Sherwood: rewardingly knotty post-union drama

The ghosts of the 1980s miners’ strike haunt this beautifully realised portrait of a Nottinghamshire village riven by simmering conflicts. James Graham’s masterful script delivers twists, turns and narrative wallops aplenty.

Lesley Manville in Sherwood (2022)

For most Brits under forty, the miners’ strike of 1984-’85 is ancient history, now confined to brief clips of howling, blood-stained picket scuffles in documentaries about Thatcherism. But in the Nottinghamshire village of screenwriter James Graham’s gripping and richly rooted manhunt thriller, the bitter divisions between National Union of Mineworker strikers and Union of Democratic Mineworkers strike-defiers endure into 2014, in fractured families and shouts of ‘Scab!’ echoing across a bar. So when mouthy NUM stalwart Gary Jackson is killed with a crossbow, Detective Chief Superintendent Ian St Clair (a fretful David Morrissey) and his Met-loaned colleague DI Kevin Salisbury (a weary Robert Glenister) suspect the settling of old scores. They’re jolted, however, to discover that the killing may be connected to a notorious local 1984 arson case with which they, and Gary, were involved.  Unpacking this mystery across a capacious six episodes, Graham expertly weaves sudden violence, acrimonious local history and family feuds into an intricate genre-blending mix of thriller, state-of-the-nation piece and coiling melodrama.

After a slow but satisfying start, chiefly concerned with establishing various contexts – the intractable 30-year rift between the Jackson and Rowley families; the unease between shy, widowed Andy Fisher (Adeel Akhtar, who plays the role with pathos-soaked fragility) and his spikily Tory daughter-in-law; and the village’s mistrust of the shady Sparrow family – we understand what’s at stake. Directing the first three episodes, Lewis Arnold (a Midlands native, like Graham) gives the series a Red Wall rust-belt feel, that Mare of Easttown combo of post-industrial malaise, community tensions and Ian’s equivocal insider/outsider status as a local cop tainted by his ’80s stint on the ‘thin blue line’. It’s a show with a glorious specificity, Graham keen to tell the overlooked and painful stories of the former mining towns of the East Midlands, Arnold and co-director Ben A. Williams sliding the camera around warmly shabby miners’ welfare clubs and back alleys and allotments. Even the murder storyline is inspired by a pair of 2003 killings in Ashfield, whose perpetrators hid out in the lush local woodlands.

As further violent attacks erupt, the show remains determinedly and pleasingly the opposite of a crisp police procedural. While Ian and Kevin wrestle their own demons, the investigation often plays second fiddle to a thicket of absorbing personal conflicts – Sparrows, Jacksons and Rowleys clashing down the ‘clubby’, or the chain of piercingly awkward incidents (phone porn broadcast on the Alexa is a highlight) shredding the Fisher family. Nonetheless, every episode delivers a cunning narrative wallop that floors you suddenly, like the horrific, utterly unexpected fatality in episode two that reverberates through the series, or the escalating attacks that bring the queasy history-repeating-itself spectacle of scores of Met officers tramping through the village on a manhunt. When the killer haunts the woods in a Lincoln Green hoodie with a quiver and bow, the series also acquires a kind of mystic pastoralism, this time setting outlaw against village. Arrows thwacking into commuter trains, tidy gardens and unsuspecting yuppies, underline the lawless, timeless dangers lurking in the picturesque greenwood.

Chewy characters and a superb cast give a fine, lived-in emotional heft to all the show’s pairings, with Morrissey and Glenister adroitly tempering the cops’ toughness with guilt and regret. Lesley Manville’s widowed Julie Jackson comforting her sister Cathy through the high garden wall that symbolises their long estrangement is, quite simply, magnificent drama. Everyone and everything here has been horribly scarred by the village’s vitriolic past. Melding punchy clips of archive news footage seamlessly with its own flashbacks, the show boldly slips into 1984 for most of episode five to tease us about the identity of the embedded ‘spycop’ that becomes its obsession.

Just occasionally, Sherwood is too heavy-handed with its history, as when Lindsay Duncan’s NUM activist delivers a very lengthy speech that feels like a seminar on Undercover Political Policing in the UK 1968-2008. Yet the show’s palpable anger at the divide-and-rule government strategies and long-term neglect of Red Wall towns gives it a welcome shot of Bleasdalian or McGovernesque ‘state of the nation’ rage, though Graham’s view seems less polemical and more practical. Always keen to examine both sides of a bitter divide (his TV film Brexit: An Uncivil War (2019) showed a surprising even-handedness), he’s created an engrossing and highly empathetic drama which seeks to not only show the wounds inflicted on a community, but explore how to heal them.

► Sherwood is available to stream on BBC iPlayer now.