In Spotlight: Sarah Lancashire’s best ever movies and TV shows - her top 5 roles you need to watch, from Julia to Happy Valley

From Last Tango in Halifax to Coronation Street, we rate Sarah Lancashire’s top five roles, as she returns to play Catherine Cawood in BBC One's gritty crime drama Happy Valley.

By Sophia Moir Updated: 3 January 2023 - 4.05pm
BBC Sarah Lancashire Happy Valley

With a career spanning four decades since her stint in Coronation Street, Sarah Lancashire has long been the nation’s sweetheart.

The Oldham-born actress, 58, who's mum to three grown-up sons, has a string of BAFTA and NTA awards to her name. Plus, she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2017 Birthday Honours, for services to drama.

Lancashire has proved her acting range with roles in soaps such as Corrie, gritty crime dramas like Happy Valley, and musicals including Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Here, we round up her top 5 movies and TV show roles. 

1. Julia - Julia Child

In 2022, Sarah Lancashire introduced herself to US audiences in her first American TV role, as she transformed into TV chef and cooking pioneer Julia Child for HBO series Julia.

The actress's transformation for the eight-part series dazzled critics across the Atlantic, with a host of five-star reviews attached to her name.

David Canfield from Vanity Fair wrote: “Lancashire’s powerhouse performance marks both a staggering change of pace for the actor and a long time coming.” 

Amy Amatangelo from Paste concurred: "[Lancashire] inhabits Child so fully from her very specific accent, to the cadence of her speech to the absolute infectious joie de vivre in her interactions with others."

You can watch Lancashire’s transformation into Julia Child in the first look trailer, below:

Catch up on Julia on Sky Atlantic with NOW.

2. Everybody's Talking About Jamie - Margaret New

Prime Video

In one of her biggest film roles to date, Sarah Lancashire starred in the 2021 adaptation of the feel-good, award-winning West End musical, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

Lancashire played Margaret New, the mum of the central character, Jamie New (played by Max Harwood). Margaret is a single mum from Sheffield who's supportive of Jamie's dreams of becoming a drag queen.

Speaking about why Lancashire was perfect for the role, the film's director Jonathan Butterell told Buzzfeed: "Sarah was the most perfect piece of casting for me because Sarah does small like nobody else does small.

"I just knew she understood that mother and the community she comes from."

She also sung a duet with Max Harwood called He's My Boy, a rare on-screen showcase of her vocal skills, which you can listen to below:

Stream Everybody’s Talking About Jamie on Prime Video.

3. Last Tango in Halifax - Caroline McKenzie Dawson

Between 2012 and 2016, Lancashire played the role of Oxford-educated headmistress Caroline in the BBC romantic drama Last Tango in Halifax, written by Sally Wainwright.

The show featured Caroline in a same-sex relationship, and Lancashire says she received a host of fan mail from older women saying that seeing her character's journey helped them to come out.

For this reason, Lancashire has said that the role of Caroline is the one she is most proud of, citing the "extraordinary impact" of the character.

“I’ve had a lot of lovely feedback from women in their mid-life who have found themselves in similar circumstances, or are just embarking on same-sex relationships," she said.

“Their feedback has been that the sensitivity has been beautiful, they haven’t seen that nature of the relationship portrayed or written in such a sensitive manner before.”

In 2014, Lancashire won the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress for her part in Last Tango in Halifax, which also stars Sir Derek Jacobi, Anne Reid and Nicola Walker.

Stream Last Tango in Halifax Seasons 1-5 on BBC iPlayer, BritBox and ITVX.

4. Coronation Street - Raquel Wolstenhulme (later Raquel Watts)

The role that propelled Lancashire to nationwide fame was that of ditzy blonde barmaid Raquel Wolstenhulme, later Raquel Watts, in ITV's long-running soap, Coronation Street.

Lancashire first appeared in the soap in 1991, appearing in a whopping 532 episodes until her final scenes aired in 1996. 

Her romance with Curly Watts (Kevin Kennedy) captured viewers' imaginations, and the scene in which naive Raquel took a French lesson from Ken Barlow is regarded as being among the funniest in the soap's 60-year history. 

As a mum-of-two when she quit the soap in 1996, Lancashire blamed a punishing work schedule for her exit, saying she wanted a job rather than a way of life.

She returned for a final episode in 2000 in which - in the soap's first two-hander - her character Raquel asked Curly for a divorce.

Of her brief return to Corrie, the show's producer at the time Jane Macnaught, said in an interview with the BBC: "Sarah's character is one of the most popular Coronation Street has ever created. 

“Her millions of fans will have wondered what has happened to her in the years since she left the show and this special appearance is their chance to find out." 

Stream Coronation Street: Greatest Episodes on BritBox.

Not sure where to start? Check out Raquel's Dinner Party from back in 1992. 

5. Happy Valley - Catherine Cawood

BBC / Red Productions

Sarah Lancashire is currently reprising her role as Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood in the third and final season of the BBC's gritty crime drama, Happy Valley.

She's played the role - which reunited her with Last Tango in Halifax writer, Sally Wainwright - since 2014.

In the role she was born to play, Lancashire expertly demonstrates Catherine's struggle to manage her career in the police with her complex and tragic personal life.

In an opinion piece for Vulture titled It’s Time to Start Watching Happy Valley, TV Editor David Renshaw writes: “It features a brilliant central performance [from Sarah Lancashire].

"She inhabits her role as Cawood so completely you get the impression you could pitch up outside her stone-clad house and invite yourself in for a cup of tea."

Mark Lawson from The Guardian agrees, calling it Lancashire’s [career] “best performance”. It's no wonder, then, that she won the 2017 National Television Award for Most Popular Drama Performance, voted for by the public.

She also scooped the 2017 British Academy Television Award for Best Actress. You can watch her TV BAFTAs acceptance speech below:

Happy Valley season 3 airs Sundays at 9pm on BBC One.

Stream Happy Valley seasons 1-2 on BBC iPlayer.

Best of the rest: Sarah Lancashire’s top movies and TV shows

  • Where the Heart Is (1997–1999)

  • Clocking Off (2000)

  • Seeing Red (2000) 

  • Oliver Twist (2007)

  • Lark Rise to Candleford (2008–2011)

  • The Paradise (2012)

  • And When Did You Last See Your Father? (2007)

  • Dad's Army (2016)

  • Kiri (2018)

  • MotherFatherSon (2019)

  • The Dresser (2015)

  • School of Roars (2017) (voiceover)

  • Yesterday (2019)
  • The Cry (2002)
  • The Accident (2019)