Written by James Graham, Sherwood is a new, six-part primetime crime series on BBC One. When the channel announced it, along came with it a stellar ensemble cast – David Morrissey, Alun Armstrong, Lesley Manville, Joanne Froggatt, Perry Fitzpatrick, Adeel Akhtar, Claire Rusbrook, Robert Glenister… the list goes on. It fairly bursts with fantastic character actors from the world of British TV and film.
So already there’s a reason to watch it.
But what you take away from episode one is not just the sheer class of the cast (who are all, predictably and gratifyingly, excellent), but also the strong writing, the structure and the addictive whodunit nature of the plot.
The opening montage splices together real news footage from the violent and destructive miners’ strike of 1984 giving powerful context to this story. Ashfield, a mining town in Nottinghamshire, is a community that doesn’t forget easily. It’s like any other working-class British town, but there’s something that simmers below the surface – during the strike in the mid-1980s, the town was split between those who striked and those who did not, called ‘scabs’. The fault lines and mistrust linger to this day. No more so than with the character, Gary Jackson (Armstrong), a veteran from 1984 who calls people a ‘scab’ whenever he can. It might be near to 40 years past, but – as I mentioned earlier – the fault lines still exist.
Now, this is a murder mystery but the pleasing thing is that Sherwood takes its time to introduce us and for us to get to know the characters. We meet the Jackson family, which includes Julie (Manville) and her estranged sister Cathy, who lives on the same road with her wheezing husband Fred and their son, who’s ‘enjoying’ his last days of freedom before he gets sent down for a crime we still don’t know. The two families don’t get on.
We meet the ne’er do well Swallow family, and also the local-copper-made-good Ian St Clair (Morrissey).
It’s just nice to see a drama that takes its time – there’s no murder right at the start, and everything’s fairly linear… it’s proper, rich character drama with some wonderful acting and some wonderful lines (I particularly liked the “there’s somebody at the door” refrain by Julie… one for all you 80s kids out there). However, tragedy, ahem, strikes, the community when Gary is slain on the way back from the local miners’ welfare club thanks to an arrow to the chest (well, it is Nottinghamshire, and the show is called Sherwood, after all). By the time the murder happens (after around 30 minutes), I felt I really knew the characters, which is a rare treat indeed. The Ashfield presented to us here is one of great authenticity and depth – as normal as can be, with knotty relationships and people rubbing up against each other, but also people trying their best to live their lives despite a fractured identity (the miners’ strike really did have that effect on many, many communities in the Midlands and the north of England). There’s warmth, humour and emotion. In fact, Sherwood has a Happy Valley feel to it.
The murder brings St Clair back into contact with the community he left, and it’s a personal case. While looking at Gary’s case file, he finds that much of his arrest file (he was done for arson during the strikes) had been redacted by a Met police officer – DI Kevin Salisbury (Glenister) – who is sent back to Ashfield to help smooth things over.
It’s a tantalising prospect for what’s to come – an emotive social context, a murder mystery and a potential conspiracy.
Part two is tomorrow night, but this was a very strong start.
Sherwood is airing on BBC One in the UK, and is available to watch on BBC iPlayer