ANnesley Woodhouse, the Nottinghamshire village where James Graham grew up, was twice overwhelmed by hordes of police and media. The playwright was a baby the first time, during the miners’ strike of 1984-85. But the second time, in 2004, he had just returned from Hull University when an ex-minor, Keith Frogson, was murdered. “In those first moments,” Graham says, “the police were terrified that someone was killing for reasons going back to the strike.”
When another villager – Chanel Taylor – was killed, the case became even more complicated, bringing new waves of police to the scene. Fascinated by the psychology of officers returning to a community where they were widely reviled for their actions during the strike, Graham romanticized the double trouble in Sherwood, a six-part BBC drama. Viewers led by the title to expect something about Robin Hood are not entirely wrong: a crossbow was one of the murder weapons, and the vast, verdant canopy of Sherwood Forest became the scene of one of the biggest manhunts in UK history.
But it’s the coal deep under the foliage that drives the story. During the year-long industrial action that defined Margaret Thatcher’s second term and fractured the mining industry and unions, the Nottinghamshire coalfields were unusual in that a majority of miners continued to work. “Three-quarters of the men have returned to work,” says Graham. “Only a dozen people in my village remained outside. In Hull a couple of times when I mentioned I was from Nottinghamshire there was a ‘scab county’ debate. For decades later, in Nottinghamshire, ‘scabs’ and ‘strikers’ sat in different corners of the pub or crossed the street to avoid each other.
David Morrissey, who plays the police chief investigating the murders, recalls a vivid story from his research: “Even now, 40 years later, if Mansfield or any of Nottingham’s football teams are going to play , say, Barnsley or another Yorkshire club, they will be taunted with cries of, ‘Scab! Gale!’ And one guy told me he was standing in his seat and yelling, “Yeah but not me! So these divisions are still being played out.”
Morrissey had “sort of forgotten that the miners in Nottinghamshire mostly stayed to work”. He had clearer memories of another element of the drama, the “spy cop” stories: the alleged use of undercover police and spies to infiltrate mining communities. “Through Line of Duty and other shows,” says Graham, “people got used to the idea of undercover policing. So a challenge of this show was to make it clear that it wasn’t terrorism or organized crime that was being investigated, but normal people having spies showing up at their place of work or at a child’s birthday party and were reporting. Why there isn’t more outrage, I don’t understand.
For Lesley Manville, who plays Julie Jackson, the wife of one of the victims in Graham’s story, Sherwood resurfaced a buried memory. In 1984 she took part in a show at the Royal Court Theater in London about striking miners’ wives: “We went to interview some of the women but we also got up at 4 a.m. and picketed. And I was terrified. It was heavy: police horses, riot shields. It stuck with me, that feeling of physical danger and how I started walking fast to find a bus and get out of there.
Manville found the memory of this menacing atmosphere useful for the role, as did meeting some Nottinghamshire women: “The dialect coach brought them together for me to listen to for the voice, but they were interesting when they talked about their life.” For her, the key to Sherwood lies in lasting breakups: “My character lives next to her sister and wants to see her and love her, but can’t because their husbands were on different sides in the strike.”
Re-enacting political events of which he has no recollection is familiar to Graham. His groundbreaking 2012 play This House thrillingly dramatized the parliamentary flogging and stretching of seriously ill MPs ahead of the 1979 vote that toppled the Labor-Liberal coalition and sparked Thatcherism. And, despite being a Labor and remaining a voter, Graham stands out for his respect on both sides. There are some decent Tories in this house, while his Brexit: Uncivil War was felt by some to be too kind to Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
“I always try to see the other side,” says the writer. “I can’t believe it has nothing to do with growing up in Nottinghamshire, seeing decent people on both sides tear each other apart. In our cultural understanding of the miners’ strike, when you think of very brilliant movies like Billy Elliot and Brassed Off, the focus is naturally on the strikers and the hardships. But I felt the importance of watching this from the other side of Sherwood.
Graham sees a connection to his drama Cummings: “There is a clear parallel to the separation of families and groups of friends by Brexit. During the miners’ strike and Brexit, a sudden binary choice was forced upon people. Am I a Remainer for the rest of my life because I voted to Remain in a referendum I never asked for? I wasn’t going to vote, so I made a choice.
It’s easy to imagine a James Graham drama about the miners’ strike with Morrissey as labor leader Arthur Scargill and Manville as Thatcher. “Or why not the other way around?” laughs Manville. But Sherwood, unlike most of Graham’s plays, uses imaginary characters. “The decision to fictionalize was driven by a responsibility to the community, knowing the real families involved,” he says. “My uncle lived on the street where a murder took place. And, unlike other true crime stories where the images of the participants become very well known, this one isn’t like that. So there is more freedom to create. I felt grateful for not putting my friends and neighbors into direct drama.
Does it reduce legal issues? Graham laughs. “Yes. When you script lawyers, there’s often a traffic light system – green tick for you can tell, orange for a little worried and red for you’re alone. I shouldn’t say this, but I’m pretty happy when he comes back covered in red. You think, ‘Something’s going on here.’ Ink, his 2017 play about Rupert Murdoch, “pretty much came back all red!”
For Sherwood, Morrissey met the original investigator but points out that DCS Ian St Clair is “not him, but a fictional character”. As there are currently more cops on TV than in the Scotland Yard canteen, the actor admits: “When your agent tells you that the role is a policeman, your heart sinks a little. But, although Ian is a policeman, and a good one, the drama is really about his position within the community.
While investigators are usually strangers, this cop is an insider, like the character Kate Winslet in Mare Of Easttown (to which Sherwood draws the comparison). “When he goes to do interviews,” says Morrissey, “he doesn’t just walk into a house, like he normally would, but into a house he probably knows. The bond of the community and its history affects its relationships with the characters.
Anxious not to write police procedurals, Graham deliberately broke certain rules: “We decided to tell the public who the murderer was at the end of the first episode, which caused quite an existential crisis at the BBC, because this n you are not. supposed to do. But it was pleasant and surprising to disturb that.
The scripts also challenged Manville to play someone who is in extreme shock and grief for more than 90% of the series: “The piece you see at the start of Julie, the norm, is very short. It is broken very quickly. Because of that, I wanted to put as many everyday nuggets as possible at the start – messing around with the grandkids and so on – so that the public could get involved in it before the crisis arrived.
Viewers will also hear something rare in TV series: two characters talking to each other. Although standard in theatre, counterpoint dialogue is discouraged on television because it causes problems with subtitles and editing, and results in letters of complaint. Mannville nods. “Yes. It’s also a sound recording thing. One way to keep the rhythm going in the theater is to start talking in a chunk before the other person stops. But sound recordists hate that and prefer a swerve. But we did. Graham says one of his favorite moments is Manville and Claire Rushbrook, as his sister, speaking at the door simultaneously: “I’m looking forward to all those letters of complaint. “
TV’s hunger for long-form content means few series are now unique, but Sherwood is likely safe from a sequel in which, say, someone gets rid of local Falklands or the victims of the Gulf? “I always assumed it was a one-time event,” Graham says. “But there have been discussions about possibly developing other stories within that community, so I just don’t know.”
Maybe the detective and the widow could get married? “Yeah – and move to the Bahamas,” Morrissey says.
“Hey!” warns Graham. “They stay in Nottingham. It is a great privilege to put my home community on screen.