Sharing Sherwood’s secrets
As filming nears completion on BBC drama Sherwood, writer James Graham and executive producer Juliette Howell explain how this six-part series analyses the state of a nation through a crime thriller set in a northern mining village.
Whether it’s dramatising the events that led Britain to leave the EU or how a former Army major cheated his way to the jackpot on a TV quizshow, playwright-turned-screenwriter James Graham has a habit of analysing the mood of a nation. But where his single drama Brexit: An Uncivil War and three-part miniseries Quiz examined single events in acute detail, his latest project has more far-reaching – and personal – themes.
Inspired by real events and set in the Nottinghamshire mining village where Graham grew up, six-part BBC One drama Sherwood is a contemporary story that centres on two shocking and unexpected killings that shatter an already fractured community.
As suspicion and antipathy builds between lifelong neighbours and towards the police forces that descend on the town, the deaths threaten to inflame historic divisions sparked during the miners’ strike that took place 30 years earlier.
Beyond the police investigation, the drama seeks to explore the controversial use of ‘spycops’ and examine the frayed social and political fabric of modern-day, post-Brexit Britain through the eyes of the residents of a northern ‘Red Wall,’ – a traditionally Labour Party-voting town whose inhabitants often find their lives and futures marginalised and ignored by the political classes.
Though Sherwood stands apart by appearing – at least on the surface – as a traditional crime drama, it can be compared to Brexit and Quiz because they are “all ingredients in the same stew,” Graham tells DQ.
“Everything is political. Everything is a social commentary on the world we’re living in, whether it’s in the corridors of power or in a mining community in the North,” he explains. “The joy is that the voices and the characters you’re able to represent [in Sherwood] feel removed from the sometimes limiting framework of politicians and those in power who can often be identikits of one another.
“These feel like new voices to be writing in, even though the same rules apply to how you tell a story and how you try to communicate a state-of-the-nation cultural commentary about where we are as a country.”
Sherwood reunited Graham with House Productions and executive producer Juliette Howell, who first discussed the series with Graham towards the end of their partnership on Brexit. The film starred Benedict Cumberbatch as strategist Dominic Cummings in a behind-the-scenes look at the Leave campaign in the run-up to the 2016 referendum.
“That entire film was about understanding why a country made a particular decision and why certain messages and narratives cut through certain communities, and that is now the community we’re in [in Sherwood],” Graham continues. “It’s a socially conservative, Brexit-voting town where something horrible happened and they’ve been wrestling with the trauma of the past for several decades now, all of which I think contributed to the decision that towns like that made in the other movie we made.
“But even though it’s inspired by something that actually happened in my village – this tragic set of murders – it is a very fictionalised version of that. To be able to build your own characters and depart from the rigid, literal structure of a drama-documentary format feels liberating, and equally the responsibility where it’s just you and there’s six episodes felt great as well.”
In Sherwood, David Morrissey stars as DCS Ian St Clair, who is tasked with finding a link between two killings. To do so, he reunites with former rival DI Kevin Salisbury (Robert Glenister) from London’s Metropolitan Police, whose return to the town heightens the already febrile tensions in the community.
The town features characters including Gary (Alun Armstrong), a miner who made the decision to stand on the picket line in the 1980s – one that still sets him apart from his neighbours today. Gary’s wife Julie (Lesley Manville) and her sister Cathy (Claire Rushbrook) are estranged over their divided loyalties to the men they love, while widower Andy (Adeel Akhtar) fears he is losing his son Neel (Bally Gill) to soon-to-be daughter-in-law Sarah (Joanne Froggatt).
When suspicion falls on his family, Mickey (Philip Jackson) finds his entrepreneurial empire under threat, and his wife Daphne (Lorraine Ashbourne) will do whatever she can to protect them.
Then there’s Warnock (Stephen Tompkinson), whose reappearance sows new seeds of suspicion surrounding events from 1984 when he alludes to activity of the Met Police’s undercover police unit during the strikes.
The array of characters in Sherwood grew from Graham’s belief that to confront political issues in television drama, you have to start by telling a story that allows those themes to emerge. “We as people carry the political with us, internally and personally. You don’t stop to have a bit of a speech about the Red Wall and the left behind,” he says. “Fundamentally, it’s a story about social discord and division in that particular community, but that acts as a microcosm for wider cultural divisions in the UK and across the world. Then into this town comes this horrific event that forces characters to address some of those political issues, but on a very personal level. It’s all about story, story, story.”
“I do think of it as James’s love letter to that community,” Howell says. “These are characters that feel so authentic, warm and witty – you can’t help but fall in love with them, despite some of the contradictory decisions they make. James has such a knack for that. It’s so wonderful to see him working across this broader canvas of these six episodes. These people feel so unbelievably real. It’s a joy to see that.”
Dressed as a crime thriller, Sherwood isn’t a whodunnit. Instead, the series attempts to subvert the crime genre beyond a typical police investigation to ask bigger questions about how the killings impact local residents and how they behave when they feel their town is under siege.
“In its DNA, there are things that are obviously immediately relatable and, hopefully, appealing,” says Graham. “Despite the horror of the reality of the story, what you have is a crime thriller where there is a double murder, and you have the fear that this is going to open up political wounds in a tight-knit community.”
Referring to the show’s title, the writer says nearby Sherwood Forest looms large over the village, immediately conjuring images of the legendary outlaw Robin Hood. “Then you have the reason why I wrote it in the first place: I remember, when I was 21 years old, seeing the tragic irony of a historic trauma where the Met Police arrive in a village in 1984 and clashed with locals and the local constabulary,” he says. “Two decades later, a murder between two former miners means you have to bring that police force back. I remember the pain etched on people’s faces and the feeling they are trapped in this condition of never being able to quite escape what they inherited.”
Writing all six episodes of Sherwood, Graham spent many days at House Productions’ central London office where they would have Post-It notes across the walls and whiteboards scrawled with notes as they broke down the story.
“Even though we consider theatre a more collaborative method of working and a more collective experience of sharing it, actually, you go away and come back six months later with a play and then the work starts with the director and actors,” he says. “It’s the reverse in television, and gloriously so. I would send 10 pages of the first script to Juliette and go, ‘Does this sound right? Does this make any sense? Is it the right tone? What are we doing?’
“That’s an environment that encourages you not to feel you’ve got to go away and do it. I love being vulnerable and sharing half-formed ideas, not waiting for it to be perfect. Otherwise it never feels quite real. I like it to feel quite real, quite early. Otherwise you’re just in a room making shit up in your head and it doesn’t quite feel tangible.”
That collaboration has also extended to the visual style of the show, with Graham and Howell working closely alongside lead director Lewis Arnold (Time, Des) to discuss Sherwood’s tone and feel.
“But, of course, you gloriously and thankfully hand that over to people with actual skills,” Graham jokes. “As a general headline, we all said we have to liberate ourselves from the expectations or conventions of what an ‘it’s grim up north’ industrial drama should look like. It should feel very modern and contemporary. The living rooms people live in, the streets they walk down… it’s not Billy Elliot, it’s not Red Riding. It’s our own unique thing.
“Nature also plays such an important part in it. Just to have sunlight dappling through the leaves or vast expanses of fields that the coal used to sit beneath, I feel like the poetry and the epic nature of it will lift it from what an audience expects from a murder mystery in the North.”
When DQ speaks to Graham and Howell in mid-September, filming is continuing on the series after the pandemic delayed production slightly. Two units are shooting simultaneously, while Howell and Graham have both been regular visitors to set on location in Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and across the North West of England in “communities that don’t get enough get screen time in mainstream television,” Howell says.
“We have had some Covid on the show and that’s a challenge. It’s incredibly busy out there as well but, across cast and crew, we’re just so thrilled to work with people who are absolutely at the top of their game. It’s interesting talking about community; it has brought people together in a way I’ve not quite witnessed before on set on a production. That’s been fantastic to see and I hope that will continue.”
While the police investigation plays out, Graham had to consider early on at what point viewers would leave the show’s ensemble of characters and what state their lives would be left in when the final credits roll.
“You don’t want to undermine the messiness and the complications of a real story by wrapping it up neatly in a Hollywood way,” he says. “Drama, by default, often applies meaning where there often isn’t meaning. That’s what happens when you structure something and give it a story. Having said that, nor do you want to put these characters and these people through something without suggesting there is a value to examining what happened.
“We have tried to suggest some sort of resolution where healing and reconciliation is possible, even out of undesirable trauma and a tragic event. In my community, even today, people will cross the street from one another if they made a different decision [over the miners’ strike] in 1984. Now we’re seeing that replicated across the country with Brexit. This stuff cuts through and it lasts. The overly simplistically way to address that is by putting people in a room and talking about it. This might sound impossibly romantic, but I also feel that’s the power and the purpose of drama, especially drama on a public service broadcaster, where everyone can gather together in one space and watch a story together.”
Distributed by BBC Studios, Sherwood’s story of life in a specific English town may seem inaccessible to international audiences. But inspired by the success of shows such as HBO’s Mare of Easttown and True Detective, both Graham and Howell are confident overseas viewers can tap into the universal challenges the characters in Sherwood face.
“The language of the left behind, a post-industrial society of Western communities feeling isolated and excluded by global forces – an international audience is used to seeing communities that have been suffering economically and socially,” Graham says, “and yet somehow they’re full of humour, full of life and full of heart. I hope the politics will feel absolutely recognisable to anyone in the US or Germany, and that the specificity of a British community that isn’t always put on screen will excite them.
The writer also hopes viewers will watch Sherwood – which is due to air on BBC One in 2022 – with a renewed sense of empathy for the show’s characters, leaving behind any negative or romanticised stereotypes of life in a northern mining town.
“We just try to create complex, humane, flawed and beautiful characters, with some of the best screen actors that we have to give them life,” Graham says. “I hope it will generate empathy – which is sorely lacking from all walks of life – for communities that are simplified or, dare I say, in danger of being used as a political weapon for any side of the culture wars. To create a complicated community and generate empathy in an audience towards their situation would be great.”