David Morrissey, Lesley Manville and Robert Glenister in Sherwood. Image: BBC / House Productions / Matt Squire
Sherwood is the most gripping television drama of the year. With two episodes left, the six-part BBC1 series, written by James Graham, has viewers hooked. And big questions remain.
Who is the secret Spy Cop installed by the Met police to secretly surveil the community during the Miners’ Strike and went rogue, continuing to live in their undercover identity? What exactly happened there in the mid-1980s and how exactly is it linked to the spate of murders? How long will it take hundreds of officers drafted in from London to capture crossbow killer Scott Rowley in Sherwood Forest?
But Sherwood is much more than a police procedural. And since the end of episode one it has not been a whodunit. Instead, this is a state of the nation drama that could not be more perfectly timed.
Set in a Red Wall former mining town, it is based on real life events in writer James Graham’s childhood hometown of Annesley Woodhouse in Nottinghamshire, where two murders led to a huge, double manhunt in Sherwood Forest.
Graham has already taken us inside a more recent political struggle in Brexit: The Uncivil War (featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings), explored 2010’s Downing Street melodrama in C4 film Coalition and written the best episode of The Crown (in which Prince Charles goes to Aberystwyth to study Welsh), as well as creating early lockdown hit Quiz. But this time it’s personal.
And though Sherwood draws viewers in with its complex, constantly surprising crime story it is, at heart, a story of family and community and struggle. Because this community is still feeling the ongoing fallout from the miners’ strike – the unwitting victims in a game of political football.
TV dramas with a message can, at times, forget to be entertaining or compelling. Sherwood is a TV drama with a vital message, that state sponsored destruction of communities via divide and rule tactics – whether by targeting the miners or by using so-called Spy Cops, which Sherwood actor David Morrissey called “deliberate eavesdropping and skulduggery” to infiltrate communities – has had huge repercussions. For those communities. For trust in politics. And for trust in the police.
Lindsay Duncan’s appearance in episode three, as an NUM lawyer laying bare the tactics employed by Margaret Thatcher’s government and the Met police in provoking and then rigging a war with Britain’s miners (thereby reducing the power of Trade Unions) was fleeting. But it featured one of the most powerful monologues in recent television history.
“They wanted a strike… to change the political landscape away from collectivism to deregulated market forces,” she told DI Ian St Clair (David Morrissey), while puffing on a cigarette at Lord Byron’s former country pile.
“To achieve it they needed a war, they needed, and I quote, ‘to provoke a strike in the nationalised industries.’”
High impact stuff, airing at the time of renewed industrial disputes in the UK. A (Mick) Lynchian no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners speech for the ages.
But for every scene like this, there has been an equally brilliant scene that focusses purely on the characters. Lesley Manville, as grieving Julie Jackson, trying to explain the rules of TV gameshow Pointless to David Morrissey’s character. A powerful, beautifully acted scene showing everyday grief –as Julie struggles to figure out what to do with all that spare passing-the-time-of-day chat since the death of her husband.
We’ve heard a lot about the Red Wall in recent months and electoral cycles. Largely from politicians and commentators that have spent very little within the towns, villages and communities of the region, which spans largely working-class areas of the Midlands, North Wales and northern England. But Sherwood is written from within.
“Sherwood is important. It forces people to remember that the political is personal. It doesn’t reside in a building somewhere, it resides in your community and the people that are around you,” says Adeel Akhtar, whose character, Andy Fisher, is introduced as a mild-mannered, socially awkward train driver, but veers off track in a completely unexpected way.
“Just being a part of this story reminds you of that. And there’s power in it. The political conflict they’re feeling was seeded at a particular time.
“We are exploring things that we’re still feeling the repercussions of now – economic and political repercussions that cast quite a long shadow over our existence. It’s nice to explore that and see if there is a chance of change. Is there a way of breaking the cycle?”
One of the most affecting elements of Sherwood has been the relationship between estranged sisters Cathy Rowley (Claire Rushbrook) and Julie Jackson (Manville). Their respective husbands took opposite sides during the miners’ strike – Fred Rowley (Kevin Doyle) working, Gary Jackson (Alun Armstrong) striking. It tore the family apart.
The heartbreak of episode one might bring them close to a reunion – a scene in which they talked over the garden wall that separates their houses was especially beautifully acted – but so many years have been lost.
“One of the many things Sherwood exposes is how politically deep chasms and trauma was inflicted on that community,” says Rushbrook, recently seen starring alongside Akhtar in Bafta-winning Ali and Ava.
“And it is important to note that our writer is from the community. This is a story that is personal and obviously dear to him. So it was important for him to show the community with authenticity and love and strength. If anyone’s qualified to write this with care and love it is James Graham.”
Robert Glenister plays DI Kevin Salisbury. Like Akhtar and Rushbrook, he is playing someone who seems lost, out of place. Salisbury returns to the area for the first time since he was drafted in as a young Met Police officer during the Miners’ Strike. In the actor’s words, “he is not a popular Bobby” on his return.
Salisbury is still haunted by the strike, by a shortlived relationship with Jenny Harris (Nadine Marshall), who is now the local primary school head, during his time there in the 1980s, and by an incident that – with two episodes remaining – we still haven’t fully uncovered.
With his life in the doldrums, returning to Nottinghamshire appears to revive Salisbury’s sense of purpose. And by the end of episode four he is making advances in uncovering the so-called Spy Cops deployed in the area in the 1980s, at least one of whom appears to have kept their undercover identity throughout the intervening years. The actor has been following the real life inquiry into Spy Cops closely.
“The Spy Cops inquiry is still ongoing,” says Glenister.
“But it has now been put on hold. I don’t know all the details, but what always struck me is that during the late 70s 80s there were huge extreme right-wing groups being formed, yet the police seemingly chose to infiltrate fairly benign left wing organisations.
“So it was Greenpeace, Greenham Common protesters, the miners. It’s just an observation.”
Glenister also links the Miners’ Strike to the breakdown of communities and the disillusion across the Red Wall regions.
“What happened when the mining industry was forcibly closed and those communities were torn apart, that’s when the rot started to set in. The word you hear most often is neglect. There was nothing for young people to do. People there felt that nobody cared.
“I’m not saying it was the sole reason, but I think it was hugely contributory to the way society is today.”
Sherwood concludes this week. It may well come to be seen as one of the great British dramas, the ones that shine a light on who we are, like Our Friends In The North or State of Play.
But industrial disputes – involving the RMT, barristers, airport workers, teachers, nurses and many more – look set to dominate the news agenda in the months ahead. And every worker in every dispute has a story like the ones in Sherwood.
To repeat Adeel Akhtar’s words, which sum up why this drama matter so succinctly. “Sherwood is important. It forces people to remember that the political is personal.”
Sherwood continues on BBC1 and iPlayer on Monday and Tuesday night…