Lindsey German reviews the BBC's highly-rated crime drama which sheds light on the long-lasting impact of the miners' strike and undercover policing
In its most famous artistic iteration Sherwood Forest is the home of Robin Hood, who robbed the rich to help the poor. This new drama is the story of what happened to a community when the rich decided to rob the poor of their livelihoods. There are few mainstream BBC crime dramas that have the effect of Sherwood. The six-part series, set in a Nottinghamshire former mining village 30 years on from the great strike of 1984-5, has been acclaimed from all sides and its six episodes – screened in pairs over three weeks – eagerly awaited by 4 million viewers, roughly the same as the BBC main news.
Sherwood has many of the usual attributes of such a series: two murders, clashes between families, the past haunting the present. It has a brilliant cast and high production values, with sweeping shots of the eponymous forest and its beautiful surroundings contrasted to the miners’ welfare club and the rows of tiny terraced houses in the post-industrial countryside. What sets it apart from the others is firstly that it deals with its characters in a social and political context – the divisions of the miners’ strike and its aftermath – and secondly that the various mysteries of the plot are not about who did the murders and why (these facts are known fairly early on) but what the characters are hiding from themselves and from others about the past.
It is also a detailed story about working-class people, which is unusual for this kind of television. Indeed, the whole series is a reflection on the miners’ strike, what it meant for those involved and the cost to the communities around the pits, all of which have now closed. The bare bones of the plot do not do justice to the very intricate story that unfolds. Two murders are committed in the village – one of a veteran striker who is shot by an arrow from a crossbow, one of a newly married woman who is a Tory council candidate and whose father owned the coaches which bussed scabs into the pits during the strike. The series is based on real life murders in a similar village where the writer, James Graham, grew up. They turned out not to be connected to grievances around the strike, but the police believed they were. This also happens in the series, where both murderers are pursued into the dense and mysterious forest itself. They are both very sad characters, especially the Asian train driver Andy who cannot come back from a terrible act, but whose speeches are so poignant.
Two of the key characters are policemen, one a local man whose dad was a striking miner, the other a Metropolitan officer who had policed the coalfield during the great strike and who now returns to try to solve the mystery not just of the murders but because of a particularly serious legacy of the strike. A number of undercover police went into the area to spy in the miners – one stayed and made their home there. Who are they and is their life now in danger?
The Nottinghamshire coalfield was divided as no other. While pits in many other areas were threatened with closure, those in Notts were regarded as safe. Productivity deals agreed earlier meant relatively high wages in the modern pits and the majority of miners in the county refused to join the strike. It became the centre of scabbing and those miners created their own union, the UDM, as a breakaway from the NUM. They were greatly assisted in this by the Thatcher government, which directly helped set up the UDM and put a huge amount of effort into ensuring the ‘working miners’ continued to break the strike. This was all assumed at the time but the release of government papers more recently shows the lengths to which Thatcher and the coal board head, Ian McGregor, were willing to go.
Those who remained loyal to the union and the strike were battered by the state in every conceivable way: miners’ families were denied social security benefits to try to starve them back to work; the union was hamstrung by the courts to prevent more effective action and to seize large amounts of NUM money; police, including the hated Met, flooded into the striking coalfields where they attacked picket lines, stopped miners from moving around to picket, and ensured that the scab buses went through.
The undercover policing and surveillance was widescale, and many of the villages were effectively occupied by the police. The key event in Sherwood which altered the lives of so many of the characters for the worse depicts the clash of tensions between strikers, police and scabs, and central to its occurrence is the role of the undercover police officer. One of the main themes is the continued bitterness and division within the community so many years later. But this is not surprising given what was at stake during the strike and the role that the police played.
Perhaps because of his closeness to the subject, Graham manages to put across very clearly the sadness of those divisions – two sisters on opposite sides who haven’t spoken for years, the bitterness of the young who feel they have no future, the two policemen whose past weighs on the present – in a way which elicits sympathy even for those whose role was so destructive. The defeat of the strike helped weaken the whole working class and those in Nottinghamshire suffered the same as in Yorkshire or South Wales. Their pits are all gone, well-paid jobs replaced by minimum wage warehouse work for the next generation, the warehouses often built on the site of the old pits. A great speech by Lindsay Duncan as a left-wing lawyer makes clear who benefited from the strike, and must have been consciously written into the story because she had no other role. The final episode ends with film of the pits being blown up and of the warehouses employing former miners.
Two final points. I found the ending too much about conciliation and somewhat of a disappointment for that reason – although I had been expecting some such development given that BBC ‘balance’ always seeks to blunt the depiction of class struggle. I’m also intrigued at the coincidence of the series being shown just as the rail workers embarked on their strike and talk of a summer of discontent is in the air. That surely must have made it more relevant to many people both who remember the strike and those younger generations for whom it is ancient history. We can’t alter the past but we can try to understand it and to use what we learn to shape the future.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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