We are told that we are living in divided times, but the evidence doesn’t always agree. One recent study by the research group More in Common found that many of these assumptions over the fractures in our social fabric are exaggerated, and more solidarity and agreement exists than we might imagine.
Our history shows how the forces of polarisation have been weaponised to achieve political ends. It was this, rather than any desire to create a traditional crime show, that drove me to write Sherwood, a six-part BBC drama that concluded on television last night, which was set in the north Nottinghamshire community in which I grew up.
The lasting tensions from the miners’ strike of 1984 may shock younger viewers who – not unreasonably – might struggle to understand why families and communities are still split by a personal choice made nearly 40 years ago; a worrying harbinger, perhaps, for families or friends who are still not on speaking terms after the Brexit referendum.
The government is of course now pledging to level up such communities as those depicted in Sherwood, after the levelling down their predecessors inflicted decades ago. The regional disparities are real. At the last count, the east Midlands received a lower amount of public spending per head than any other region in the UK. A chronic cycle of under-investment persists.
New jobs have popped up on the land where the mines once stood; many are in logistics and distribution, shipping goods to the rest of the country from the warehouses where I first worked after leaving school. These can be good jobs, though are way more precarious and short-lived than the unionised careers of old.
The notion of place was a driving motivation for making Sherwood. We hear a lot about the “red wall” communities but, apart from the occasional vox pop on the news taking the temperature of residents, viewers rarely get to explore them properly. These overly simplistic snapshots often wrongly suggest that there is a homogenous uniformity to the people, their experiences and their views. My home county is as complicated, paradoxical and inconsistent as anywhere else.
While Sherwood was being broadcast these past few weeks, the RMT strike took place – the largest act of industrial rail action in 30 years. We are now facing a summer of strikes , showing that urgent issues such as the future of work, job security and pay are in no way consigned to our past.
North Nottinghamshire was the epicentre for much of the violence during the 1984 miners’ strike. Three-quarters of the Nottinghamshire miners – angered by the failure of Arthur Scargill and the NUM to hold a national ballot – returned to work, and the strike attracted flying pickets from over the county border.
As a result, hundreds of police officers, largely from forces in South Yorkshire and London, were billeted into tiny villages. This created tensions even within the police, as local Nottinghamshire officers grew to resent the poisoning of relations with their neighbours due to overtly aggressive tactics used by the outside forces. Years later, in 2015, the then Independent Police Complaints Commission ruled that, at the infamous Battle of Orgreave in 1984 in particular, there was “evidence of excessive violence by police officers”, including the Met police.
One of the many tragic consequences brought about by the two real-life killings in my village in 2004 (which loosely inspired Sherwood) is that, decades after the strike, those same outside police forces had to return to Nottinghamshire – this time to work with the local force to catch two separate suspects of two unrelated killings improbably hiding within the same woods.
As was revealed in the final episode of our story last night, neither killing was politically motivated or had anything to do with the tensions of the strike. But this didn’t stop the old wounds being exposed, as in the gap between the killings and the capture, speculation mounted that there had been a connection.
Sherwood, I hope, avoids being a polemic or making any commentary on this continuing divide between those who went on strike, and those who went to work. To me, the power of drama that focuses on these areas of political controversy and pain is that it demands that we walk in the footsteps of others and try to understand and empathise with the actions of characters with whom we might disagree.
In one of the final scenes of the show, the characters in the community come together in the “clubby” (working men’s club) to attempt some truth and reconciliation. Actor Kevin Doyle’s character, Fred, tries to give voice to the resentment the breakaway UDM miners felt at being bullied and intimidated by the picketers. Charles Dale’s ex-NUM striker expresses the view felt by many on his side that it was the lack of solidarity that was chiefly responsible for the miners’ defeat. It takes the (great) Lesley Manville as Julie to sum up her own agony. “Forty years of this. Aren’t you all tired? I am.”
It’s not for me, or a television drama, to judge whether it is time to forgive and forget. The suffering and the anger emanating from both the strike itself, and the social and economic devastation that came after, remains all too real for many people.
The contemporary resonance of Sherwood with the current industrial action was accidental, but whatever it is that has drawn so many people to the show, I’m grateful for the overwhelming reaction it has had. I hope it demonstrates the potential for storytelling as a unifying force against the many divisive ones that exist.
We made the decision with the BBC to go old-school and broadcast the show two evenings a week, rather than drop the entire series online. In doing this, I hoped that the viewing experience would be more collective, with people discussing the twists and turns the following day, and filling comment threads and blogs with theories and suspicions over, say, who the missing “spy cop” was (no spoilers please!).
Face-to-face interaction is harder now, as the public realm where people used to gather, in pubs and clubs, libraries, leisure centres or high streets, continues to decline. Still, there is a huge appetite for community to be a tangible, physical thing. That is why, perhaps, in the absence of any real signs of levelling up taking place, many locals are taking matters into their own hands, with a wave of independent micropubs taking over the empty post offices and closed retailers along the main road of Annesley Woodhouse, where Sherwood is set, and other neighbouring villages.
Nottinghamshire doesn’t perhaps have a place in the national imagination as vivid as, say, Liverpool (Boys from the Blackstuff), Sheffield (The Full Monty), or Manchester (Cracker, Queer as Folk). It’s a hybrid of the north and the Midlands, a border country of variation and complexity that it has been a privilege to give life to.
Above all else, stories drawn from painful reality should remind us that both governments and other powerful forces have often deployed the short-term weapons of division, trying to split communities, and that the long-term impacts of this will always be incredibly personal and painful. It is a tactic that we must resist at all costs.