Sherwood, with Poppy Gilbert as young Julie
We’ve heard a lot about the Red Wall in recent months. Mostly from politicians and commentators who have spent very little time within the towns, villages and communities of the region that spans largely working-class areas of the Midlands, north Wales and northern England. But writer James Graham grew up in an ex-mining village in Nottinghamshire. It’s in his bones. So, having taken us deep inside the Brexit campaigns with Brexit: The Uncivil War, explored the political melodrama of 2010 in Coalition, and written lockdown hit Quiz, he is now bringing his home town into focus.
“Coming from a Red Wall community, I felt like there aren’t many writers who have that hinterland, so it was a responsibility I wanted to take,” he says. “I don’t have that accent any more. But to be able to write in the vernacular and rhythms and humour of the people I grew up with is really exciting.”
But is Sherwood a police drama or an in-depth study of a community? Is it a star-studded primetime BBC One series (Lesley Manville, David Morrissey, Joanne Froggatt, Adeel Akhtar and Alun Armstrong are just some of the big names) or a rallying cry? Well, it is all this and more. A provocative, entertaining, compelling state-of-the-nation drama that shines a light on a community still feeling the pain of the 1984-85 miners’ strike.
The series is loosely based around two real-life murders from 2004, which sparked a major manhunt in Sherwood Forest, bringing the Met Police back to the scene of clashes from two decades earlier, reopening wounds that had barely healed. It is a detailed study of community – full of heart and humour.
“These are people who had to face the return of their past in physical form as the Met Police marched back again 20 years later, bringing with them all those memories,” says Graham. “I remember that happening in real life in 2004 and being really surprised and embarrassingly ignorant about why people felt so emotional. Grown men with very wet eyes watching this happen. So I wanted to interrogate that and understand all of the forces of history and politics and economy and culture.”
We are talking in a swanky PR company office in King’s Cross, Central London – another area transformed in recent years. Graham is joined by two of Sherwood’s stars: Lesley Manville, one of the greatest actors on the planet, and David Morrissey, who rarely puts a foot wrong in his TV projects.
“Politics through character is just the best,” says Manville. “I actually went up to Barnsley when the strike was happening to research a play that was going to be written on the situation,” says Manville. “So I did find myself quite young on a picket line, which I didn’t like very much.”
Morrissey plays detective chief superintendent Ian St Clair – one of the few in the local force who was around during the miners’ strike.
“He’s in a place of wanting to be a good policeman, but also he’s sensitive about what’s going on in this area. So, when it’s mooted the Met might come up, he’s apoplectic, because he knows what that means,” says Morrissey. “What is great about Sherwood is that it is rooted in a recent past which we are dealing with all the time. One of my favourite bits is when Alun Armstrong, who plays Gary, talks about mining to his grandson. He talks about holding a piece of coal for the first time. And you just see that this was beyond a job for this man. He gets the legacy. And he does it unashamedly. I thought, Wow. That’s it in a nutshell – you really get that community in a massive way.”
Manville joins in. “We shot it in Bolton right next to what used to be a mine. It’s really beautiful there isn’t it? It’s this small community of classic miners’ terraced houses but there’s such a great community. The area is similar to the area Sherwood deals with – and those bonds are quite extraordinary. So the stuff that goes on in Sherwood would be so painful to live side-by-side with. It would be so shocking.”
The series takes us into the heart of this community wrought asunder in the mid-1980s, as many miners chose not to take part in the strikes. Families were divided along political lines. In Sherwood, Manville as Julie Jackson, is estranged from her sister Cathy (Claire Rushbrook), though they live a stone’s throw away from each other.
“It seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? But it’s torn them apart. Even though Julie was on the picket line with Gary, the fact he hasn’t been able to stop muttering ‘scab’ makes her uncomfortable. She wants to be able to move forward and have a relationship with her sister.”
“People still cross the street to avoid one another,” says Graham. “Brothers still don’t talk to brothers – and we have echoes of that now with Brexit. I don’t know what it says about us – but it was a useful moment to explore.”
Another element in the news now is brought into focus by Sherwood. Dubbed ‘spy cops’, police infiltrating protest groups – from striking miners to Greenpeace – was standard practice.
“Deliberate eavesdropping and skulduggery was sanctioned by the government. It’s shocking,” says Morrissey. “A community was infiltrated by outside forces. They weren’t a terrorist organisation, it wasn’t a recognised war. People were coming to kids’ birthday parties and feeding information back. I don’t think we understand the enormity of how it was used. How do you self-examine as a nation?”
We’ve all heard the stories of women being tricked into relationships with undercover officers. Relationships built on state-endorsed lies.
“The betrayal of it. I don’t know how you repair that,” Manville says.
Sherwood asks big questions – about who the criminal justice system is there to serve – that are so relevant today.
“There is evidence that on picket lines the first bricks weren’t thrown by a miner,” Morrissey says. “I’m not saying they were all angels but there’s evidence that people were placed on the other side in order to provoke clashes.”
“Trust is so important in institutions,” adds Graham. “We don’t want to be slamming the police. That’s why it was a real privilege to write this character for David. People like him found themselves policing picket lines of their own fathers and brothers. Then they had this invading army of Met Police making them look bad, soiling the reputation of the police, which has never recovered in Nottinghamshire.
“There is still this code in these communities where you don’t call the police, you sort it out yourself. How do you rebuild that trust? The whole miners’ strike was a false provocation. A proxy war for something completely different. They picked these people and they picked coal…”
The mining communities of the so-called Red Wall singled out, used as a political football when, as Morrissey says, “They could have picked steel, they could have picked dockers.”
For Graham, this gets to the heart of a political problem in this country.
“Why aren’t we more angry?” he says. “At the same time, I don’t want this TV drama to provoke anger, I want healing and reconciliation. But in order to do that, to reacquire that trust, you have to shine a light on why this happened and how ugly it is.”