Karl Davies - Marple actor on his Happy Valley role

Karl Davies from Marple, who stars in the BBC's hit series Happy Valley. Photo by Faye Thomas

Karl Davies from Marple, who stars in the BBC's hit series Happy Valley. Photo by Faye Thomas - Credit: Archant

He has starred in a string of successful TV dramas, including Happy Valley, but Karl Davies’s first acting break was at Marple’s Carver Theatre, at the tender age of eight, writes Howard Bradbury

His boyish looks belie his 33 years, but Karl Davies is an actor who can summon the most turbulent of emotions.

He did it in the First World War drama The Crimson Field, with a hugely affecting performance as a soldier suffering shell shock. He did it again in the first series of Happy Valley when his character Daniel Cawood accuses his mother Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) of wishing that he, rather than his sister, had died.

‘It was, I think, six pages of dialogue and it took a whole day’s shoot, ten or 11 hours on camera,’ Karl says of that pivotal scene. ‘It was a big day. But working with people like Sarah is an absolute pleasure. I’d do it 12 hours every day.’

It was moments like this which made BBC’s Happy Valley unmissable, award-winning TV. With locations in the Calder Valley, it also gave the viewing public a new and unfamiliar setting for a crime drama.

‘I suppose we went back with a little bit of trepidation,’ says Karl of filming the second series of Happy Valley, now on our screens. ‘It wasn’t putting the area in the best light, so there was some nervous tension going back to film in beautiful places like Hebden Bridge and Sowerby Bridge, but we were welcomed back with open arms.’

As for the work of Happy Valley’s creator Sally Wainwright, Karl says: ‘Every “um”, “ah”, full stop, pause, split line...everything is on the page. She writes in a very conversational way which makes it very easy for the actors to know exactly what she’s after.’

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Born at Stepping Hill Hospital, Stockport, and raised in Marple, his dad an engineer and his mum a PA for an architect’s firm, Karl knew no-one in his family with dramatic inclinations. He recalls playing in a production of Willy Russell’s Our Day Out at the Carver Theatre, Marple, when he was eight but was more interested in football for years until he resumed drama at Marple Hall School.

One potent inspiration for him was the crime drama Cracker.

‘I can remember seeing an episode of that with Robbie Coltrane and Robert Carlyle and thinking, “I want to do something like that”. It was the rawness, the honesty. That’s still what I’m drawn to, hopefully. when I do work myself,’ says Karl.

‘I went on to the sixth form at Ridge Danyers - Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College, as it is now - and that was where I started acting professionally. It was during my A Level theatre studies course that I got a part in Peak Practice on ITV. I was saving money to go to drama school, but I managed to keep getting work, so I carried on going.’

In 2001, Karl landed the part of Robert Sugden in Emmerdale.

‘That was the training, that was the drama school,’ he says. ‘You get thrown in with 17 pages of dialogue a day, three cameras and you just have to make it work. It still amazes me those shows are as good quality as they are because they get no time at all to do what they do.’

After four years. Karl opted to leave Emmerdale.

‘What I enjoyed about acting was the different characters, so to play one wasn’t particularly appealing,’ he says. ‘I had no kids, no mortgage, no ties, so that was the time to do it, hoping that that safety net was always there should I want to go back.’

There were, he admits, ‘a couple of really lean years’ - a result of him being so closely associated with one character, and a slight snobbery about actors who have graduated from soap operas (a snobbery to which the likes of Sarah Lancashire and Suranne Jones have now surely put paid.)

But Karl resisted entreaties to woo him back to Emmerdale and landed parts in Kingdom, with Stephen Fry, Kay Mellor’s The Syndicate and even Game of Thrones, in which his character Alton Lannister lasted three episodes before, inevitably, meeting a grisly end.

‘It was cold,’ Karl recalls of the experience. ‘We were in a field somewhere north of Belfast and I came back with the worst ‘flu.’

These days, home for Karl and his partner is in Hove (‘It’s within striking distance of London but slightly cheaper and slightly nicer’) though work frequently brings him back north.

Could future projects include a return to the Calder Valley for a third series of Happy Valley?

‘I really don’t know, but, from a selfish point of view, I do hope so,’ says Karl.

Karl’s own Happy Valley

Karl Davies’s all-action upbringing included white water kayaking with Manchester Canoe Club, motocross in a disused quarry in New Mills, rock climbing in the Peak District or scaling the walls at the Rope Race Climbing Centre in Goyt Mill, Marple. As a professional actor, though, all such dangerous activities are now banned by those who write insurance policies.

‘The places that are really close to me, which I didn’t really appreciate at the time, are the places I used to play as a kid: Etherow Country Park, the Roman Lakes, Brabyns Park where I used to play football every weekend,’ says Karl, sitting in his childhood bedroom at his mum’s home in Marple, having just completed another day’s filming in Sheffield on a new ITV drama Brief Encounters, with Penelope Wilton.

‘At the moment, I’m doing that journey from Sheffield through the Hope Valley back over to Marple, and it’s absolutely stunning. As a kid, I didn’t think twice about it, but having lived away and coming back, it’s those places I take friends and people who are visiting the area and working up here.’

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