A lowly sergeant, but Happy Valley’s Catherine Cawood is top of the cops | Rachel Cooke

Sarah Lancashire’s portrayal in the hit series is 10 times tougher than her TV predecessors

I can measure out my life, not with coffee spoons, but in female cops. First, there was Insp Jean Darblay (as played by Stephanie Turner) in Juliet Bravo, who had the young me dreaming of an adulthood in which every man in the vicinity was required to call me ma’am (some hope). Then there was DCI Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) in Prime Suspect, fighting institutional sexism one day at a time with a pair of black leather gloves, a good haircut and too much booze. Finally, there is Sgt Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley, less highly ranked than either of her predecessors, but about 10 times as tough.

In Catherine’s hi-vis jacket and satisfying way with the word twat, we reach the apogee of the groundbreaking female TV police officer; I don’t believe, creatively speaking, she can go any higher, though I hope I’m wrong. Either way, I’m going to miss her. Every woman I know adores her, this walking, talking embodiment of the fact that the precise moment most women reach their zenith is the precise moment half the world stops listening to them. Excited as I am by Happy Valley’s tangled plots – what is the devilish Tommy Lee Royce about to do? – it’s Catherine’s determination in the face of her extreme weariness that I experience as pure energy: exhilarating, intoxicating, not-to-be-messed-with under any circumstances.

Fancy Nancy

Nancy Friday standing in front of a poster of a woman’s legs, with Roger Moore’s James Bond pointing a gun in the background
Inspiring: Nancy Friday in 1981. Photograph: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

In a speech last Wednesday at a party to celebrate 50 years of Abacus Books, the imprint’s publishing director, Richard Beswick, spoke amusingly of its earliest nonfiction titles. One was called Love Quake, another, Open Marriage, and at the mention of both, everyone laughed obligingly, picturing waterbeds and bowls of keys (though, alas, when I looked up Open Marriage later, I found a Goodreads reviewer complaining that “the possibility of sleeping with other people” is mentioned only twice in 250 pages).

But, wait: the past, as William Faulkner told us, is not dead. It’s not even past. On the same day, I read of Gillian Anderson’s plan to “curate” a collection of women’s sexual fantasies, a project seemingly part-inspired by Nancy Friday’s book My Secret Garden, first published in 1973. Anderson has – here’s progress, I guess – set up a secure email for “submissions” and launching it, talked vaguely of liberation. But I fear history is about to repeat itself. When my friend J and I used to pass My Secret Garden back and forth between us as students, it wasn’t because we were good little feminists. Rather, it was that we couldn’t believe what wild flights of, er, fancy Nancy had induced in her contributors – and she was an obscure magazine journalist, not the former star of The X-Files.

Spiky Sylvia

Sylvia Syms, wearing a headscarf, and Dirk Bogarde in Victim.
Sylvia Syms and Dirk Bogarde in the 1961 film Victim. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Sylvia Syms, who died last month, was a wonderful actor. I love her in those great films of the late 1950s and early 1960s: Woman in a Dressing Gown, Ice Cold in Alex, Victim with Dirk Bogarde. But she was also a brilliantly spiky interviewee. When I talked to her for a book I was writing about postwar career women, she told me proudly of how she’d once copied a longed for but completely unaffordable “new look” dress by Christian Dior, running it up on her sewing machine ahead of a party. Was it a success? She thought so. On the night, Ava Gardner appeared, wearing the real thing. Gardner coolly looked her trembling fashion rival up and down, before turning to Frank Sinatra and saying: “I told you it would look better on a blonde.”

• Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist


Rachel Cooke

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