why so many tuned in. Raquel, who managed to remain sympathetic even as she used her considerable sexual allure to manipulate every man on the Street, was the first of many crème-brûlée characters Lancashire has played over the course of her career: hard and brittle on the outside, soft and mushy under the surface. Of course, actors are expected to hint at hidden contradictions within their characters, but Lancashire is particularly good at pulling off this trick. Raquel was a comic figure who elicited viewers’ pity; Happy Valley’s Catherine Cawood is a profoundly sensible woman who often acts irrationally.
Between 1996 and 2012, Lancashire appeared in a long string of short-run dramas and TV movies, few of which made it to the U.S. Partly this was a reflection of working, occasionally, with middling material: In January 2000, she signed a lucrative exclusive deal with ITV, Britain’s main commercial network, and in that period ITV’s shows were generally less impressive than the BBC’s. But partly (says this Northerner) it’s a reflection of U.S. importers’ preference for period and upper-class material. Lancashire is from Oldham in the formerly industrial North, and she generally plays contemporary Northern characters, often working-class women in grim circumstances. The only working-class Northerners American TV schedulers seem interested in are the ones serving the rich folks in Downton Abbey.
Lancashire’s work from the last decade or so may not have had much of an airing in America, but a surprising amount is viewable on YouTube. One unmissable part of her oeuvre is the first episode of 2000’s Clocking Off, an anthology series created by Paul Abbott, who later made State of Play and Shameless. Her character, Yvonne Kolakowski, has much in common with Catherine Cawood: She’s a slightly desperate, driven woman shouldering family responsibilities others have shirked. And yet she still manages to be sassy rather than sappy. And in both shows, her character very quickly finds herself in bed with a guy but manages to seem earthy and up-for-it rather than easy—she shows that there’s no shame in a single woman being sexual.
Lancashire is that rarest of creatures, the actress who has gotten better parts as she’s gotten older. After a long run of mediocre procedurals, domestic dramas, and period pieces, she has found herself in a remarkable series of roles since 2012: a comedic turn in The Paradise (available on Netflix), the most compelling character on Last Tango in Halifax (two seasons have aired on PBS; Season 1 is on Netflix), and now Happy Valley. Part of her good fortune is that she has become something of a muse for one of Britain’s best TV writers: Sally Wainwright, who wrote Last Tango in Halifax (and the fantastic Scott & Bailey—a kind of Northern English Cagney & Lacey), created Sgt. Cawood with Lancashire in mind.
The role plays to her strengths, especially that uncanny ability to project conflicting values—in this case, a balance between self-sacrifice and utter selfishness, or being absolutely brilliant at her job while sometimes neglecting her duties to focus on her own obsessions. She’s also provided with endless opportunities to toss off a comedic aside without undermining her character’s seriousness. Her talent for indicating hidden depths—no one stares into space or a steaming mug of tea more soulfully than Lancashire—is given full rein. And unlike some other actresses of a certain age, she’s willing to look like a middle-aged woman who gets too little sleep, grabs too many meals from the police canteen, and whose job sometimes involves getting kicked in the face.
In her Coronation Street days, Lancashire was all slender limbs and skittish energy. Now she’s a more solid and earthy presence who always seems to be the most grown-up person in the room. In one of her first episodes on Coronation Street, her future husband, Curly Watts, promised to teach Raquel to walk like a thoroughbred. These days, no one struts like Sarah Lancashire. On Last Tango in Halifax, she does more walking and talking than the entire cast of The West Wing combined. On Happy Valley, she strides her patch of Yorkshire like an old-time law-woman. She is magnificent.