Annesley Woodhouse, the Nottinghamshire village where James Graham grew up, was twice swamped by hordes of police and media. The dramatist was a baby the first time, during the miners’ strike of 1984-5. But on the second occasion, in 2004, he was just back from Hull University when an ex-miner, Keith Frogson, was murdered. “In those first moments,” says Graham, “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 further 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 has fictionalised the double trouble into Sherwood, a six-part BBC drama. Viewers led by the title to expect something about Robin Hood are not completely wrong: a crossbow was one of the murder weapons, and the vast verdant canopy of Sherwood Forest became the location of one of the biggest manhunts in UK history.
But it is the coal deep beneath 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 the unions, the Nottinghamshire coalfields were unusual in that a majority of miners continued working. “Three-quarters of the men went back to work,” says Graham. “Only a dozen or so in my village stayed out. At Hull, a few times, when I mentioned I was from Nottinghamshire, there’d be a bristling about ‘scab county’. For decades afterwards 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 on, if Mansfield or one of the Nottingham football teams goes to play, say, Barnsley or another Yorkshire club, they will be taunted with cries of, ‘Scab! Scab!’ And one guy told me he’d stand on his seat and shout back, ‘Yeah but not me!’ So those divisions are still being played out.”
Morrissey had “sort of forgotten that the Nottinghamshire miners mainly stayed working”. 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,” Graham argues, “people have become used to the idea of undercover policing. So a challenge of this show was getting across that this wasn’t terrorism or organised crime being investigated, but normal people having spies turning up in their workplace or child’s birthday party and reporting back. 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 was involved in a show at London’s Royal Court theatre about the wives of striking miners: “We went to interview some of the women but we also got up at 4am and went on a picket line. And I was terrified. It was heavy duty: police horses, riot shields. It has stayed with me, that sense of physical danger, and how I started walking fast to find a bus and get out of there.”
Manville found the memory of that menacing atmosphere useful for the role, as was a meeting with some Nottinghamshire women: “The dialect coach got them together for me to listen to for the voice, but they were interesting when they talked about their lives.” For her, the key to Sherwood is the long-lasting rifts: “My character lives next door to her sister and wants to see and love her, but can’t because their husbands were on different sides in the strike.”
Reconstructing political events of which he has no memory is familiar for Graham. His 2012 breakthrough stage play, This House, thrillingly dramatised the parliamentary whipping and stretchering in of gravely ill MPs before the 1979 vote that brought down the Labour-Liberal coalition and triggered Thatcherism. And, although a Labour and remain voter, Graham is notable for respecting both sides. There are decent Tories in This House, while his Brexit: The Uncivil War was felt by some to have been too kind to Dominic Cummings, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.
“I do always try to see the other side,” says the writer. “I can’t believe that’s unconnected with growing up in Nottinghamshire, seeing decent people from two sides tearing each other apart. In our cultural understanding of the miners’ strike, when you think of very brilliant films such as Billy Elliot and Brassed Off, the emphasis is understandably on the strikers and hardship. But I felt the importance of looking at this from the other side in Sherwood.”
Graham sees a connection with his Cummings drama: “There’s an obvious parallel with the splitting of families and friendship groups by Brexit. In both the miners’ strike and Brexit, a sudden binary choice was forced on people. Am I a remainer for the rest of my life because I voted remain in a referendum I never fucking asked for? I wasn’t not going to vote so I made a choice.”
It’s easy to imagine a James Graham drama about the miners’ strike with Morrissey as union leader Arthur Scargill and Manville as Thatcher. “Or why not the other way round?” laughs Manville. But Sherwood, unlike most Graham plays, uses imagined characters. “The decision to fictionalise was driven by a responsibility to the community, knowing the real families involved,” he says. “My uncle lived on the street where one murder took place. And, unlike other real-life 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 not to be putting my friends and neighbours through direct dramatisation.”
Does this reduce the legal issues? Graham laughs. “Yes. When you send a script to lawyers, there’s often a traffic-light system – green tick for you can say it, amber for a bit worried, and red for you’re on your own. I shouldn’t say this but I actually am quite pleased when it comes back covered in red. You think, ‘Something is happening here.’ Ink, his 2017 stage play about Rupert Murdoch, “pretty much came back all red!”
For Sherwood, Morrissey met the original investigating officer but stresses 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 confesses: “When your agent tells you the part is a police officer, your heart sinks a bit. But, though Ian is a police officer, and a good one, the drama is really about his position within the community.”
Whereas investigators are generally outsiders, this cop is an insider, like Kate Winslet’s character in Mare Of Easttown (with which Sherwood stands comparison). “When he goes to do interviews,” says Morrissey, “he’s not just going into a house, as he normally would, but a home he probably knows. The glue of the community and its history affects his relationships with the characters.”
Keen not to write a police procedural, Graham deliberately broke some rules: “We decided to tell the audience who the murderer was at the end of the first episode, which caused quite an existential crisis at the BBC, because it’s not what you’re supposed to do. But it felt enjoyable and surprising to disrupt that.”
The scripts also set Manville the challenge of playing someone who is in extreme shock and grief for more than 90% of the show: “The bit you see at the beginning of Julie, the norm, is very short. She’s very quickly broken. Because of that, I wanted to put as many nuggets of the everyday at the beginning – messing around with the grandkids and so on – so the audience is invested in her before the crisis comes.”
Viewers will also hear something rare in TV drama: two characters talking over each other. Though standard in theatre, counterpoint dialogue is discouraged on TV as it causes problems with both subtitles and editing, and brings letters of complaint. Manville nods. “Yes. It’s a sound recording thing as well. One way of keeping up the pace in theatre is to start talking fractionally before the other person stops. But sound recordists hate it and prefer a gap. But we’ve done it.” Graham says one of his favourite moments is Manville and Claire Rushbrook, as her sister, speaking simultaneously on the doorstep: “I look forward to all those letters of complaint.”
TV’s hunger for long content means that few series now are one-offs, but presumably Sherwood is immune to a sequel in which, say, someone is bumping off local Falklands or Gulf war victims? “I always assumed it was a one-off,” says Graham. “But there have been discussions about whether it might be possible to grow other stories within this community so I just don’t know.”
Perhaps the detective and the widow could marry? “Yeah – and move to the Bahamas,” says Morrissey.
“Hey!” warns Graham. “They’re staying in Nottingham. There’s a great privilege in putting my home community on screen.”