One of Sherwood’s many strengths came from the way it defied expectations. It began with two murders and set itself up as a brooding thriller, yet it danced around the edges of what we might anticipate from that genre. Flashing between the present day and the miners’ strike of 1984, it told a story of violent deaths, then set about the business of revealing who dunnit, why they dunnit, and whether they were going to get caught or not. It was a masterfully suspenseful puzzle, built upon layers of history and a complex web of relationships and resentments between its beautifully drawn characters.
It was also a portrait of a place. Much was made of the specificity of its location, a former mining town in Nottinghamshire, though, as Lesley Manville’s Julie had it in the speech that closed the series: A former mining town? How the hell are we to move on when we talk about ourselves in terms of what we aren’t any more? As every episode began, we were reminded that this was initially inspired by two real murders, here dramatised and fictionalized, and that the writer James Graham grew up in the area. Surely no one watching could have thought this came from the pen of an outsider.
Sherwood is packed with the kind of details that come from knowing a place instinctively. When union man Gary Jackson (Alun Armstrong) is killed by an arrow, it opens up the divisions between the men who were striking miners in 1984, and those who continued to work, divisions that have festered in the town of Ashfield ever since. Gary’s wife, Julie, no longer speaks to her sister Cathy (Claire Rushbrook), because Cathy’s husband, Fred, (Kevin Doyle) crossed the picket line four decades earlier. Feelings run so hot that even such a tragedy is not enough to bring people together.
This would be plenty of fuel for any self-respecting prestige drama, but Graham added more. In a wonderfully deceptive bit of casting, Joanne Froggatt played a red-wall-bashing Tory campaigner whose political career was not as long-lived as we might have predicted; Adeel Akhtar played her father-in-law, the train driver Andy, a man soon entering a state of prolonged emotional collapse. Into this already dense mix, Graham poured small-town criminal enterprises, plus undercover police officers, sent to infiltrate local communities in the 80s, often building whole lives on the foundations of their lies.
Every family in Ashfield has its own story to tell, a variation on a theme. Some have been completely broken by politics and historical events. Others have attempted to bridge the gaps, not always convincingly. Resentments have simmered for decades. Fathers and sons, siblings, former friends: everyone is living with pain, past and present, before the murders force it out into the open. Yet Sherwood tells these stories with wit and gallows humor. It’s about class: David Morrissey’s upstanding copper and local boy, Ian St Clair, has gone up in the world, with his glass sliding doors and his kitchen island. But when outsiders intrude on the community again, in the form of Met officer Kevin (Robert Glenister), it opens up new questions about what it means to be part of a community, and how deep those roots run.
Graham teased all of this out patiently, and still resisted the neatest of endings. Sherwood’s refusal to clean up untidy edges – the fact that we knew who the killers were from an early stage, their motivations not the dastardly ones typical of TV-friendly villains – is a sign of its confidence and competence. I love a good ensemble cast, and it doesn’t get better than this. Rushbrook and Manville are spectacular as the warring sisters, but everyone is remarkable and does their best east Midlands accent. If Sherwood doesn’t pull off a clean sweep of acting Baftas, I will demand to see the receipts.
I watched Sherwood weekly, rather than all at once, as is often the temptation. I was glad I did. This sophisticated drama, complex but not overstuffed, steady but never slow, is the kind of television that works brilliantly on a surface level, but even better given the time and space to settle in the mind. These six episodes beautifully and grippingly told a story about Britain, then and now, about economics, politics, beliefs, friendships, loyalty, family and place. You can’t ask for more than that.