Nine years ago, Catherine Cawood, the fictional policewoman from Hebden Bridge, introduced herself to a drug addict threatening to set himself alight — and to viewers of the BBC drama Happy Valley. “I’m forty-seven. I’m divorced. I live with my sister, who’s a recovering heroin addict. I’ve two grown-up children — one dead, one who don’t speak to me — and a grandson . . . It’s complicated.”

This Sunday, fans now feverishly sharing theories on social media will tune into the finale of the third and last season, to discover if Cawood, played with exquisite range by Sarah Lancashire, will capture the vengeful, psychopathic Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) and realise her dream of escaping to the Himalayas in a jeep.

The blockbuster series has gilded the reputation of Sally Wainwright, its creator, writer and director, who is also known for Last Tango in Halifax (BBC), a story of late-in-life love, and Gentleman Jack (BBC and HBO), which dramatised the romances of 19th-century lesbian and landowner, Anne Lister. Disney has commissioned her new series, The Ballad of Renegade Nell, set in 18th-century London and currently in production.

Happy Valley has the alchemy of critical and popular success. Now appointment TV, it won two Baftas for best drama and proved a ratings hit for the BBC (episode one of season three scored 11.3mn viewers). Tom Harrington, head of television at Enders Analysis says, “you could probably count on one hand the number of shows that have grown their viewing since 2014 like Happy Valley has. Since it first appeared on BBC1, overall TV viewing has dropped 30 per cent.”

As a child growing up in Sowerby Bridge, a market town in West Yorkshire, Wainwright would write down bits of conversation she overheard. The dialogue was always her favourite bit of novels. She lacked confidence in her academic abilities so her father, a lecturer at Huddersfield Polytechnic, encouraged her to go to York University to study English Literature. After graduating, she drove a bus so that she could write around her shifts.

West Yorkshire remains at the heart of her work. “It’s really important that you don’t present a homogeneous north,” Wainwright tells the FT. Happy Valley’s locale is notable for the brutal beauty of the landscape that inspired poet Ted Hughes, former mill towns scarred by industrial decline, and the humour and idioms of its characters.

But such granular local detail is counter to the general direction of television, says Harrington, which “due to funding and distribution models is increasingly being pitched to a worldwide audience”. This blandness to satisfy foreign markets irks Wainwright; she insists that a “strong sense of place” contributes to the success of shows, “whether it’s the desert in Breaking Bad or the snowy bleakness of Fargo”. 

Early in her career, Wainwright worked on The Archers, the country life radio soap, and Emmerdale, before Kay Mellor, the screenwriter and director, brought her to Granada Television. Mellor told the Guardian that “she was talented and raw . . . she didn’t care . . . She would write what she wanted.” In Mellor, Wainwright found a friend and unofficial mentor: “Sometimes you need to be shown the way by someone else,” she said after Mellor’s death last year.

In 2000, At Home with the Braithwaites, her first solo project, about a family who wins the lottery, aired on ITV. This was followed in 2009 with Unforgiven, which told the story of a female ex-convict. In 2013, she won her first Bafta for Last Tango in Halifax, a love story between two 70-somethings, inspired by her mother.

Plotting is the hardest part of writing, says Wainwright, who works “really hard on the story. Dialogue is the fun bit.” Even in the darkest scenes, she looks for light touches, as when Cawood berates her grandson for visiting his psychopathic father in prison. One moment, she talks of “a kink in his brain, a psychological deformity”, the next she switches tack to inquire about his dinner. “What you having?” “Stew.” “That’ll be all right.” “Humour is a great tool of communication,” says Wainwright. “It’s very human that people rally round and cheer each other up.” 

In Cawood, Wainwright has created a formidable and relatable middle-aged woman, unpromoted, patronised by senior men, stubborn, irritable and empathetic. What sets Wainwright apart, says Kristyn Gorton, professor of film and television at the University of Leeds and co-author of a forthcoming book on the writer, is her “strong and consistent focus on storytelling that centres on older, female characters. Through the life experience and often gendered life experiences that make her characters so complex, she [shows] the extraordinariness of the ordinary.”

Wainwright takes issue with criticism that her male characters are feeble. “I wouldn’t write a character who’s weak. My male characters aren’t weak, they’re not centre stage.” And while the industry has changed, she says, she still believes “women are judged by different criteria than men. There’s an assumption that men can do, but women have to prove themselves.”

Wainwright has admitted she can find it difficult to let go. Fergus O’Brien, who directed Gentleman Jack and episodes of Happy Valley, says: “Getting the script is very unlike other experiences of first drafts, which are usually a work in progress. Sally’s generally arrive in tip-top form. She’s very happy to talk, but the vision is there, and that is what she’d like to see.” For O’Brien, the best strategy was to keep her involved. “If it is her baby, the obvious thing to do is to call her and tell her how the baby is.”

Today, Wainwright is determined to enjoy her success though she steers clear of social media. “I get hurt by criticism. You can get too cocky with the [compliments]. I have to trust my own instincts on things.” 

Commissioners are keen for more. “I just want Sally to write about what she wants to write about,” says Charlotte Moore, chief content officer of the BBC. That doors are opening for her in an era of big budgets is thrilling. “We live in a fabulous age of television, telly’s got so sophisticated,” says Wainwright. “I’ve always thought TV had huge potential to be an art form.”

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