Sherwood lead director Lewis Arnold talks to DQ about the success of the James Graham-scripted crime drama, working with the starry British cast and why he almost left the show.
Three days into filming BBC drama Sherwood, lead director Lewis Arnold offered to step away from the project. He had been calling ‘action’ on scenes set on farmland belonging to the show’s Sparrow family when he was pulled aside by a crew member and informed that the Covid test he had taken earlier that morning was positive.
Immediately, he returned to the unit base to take another test, and when that too flagged up a positive result, the filmmaker went straight into isolation.
Not wanting to hold up the shoot, Arnold spoke to the executive producers and told them that if they wanted to bring someone else in to continue filming, he would step away.
“There was a big conversation about whether that was feasible and, in the end, I was really blessed that they just went, ‘No, we’ll just stand down and we’ll wait,’” he tells DQ. “Then we started again and we’d been shooting for four days when we lost pretty much the whole crew [to Covid]. I had 11 first assistant directors on this job, which is just crazy, but in a Covid world, you just learn to get on with it.”
Quite what Sherwood would have looked like without Arnold is something we will never know. But what is certain is that the director’s collaboration with writer James Graham, House Productions and an eye-catching array of British acting talent led to one of the TV events of the year.
Blending police investigation with characterful drama that is firmly rooted in the show’s Nottinghamshire setting, the critically acclaimed series stands out as a study of divisions in a fractured community as two tragic killings threaten to inflame historical divisions sparked during the miners’ strike three decades earlier.
David Morrissey stars as Detective Chief Superintendent Ian St Clair, who is forced to reunite with old rival DI Kevin Salisbury (Robert Glenister) from London’s Metropolitan Police to solve the murders.
Gary (Alun Armstrong) is one of the few miners who joined the picket line in the 80s, and won’t let anyone forget it. It’s one of the reasons his wife Julie (Lesley Manville) is estranged from her sister Cathy (Claire Rushbrook), whose own husband Fred (Kevin Doyle) didn’t strike.
Other characters include the Sparrows – Mickey (Philip Jackson), Daphne (Lorraine Ashbourne) and Rory (Perry Fitzpatrick) – who find the finger of suspicion pointing their way. Then there’s Andy (Adeel Akhtar), who is still struggling with the loss of his wife and now feels he’s losing his son Neel (Bally Gill) too, with Neel set to marry Sarah (Joanne Froggatt).
Arnold, who directed the first three episodes, describes the show’s success as “surreal,” and admits he is still too close to the project to appreciate or enjoy it.
“I still watch it and see all the things I wish I’d done, all the things that I think I did wrong,” he says. “I’m still in that very overly critical mindset of not being able to sort of step back from it and enjoy it. I enjoyed the job; I loved working with James Graham – he is one of the most giving and generous collaborators, not just with myself, but particularly with the cast.”
This wasn’t the case for Sherwood, however. Instead, he was sent the first couple of scripts while he was filming Jimmy McGovern prison drama Time and then met with House co-CEOs Tessa Ross and Juliette Howell and development producer Harriet Spencer to discuss the project, which is distributed by BBC Studios.
“By the time I got to the end of episode two, I was so unsure of what it was, and that excited me in a way. Every episode evolved, and every time you thought you knew what it was, James somehow wrong-footed you, but not in a cheap way – in a way where you genuinely felt excited about the layers and the textures of the piece and where he was taking you,” he explains.
“I was born during the year of the mining strike so I don’t remember it, but I’ve seen a lot of films and heard people talk about it. Living through Brexit and living in a very polarised political world where you are a Leaver or a Remainer, I really understood what those miners went through in a way that I felt people and younger audiences would now see the mining strike through a different lens.”
He also “adored” the way Graham – who based the story on real events in the mining village where he grew up – had created characters on both side of the political divide and not taken one side or the other himself. “He invests in characters regardless of which side they were on. I pick projects based on story and characters, and James just writes brilliant characters,” Arnold adds.
With credits that also include Humans and Broadchurch, Arnold says choosing his next project is all about how he responds to the material – whether that’s an early script or series outline – and whether he cares about the characters or can find things in them that interest him. Increasingly, it’s also about what the story is trying to say, with Sherwood providing plenty of contextual layers to get stuck into.
“If I’m going to spend time away from my family like I did with Time and Sherwood, it can’t just be a fluff piece. It can’t just be entertainment,” he says. “Yes, it has to be that, but is it going to say something about the world we live in now? Sherwood really tapped into how I became politically motivated and angry after Brexit, and frustrated politically, as I think lots of us are right now.
“I don’t feel positive about the future. It doesn’t look like the main things that are affecting working-class people in this country are going to be looked at or addressed any time soon. The fact food banks are on the rise again, all that stuff scares me. I feel like there are great projects out there that are able to show this and at least say something about the world we live in. That’s not the driving force behind any particular project, but it counts.”
That his mother has a twin sister meant Arnold was particularly struck by the relationship between estranged sisters Julie and Cathy, whose separation is highlighted visually in episode three when they are shown standing on either side of a brick wall. It was a dynamic about which he spoke to Graham at length during their first Zoom conversation together, because he recognised something in Julie, a character he says doesn’t appear on screen very often.
“Yes, she’s working class, but she’s colourful and, in the early moments in episode one, she swears in front of her grandkids and there’s a joyous energy about her that you don’t see in that age bracket of working-class women,” Arnold explains. “She was full of life and humour and there was colour that just vibrated from her off the page. I really recognised my mum and my aunt, who aren’t divided in their political opinions, but I recognised something in the sadness of that.”
Then when casting began, he found himself in awe of Akhtar, whose character Andy is involved in one of the most shocking moments of the series. “In a strange way, he brought humanity to a character and an individual who makes choices that you should despise, really,” he says of the actor. “Because he’s so affable and brilliant at bringing so much layer and complexity to it, you have to remind yourself of what he [Andy] has done.”
In his initial conversations with Graham, Arnold was particularly keen to lay bare the context for the series early on in episode one, which opens with a birds-eye view of Sherwood Forest – famed for its association with outlaw archer Robin Hood – before cutting to archive footage of Arthur Scargill, the trade unionist who led the miners’ strikes as president of the National Union of Mineworkers. Shots of strikers clashing with police follow, illustrating the history of the divisions that resonate decades later in Sherwood’s story.
“The piece is about a community of strikers and non-strikers and the divides and rifts that still exist in the community, so when James wrote the opening originally, it was stock footage about just the strikes in general, intercut with [dramatised] shots of the picket line, which later features in episode five,” Arnold says. “I said, ‘Viewers really need to understand that that divide is about the scabs and the pickets. It’s about the non-strikers and the strikers and how those divides have gone for nearly 40 years past that point.’”
One visual inspiration for Sherwood was the critically acclaimed first season of HBO crime drama True Detective, whose tone was informed by the Louisiana landscape. Arnold used a similar approach on Sherwood, finding the forest in every location and putting this divided community on the edge of the woodland to provide an additional layer of fright and danger.
“The other thing was trying to remember that while it was a procedural, essentially it’s a character drama, so we didn’t have to do conventional things that most procedurals do. We tried to fight against moments of procedure and constantly give you emotional stakes within each of the characters, which is difficult when you’re jumping around. We wanted viewers to feel emotionally linked to the characters or at least understand emotionally where each character is at each point in the piece.”
That ambition then influenced how a scene was shot, how Lorne Balfe scored the series and how it was edited. “We were also blessed that Victor [Jenkins, casting director] brought together one of the greatest casts I’ve had the joy of working with,” Arnold says. “When you’ve got a great cast like that, it’s about just capturing what they’re giving you and not getting in the way of it, which is a great thing that you’re taught film school. Cast well and then stay out of their way and let them do what you cast them for.”
Arnold didn’t get much rehearsal time with the ensemble Jenkins amassed for the series. Instead, he created reference packs for each actor and also shared a link to Ken Loach’s historical documentary Which Side Are You On?. The 1984 film captures life during the miners’ strike and showcases many of the songs and poems some of the key participants were inspired to write at the time.
“The great thing about the cast, ironically, is that at the read-through, I realised they all know each other,” he reveals. “So while they might not have seen each other for years, they all just knew each other. That created a synergy immediately where they were all so supportive of each other and there was a collective energy and joy.
“From Lesley Manville through to David Morrissey through to Robert Glenister, they all need something different because each actor is a unique entity in how they find their performances through their own process. My job is to figure out what, if anything, they need from me other than guiding them through the script. They’re at the peak of their powers and a lot of it is them basically putting up with me and probably blanking out my noise more than anything.”
Arnold particularly enjoyed filming the opening to episode three, which introduces younger versions of many of the show’s characters as they line up – protestors opposite the police – on the picket line during the strikes. The two sides then clash violently when a coach arrives carrying non-striking workers into the pit.
The director had finished the majority of his filming duties and returned to set for his final day of shooting to film the sequence. With the storyboarding for the scene completed six months earlier, two cameras were then rolling on set to capture the action.
“It was just a joyous thing to do and recreate, and satisfying because there were a few supporting artists there who had lived through it and been on real picket lines,” he says. “I had people coming up to me saying it was frighteningly real. To hear from people that you’ve tapped into something they lived through was quite a rewarding thing for a director. But also that sequence was just a lot of fun.”
Looking back on Sherwood, Arnold says it was tough job but one made easier by working with a “brilliant” cast and crew. “One of the best things was you’d shoot for three days with Andy, Neel and Sarah and then you’d say bye to them for two months,” he says. “There was this constant excitement of meeting and working with new people. Just as you would get character or location fatigue, you would get excited about going into a new household and meeting a whole new set of characters.”