aSherwood’s many strengths came from the way she defied expectations. It started with two murders and set itself up as a thriller, but it danced around the edges of what we might expect from the genre. A flash between the present day and the miners’ strike of 1984, it tells a story of violent deaths, then sets in to work revealing the chasm, why they don’t, and whether or not they get caught. It was a brilliantly suspenseful mystery, built on layers of history and an intricate web of relationships and resentments among its beautifully drawn characters.
It was also a picture of a place. Much has been said about the idiosyncrasy of its location, a former mining town in Nottinghamshire, although in the letter that closed the series Leslie Manville’s Julie said: “A former mining town? How the hell do we get on when we speak of ourselves in terms of what we are not yet Now?” As each episode began, we were reminded that this was initially inspired by two real-life murders, here dramatic and fictional, and that writer James Graham grew up in the area. Certainly no one observing would have thought that this came from the pen of a stranger.
Sherwood is filled with the kind of detail that comes from knowing a place instinctively. When union man Gary Jackson (Alun Armstrong) is killed by an arrow, it opens divisions between the men who were striking miners in 1984, and those who have 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 ago. Emotions run so intensely that such tragedy is not enough to bring people together.
This would be great fuel for any self-respecting prestige drama, but Graham added more. In a wonderfully beguiling casting part, Joanne Froggatt plays a Tory campaign operative whose political career hasn’t been as long as we’d expect; Adeel Akhtar played her father-in-law, train driver Andy, a man who soon goes into a prolonged emotional breakdown. Into this already dense mix, Graham has poured small-town criminal enterprises, as well as undercover police officers, sent to infiltrate local communities in the 1980s, often building entire lives on the foundations of their lies.
Every family in Ashfield has their own story to tell, which is a variation on the theme. Some were completely broken by politics and historical events. Others have tried to fill in the gaps, but not always convincingly. Resentment simmered for decades. Fathers, sons, siblings, and ex-boyfriends: Everyone lives with pain, past and present, before murders force them out into the open. However, Sherwood tells these stories with wit and humor. It’s about the classroom: The young coppersmith and David Morrissey resident, Ian St. Clair, steps into the world with his sliding glass doors and kitchen island. But when outsiders step into 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 the community, and how deep those roots run.
Graham patiently teases it all out, still fighting off the sweetest of ends. Sherwood’s refusal to clean up untidy edges — the fact that we knew who the killers were from an early stage, and their motives rather than those typical of TV-loving villains — is a sign of his confidence and competence. I love a good cast, and it just doesn’t get any better than this. Rushbrook and Manville are amazing as warring sisters, but everyone is great and do their best East Midlands accents. If Sherwood does not pass a full sweep of BAFTAs representation, I will demand to see the receipts.
I watched Sherwood weekly, and not all at once, as is often the case. I was glad I did. Complicated but never overstuffed, steady but never slow, this evolving drama is the kind of TV that works brilliantly on the surface level, but better given the time and space to settle in the mind. Beautifully and engagingly, these six episodes tell a story about Britain, then and now, about economics, politics, beliefs, friendships, loyalty, family, and place. You couldn’t ask for more than that.
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