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14 June 2022

James Graham’s Sherwood: a rich and gripping crime drama

A stunning cast and precise sense of place elevate this BBC series set in a Nottinghamshire village haunted by the 1980s miners’ strike.

By Rachel Cooke

James Graham’s absorbing new drama, Sherwood, has a richness that simply can’t be bought off the peg. If its plotting is intricate and imaginative, pretty much everything else about it seems to be born of experience. Graham, a playwright whose TV work includes Quiz and Brexit: The Uncivil War, has said that his series is not only based on real events, but that he grew up in the village where these things happened – and it’s this, of course, that explains Sherwood’s incredible sense of place (precisely the thing I find most often to be lacking in shows set in places other than London). No wonder, then, that the series of which it reminds me most is Sally Wainwright’s West Yorkshire-set Happy Valley. Yes, on the evidence of what I’ve seen so far, it’s that good.

Like Wainwright, Graham takes his time, carefully establishing both the relationships between his characters and the long backstory that may be crucial to the action. The series is set – no prizes for guessing – in a village in Nottinghamshire, the county where, 30 years ago, many men continued to work during the long and painful miners’ strike, a decision that was personally agonising and often quite dangerous: the buses in which they travelled to the pits were attacked; those who crossed picket lines were scabs, and never to be forgiven (Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, whose power base was further north in Yorkshire, said this explicitly).

[See also: My Name is Leon: a horribly preachy drama]

By Graham’s telling, in the decades since, memories have faded only a little. The past might well be a different country, but even so, a man’s neighbour may still think of him even now as a traitor, as someone who let his entire class down. This is, of course, excellent territory for a storyteller: textured, but also sealed off. Grudges are held as tightly as pint glasses. The police are treated with suspicion. London, in all its nefariousness, might as well be Rome, or Kuala Lumpur.

Early on, a character – I’m trying to avoid spoilers – is murdered, an arrow fired from a crossbow into his head. This man, once a striker, had long seemed like an anachronism even down at the Miners’ Welfare Club. He talked of Tories in the old way, irrespective of the falling of the Red Wall; the word scab was never far from his lips. But who killed him? There are so many suspects. In the days after his death, various of his associates – a man he met at a wedding, his solicitor – also have arrows fired at them. Naturally, attention turns to a local criminal family, the Sparrows, one of whose businesses is a ramshackle archery range (another is home-made ketamine). In the background, however, there is his history. What happened to him in 1984? Why was he falsely accused of an attack on a scab, and who then made this charge disappear? Do these things have any bearing at all on his death?

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[See also: The Victorians in The Essex Serpent are as far-fetched as the sea-monster]

Sherwood has a stunning cast. Every seriously brilliant character actor you can think of is here: Alun Armstrong, Robert Glenister, Lorraine Ashbourne, Claire Rushbrook, Pip Torrens. David Morrissey is on fine semi-smirking form as the DCS who investigates the case, and Lesley Manville is (as ever) wonderfully understated as a grandmother with a Rod Hull and Emu fetish. I love Kevin Doyle as a retired miner (and former scab) who struggles to breathe; special plaudits, too, to Adeel Akhtar, as a lonely train driver.

Such actors are gold for Graham and his director, Lewis Arnold, but they’re helped hugely by Sherwood’s script, which comes with such specificity in terms of social class, jobs, attitudes, and the way people speak (everyone says “duck”). There is a rightness here that I find moving. Graham has written a crime drama, and it’s gripping in all the usual ways. But what makes it special is the portrait at its heart of one small place and all the people in it. His story grows out of theirs, and it’s a good, even gorgeous thing. As I watched, I thought all the time of where I grew up: the ginnels and the commons, the family that had one too many broken down cars outside their farmhouse. In Sherwood, I recognise everything. Its universality – the holy grail of any decent writer – lies in its very detail.

BBC One, 13 June, 9pm; now on catch-up

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This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down