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From Raquel in Corrie to the nation’s sweetheart: How Happy Valley star Sarah Lancashire went from humble beginnings as a drama teacher and local theatre actress to being lauded as UK’s ‘Meryl Streep’ by adoring fans

  • Police drama Happy Valley returned to TV screens last night to five star reviews
  • Viewers praised ‘stunning’ performance of Sarah Lancashire as show’s matriarch
  • Lancashire first rose to prominence playing Raquel in Coronation Street
  • Came from humble beginnings, working as a drama tutor between acting jobs 

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Sarah Lancashire graced our television screens last night as matriarch Sergeant Catherine Cawood in the opening episode of the third and final series of Happy Valley.

The much-anticipated return of Sally Wainwright’s gripping police drama opened to five-star reviews as viewers rejoiced that ‘Sarah Lancashire is back on our screens’.

Set in West Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, her character plays a no-nonsense police officer fighting crime in her community, while also battling her own personal demons.

The multi-award winning show has gained Lancashire legions of adoring fans, with some likening her to Britian’s Meryl Streep, with others have hailed Catherine Cawood as ‘the greatest female character to have graced television’. 

Sarah Lancashire graced our television screens last night as matriarch Sergeant Catherine Cawood in the third and final series of Happy Valley

Sarah Lancashire graced our television screens last night as matriarch Sergeant Catherine Cawood in the third and final series of Happy Valley

Lancashire rose to fame as a national treasure on soap Coronation Street, where she played ditzy barmaid Raquel Wolstenhulme from 1991 to 1996

Lancashire rose to fame as a national treasure on soap Coronation Street, where she played ditzy barmaid Raquel Wolstenhulme from 1991 to 1996

Lancashire rose to fame as a national treasure on the soap Coronation Street, where she played ditzy barmaid Raquel Watts (née Wolstenhulme) from 1991 to 1996.

She has gone on to appear in Where the Heart Is, Last Tango in Halifax, Kiri, The Accident and most recently as TV chef Julia Child in the HBO series Julia – also winning her fans across the pond.

But the Oldham-born actor, 58, came from humble beginnings, and before her ‘big break’ in acting starred in local theatre productions and worked as a drama teacher to stay afloat financially before jobs.

Born in 1964, her father Geoffrey was a TV scriptwriter and her mother Hilda worked as his personal assistant. 

Sarah Lancashire starring alongside Billy Connolly in Gentleman's Relish

Sarah Lancashire starring alongside Billy Connolly in Gentleman’s Relish

Sarah Lancashire starring as TV chef and author Julia Child in the HBO series Julia

Sarah Lancashire starring as TV chef and author Julia Child in the HBO series Julia

As a teenager, Lancashire had little interest in acting and originally set out to work behind the scenes in television.

At the age of 18, she won a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where her passion for acting was ignited.

She graduated in 1986 and – after being rejected from several repertory theatres – she was given her first role by Howard Lloyd-Lewis, director of the Manchester Library Theatre Company.

She starred in two plays – Pacific Overtures and the Beauty Game – describing this period as ‘the start of my career as an actor’.

Sarah Lancashire played Polly Bevan in Channel 4's four-part series The Accident

Sarah Lancashire played Polly Bevan in Channel 4’s four-part series The Accident

Despite aspirations to hit the big time, during her early career she found large gaps between theatre appearances and worked as a drama teacher to stay afloat financially. 

But things were about to change. In 1990 Lancashire got her ‘big break’ playing the role of Linda in a production of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers at the Albery Theatre in London’s West End. 

Two weeks after finishing her run in Blood Brothers, Lancashire auditioned to play Raquel Wolstenhulme in Coronation Street, where she would star as colleague of supermarket employee Curly Watts, played by Kevin Kennedy.

Sarah Lancashire as Raquel Wolstenhulme in Corrie, with her Curly Watts (played by Kevin Kennedy)

Sarah Lancashire as Raquel Wolstenhulme in Corrie, with her Curly Watts (played by Kevin Kennedy)

Sarah Lancashire played social worker Miriam in Channel 4's Kiri

Sarah Lancashire played social worker Miriam in Channel 4’s Kiri

After a modelling stint, her character went onto to become the much-loved ditzy barmaid of the Rover’s Return – and would go on to have a failed romance with Weatherfield’s resident lothario Des Barnes.

She went onto marry Curly becoming Raquel Watts but walked out on him in 1996 to pursue an aromatherapy job in Kuala Lumpur.

Following her exit from Corrie, Lancashire joined the cast of ITV’s Where The Heart where she played the role of district nurse Ruth Goddard.

Much to the viewers’ delight, she returned to Weatherfield as Raquel one last time in 2000 during a New Year’s special to demand a divorce from Curly so she could marry her French lover.

Lancashire as Raquel with Curly Watts (Kevin Kennedy) in Coronation Street in 1994

Lancashire as Raquel with Curly Watts (Kevin Kennedy) in Coronation Street in 1994

Happy Valley won a Bafta for best drama and Lancashire for best actress in 2017

Happy Valley won a Bafta for best drama and Lancashire for best actress in 2017

That same year, she became the first actress to signed a £1.3 million ‘golden handcuffs’ deal with ITV, meaning that for two years she could could only star in ITV productions.

At that point, the deal made Lancashire the highest paid actress in British television.

In the years following her ITV deal, she starred in numerous plays and films, including The Bill, Wuthering Heights, Doctor Who, Gentlemen’s Relish, Skins and Dad’s Army.

When Happy Valley first hit screens in 2014, the show was an instant success, gripping more than eight million viewers and winning Baftas for Best Drama and Best Writing.

Raising her grandson Ryan after the suicide of her daughter Becky, Sergeant Catherine Cawood must keep him safe from his biological father, local villain Tommy Lee Royce, played by McMafia star James Norton.

The second series also saw Lancashire win a Bafta for best actress, and in the same year she was awarded an OBE for her services to drama. 

Nearly seven years after the previous series of Happy Valley ended, the grandmother played by Sarah Lancashire is still holding back the tide of drugs and violence in her West Yorkshire town. 

No doubt tipped for more awards when the six-part series comes to an end, her portrayal of Catherine Cawood has also earned her a loyal fanbase across the pond after the show streamed on Netflix in the US.

Lancashire rose to fame as a national treasure on soap Coronation Street, where she played ditzy barmaid Raquel Wolstenhulme from 1991 to 1996

Lancashire rose to fame as a national treasure on soap Coronation Street, where she played ditzy barmaid Raquel Wolstenhulme from 1991 to 1996

James Norton (pictured) plays local villain Tommy Lee Royce in the hit BBC show alongshire Sarah Lancashire

James Norton (pictured) plays local villain Tommy Lee Royce in the hit BBC show alongshire Sarah Lancashire

Three series of Happy Valley were always planned with one and two aired just two years apart from each other.

Wainwright and Lancashire always planned for a gap between the final series – to allow time for the characters to grow – but much to viewers’ frustration the Covid-19 pandemic added another year onto the wait.

The opening of Happy Valley’s final series aired on New Year’s Day was praised for recapturing the magic of the ‘revolutionary’ programme as it garnered five-star reviews across the board.

From humble beginnings to national treasure: A timeline of Sarah Lancashire’s career  

1964: Born in Oldham, Greater Manchester

1991: First starred as Raquel Wolstenhulme in soap Coronation Street. She reprised the role until 1996 

1996: After playing her final scene as Raquel Watts in Corrie, drawing in more than 20 million viewers, Lancashire was nominated in the Most Popular Actress category at the National Television Awards (NTAs) 

Sarah Lancashire as Raquel Watts in Coronation Street

Sarah Lancashire as Raquel Watts in Coronation Street

1997: Starred in Where the Heart Is playing district nurse Ruth Goddard which she played for three series until 1999

1998: Lancashire was nominated for her second NTAs for most popular actress 

2000: On January 1, Lancashire returned to Weatherfield for one final time as Raquel to ask her estranged husband Curly for a divorce. Later than year, she signed a two-year exclusivity deal with ITV worth £1.3 million, making her the highest-paid actress in British TV at the time

2001: She starred in her first role under her new contract with ITV, in the six-part drama The Glass opposite John Thaw. That same year, she also married her second husband Peter Salmon

2002: Lancashire received an Honorary master of Arts degree from Salford University, where she had previously taught as a drama tutor. She also starred in the two-part psychological thriller The Cry. Her contract with ITV was not renewed when it expired

Sarah Lancashire starring in two-part drama The Cry on ITV

Sarah Lancashire starring in two-part drama The Cry on ITV

2005: Returning to London’s West End, Lancashire took on the role of Miss Adelaide in a production of Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly Theatre 

2008: Appeared in the series’ opening episode of Doctor Who 

2011: Starred in a new Cameron Mackintosh musical Betty Blue Eyes at the Novello Theatre for a run of six months. Her performance saw her nominated for an Olivier Award

2012: Starred in the BBC drama series Last Tango in Halifax – written by Sally Wainwright – as Caroline until 2016. She was nominated for a Bafta for best supporting actress in 2013. She was nominated again the next year and won 

Sarah Lancashire played Caroline in Sally Wainwright's Last Tango in Halifax

Sarah Lancashire played Caroline in Sally Wainwright’s Last Tango in Halifax

2014: Lancashire was reunited with Sally Wainwright to play single grandmother Sergeant Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley 

2016: Happy Valley aired for a second series. That same year, she played Mrs Pile in the feature film Dad’s Army

2018: Starred as Miriam, an ‘experienced, no-nonsense social worker’ in Channel 4’s hard hitting four-part drama Kiri 

2022: Lancashire portrayed American TV chef and author Julia Child in the eight-part HBO series Julia, winning her legions of US fans

2023: Happy Valley airs for a third and final series on New Year’s Day, with Lancashire reprising the role of Catherine Cawood 

Source: Daily Mail UK

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