ONCE in a while a character on television catches the mood of the times.

Yosser Hughes, Boys from the Blackstuff, crushed by Thatcherism. Succession’s Logan Roy, today’s unacceptable face of capitalism. June Osborne of The Handmaid’s Tale, arriving on TV at the same time as misogynist-in-chief Trump began his presidency.

To their number must be added Sergeant Catherine Cawood of Happy Valley, the Yorkshire-set, BBC1 drama now attracting an audience greater than the population of Scotland (6.1 million for Sunday’s episode, and that’s before the number watching on demand is added). Played by Sarah Lancashire, the character is held in such genuine affection you might almost think she was real.

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Thus Jess Phillips MP joked about moving a bill in the Commons to decree that a week was too long to wait for the next episode of Happy Valley. (That problem will be solved, alas, on Sunday, when the final episode airs.)

Another prominent fan brought Sgt Cawood into the trans prisoner row, imagining a plot twist in which the rapist Tommy Lee Royce was transferred to a women’s prison. The Mail referred to “Miss Cawood” and “Royce”, no title, as if they were a victim and convicted criminal from a real case.

How has this fictional character become a heroine for these times, or these “trouble times” as Jake Bugg’s theme tune has it?

First, and most importantly, Happy Valley is an outstanding drama from one of the finest writers working today, Sally Wainwright. The cast is superb, and the dialogue between working class characters rings utterly true. Ryan, Royce's son, telling his granny he loved her and her replying “What’s brought that on?” was an exchange so beautifully spare, yet packed with emotion, the pair could almost have been Scottish.

The plot, man’s inhumanity to woman, is sadly an evergreen classic. Showing the drama in weekly instalments has made it “event TV” and built an audience that now feels like a community.

All true. But at the risk of ending up in Pseuds Corner (thought I’d save time and get that barb out of the way early doors), there is something more to the affection being sent Sgt Cawood’s way.

The best TV offers an escape from dull, disappointing, or alarming reality. A connection is formed with the viewer.

Contrast this with the gulf between the latest Westminster “scandal” and the everyday concerns of voters, as highlighted recently by Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester.

He is right. People care more about reliable public transport, the damp in their homes, who will look after an elderly parent if they ever get out of hospital, than they do the interminable “who said what to whom” back and forth that passes for political discourse.

Of course it matters if a Minister isn’t paying all his taxes. If we all did that the public sector would be in a worse state. And yes, it’s right to give a hoot if another Minister is accused of being a bully, because it sets a rotten example.

But do these matters have to be covered and picked apart to the exclusion of almost everything else?

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Much of Sgt Cawood’s appeal lies in the character herself, and what she represents. She is not, if we are honest, a saint. We see in Happy Valley the violence that men do with their fists and feet, and we hear the verbal cruelty women can dish out.

Take the “You bore me” scene between Catherine and her sister Clare last Sunday. Clare is never coming back from that. Or the hate directed at Ryan by Ann, another victim of Royce’s. The viewer understands that this is pain talking, but that doesn’t make one wince any less.

Overall, Sgt Cawood is a good sort, the kind of person many would like to have in their lives as a friend, relative, or colleague. Or they may see themselves in her, as they are or wish to be.

Cawood is a fifty-something Everywoman, limping towards retirement, giving a damn about the stuff that merits her attention and to heck with the rest. As she said at the start of this series: “I’m just becoming the person I’ve always wanted to be. Don’t take **** off anyone anymore, I say it like it is, I know who I am. Finally.” Fancy being able to say that and believe it true.

The Herald: Sgt Cawood is an 'Everywoman... giving a damn about the stuff that merits her attention and to heck with the rest'Sgt Cawood is an 'Everywoman... giving a damn about the stuff that merits her attention and to heck with the rest' (Image: BBC)

She is indisputably a character who could only be a woman. That is not to say men cannot be as burdened by responsibility as women, but it is generally a different kind of weight on their shoulders.

Cawood is a woman of the sandwich generation, though in her case she is not caught between ailing parents and demanding children but between a sibling, a son, a beloved daughter now gone, and a grandson. Everyone wants something, and that’s before she clocks on at work.

Added to the emotional weight she is carrying is a physical one. Handcuffs, stab vest, radio, taser, notebook: imagine walking around in that for eight hours.

Another appeal is her innate sense of right and wrong and her fearlessness in applying it. I would never presume to speculate on Sgt Cawood’s political stripe (though I’m thinking not Liberal Democrat), but consider the following propositions and ask yourself how Sgt Cawood would respond. Feel free to use her tried and tested formulation, “FFS”, or something milder.

First, a male rapist being placed in a women’s prison. Definitely a FFS on that one. Another independence referendum? Boris Johnson? The attainment gap? One of the richest countries on the planet with a record number of homeless people? Add your own.

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In essence, the character of Sgt Cawood represents the majority of people who have reached what we might call the Rod Stewart conclusion about life in UK plc today, as expressed when the singer called Sky News last week.

A person at this stage looks around and sees standards falling everywhere. The NHS, education, transport, crime, sense of community, all worse than anyone can recall. The feeling dates back to before Covid, though that did not help. Worse, we are beginning to wonder if we will ever get out of this sinkhole.

To which our Happy Valley heroine would doubtless respond by telling us to stop being so miserable and, wisest words of all, not to let the so-and-sos grind us down.

Sgt Cawood, our Catherine if we may, we salute you.