A heavyweight cast add to this immersive BBC series
In the best police thrillers, the crime itself is incidental to the characters who respond to it. This is certainly true of Sherwood, a gritty and ambitious BBC drama which cloaks its procedural investigation in the dark legacy of the 1980s miners’ strike. Before killing its first victim, the show winningly introduces us to him: Gary (Alun Armstrong) is a jovial and outspoken grandfather who recalls with pride his striking past and has not forgiven his enemies.
When he’s found lying dead outside his house in the small and close-knit former mining town of Sherwood, Nottingham with an arrow in his chest, witty references to Robin Hood are hard to resist. “Can we not do that?” chief investigating officer DCS Ian St Clair (David Morrissey) asks his colleagues — he grew up here, and those jokes are old.
Affable though he was, Gary had poisonous relations with some of his neighbours, and the list of potential suspects is not short. The previous night, in the Miners’ Welfare Club, Gary had provoked a near fight by hissing the word “scab!” at a departing toper. “Around here, a lot of folk, they just want to forget, don’t they,” insists a twitchy neighbour, but some have never forgotten the miners’ strike, which is surely connected to Gary’s untimely death.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Sherwood is its daringly slow pace. The crime itself happens 40-odd minutes into the first episode, which has cleverly ramped up our sense of dread by hinting at deadly enmities, and focusing on several local characters with an unhealthy interest in bows and arrows. The series is coming down with heavyweight actors, from Lesley Manville, who’s excellent as Gary’s distraught widow, to David Morrissey’s lugubrious copper, Robert Glenister’s interfering London detective, and Joanne Froggatt’s uppity Tory councillor, who tells anyone who’ll listen that “the red wall fell, didn’t you hear?”
By which she means that this one proud working class stronghold has largely abandoned its tribal connections to the Labour Party, and will probably vote for Brexit when it comes along (the show seems to be set around 2015). And though people do their best not to mention it, the elephant in the corner of every cramped front room is the miners’ strike, and the existential damage it did to any sense of social cohesion.
That may have been part of Margaret Thatcher’s plan. In 1984, determined to drag Britain into a streamlined modern form of laissez faire capitalism, she decided to take on the all powerful miners’ unions and close collieries to reduce the size of Britain’s unwieldy coal industry. In the opposing corner, one Arthur Scargill, the National Union of Mineworkers’ firebrand leader, who had the flair of a gospel preacher, and the instincts of a despot. He wanted a fight with Thatcher, and used ordinary people to engineer one while taking no responsibility for the consequences. Nor did Mrs T.
Stuck in the middle of this clash of egos were ordinary people like the ones depicted here, whose sins would not be forgiven. In the opening credits of Sherwood, we hear Scargill roar “you will be stained till the end of time as a scab!”, grossly simplifying a complex and nasty situation, and choosing to ignore that in crossing the picket lines, some of those ‘scabs’ may have been putting family before politics.
Sherwood is written by James Graham, who grew up near Nottingham and knows how people in these gutted mining communities feel. His dialogue, beautifully handled by the mini-series’ ensemble cast, has the bitter ring of truth. And depressingly, his drama is loosely based on two real-life murders.
Watching Sherwood, which continues on BBC1 for the next few weeks and is bound to show up on a streaming service near you soon, is incredibly immersive. As James Graham’s script flits skilfully between the conflicted lives of a multitude of characters, you get a real sense of what it would feel like to live in one of these scarred mining communities. But there’s humour too, laden with salt, and in plentiful supply. When big city cop Salisbury tells St Clair that he’s worked on 293 murders, the local plod replies “well London sounds f***ing lovely”.
Pat Stacey is on leave