James Graham went from a north Notts comp to international renown as one of the best dramatists around. We caught up with him as he returned to Nottingham ahead of Sherwood, his new BBC1 series.
It’s easy to see Nottinghamshire as a microcosm for England itself. As London sits in the corner of this country, so Nottingham sits in the corner of the county, with a similar extreme gravity that threatens to pull all talent away from the other non-city areas. Stripped of talent, abandoned, they become ‘left behind’, culturally, politically and economically forgotten about.
A useful theory; no doubt one with a certain degree of truth. Yet when you consider those who break that rule and thrive regardless, it looks less set in stone.
Take writer James Graham, whose new six-part drama Sherwood launches on BBC1 this Monday (June 13th). Growing up in Kirkby in Ashfield, deep in the north Notts coal belt, the idea of becoming one of the most highly-rated contemporary screenwriters may have seemed remote. But not so, as he explained when I met him and the show’s star, David Morrissey at the red-carpet launch of the show at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema.
“I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t grow up where I grew up,” he tells me. “Ashfield Comprehensive – it’s the largest school for miles around, and has an excellent theatre, excellent drama teachers.”
Here, his creativity was nurtured. A stint on the door at the Nottingham Theatre Royal gave him insight into the workings of theatre, and his talent flourished. He started producing stories that span continents and decades. Sherwood is “My most Notts-focused piece I’ve ever done.”
David Morrissey, who plays the lead role of Ian St Clair in the drama, has a lot of love for Nottingham – after all, he once played one of our most famous legends.
“I was the more authentic Little John,” he laughs, recalling his role in the 1991 film, Robin Hood (not to be confused with the inferior, overshadowing Prince of Thieves). “I’d tour here often, big fan of Rock City…what did I see there? I can’t remember, I was probably battered.” He goes on to reel off a list of venues he frequented a few decades back, and I can almost hear the groan of a million women and men of a certain age who rue not having had advance warning of his attendance all those years ago.
“Big fan of the guy out of the Sleaford Mods: he tells it like it is.” I explain we’re thankful here for the splenetic duo – and London Grammar, Jake Bugg and all the rest. They’ve made sure that the first thing that leaps to mind when linking ‘Nottingham’ and ‘music’ is no longer Paper Lace.
“Unfair!” he shouts, “I love Paper Lace,” and reels off a decent approximation of Billy Don’t Be a Hero. You’ll be relieved to know that Morrissey’s Nott’s accent is also an excellent attempt. It’s a challenge to actors up there with doing King Lear with no rehearsal.
Sherwood is, on the face of it, your usual police procedural. Morrissey’s character is a lifer in the Nottinghamshire Constabulary tasked with investigating two murders in the eponymous mining town (not to be confused with the Nottingham suburb, or the much-diminished legendary forest). We’ve hardly had a drought of such dramas over the last few years. But do not be deceived: this is far from a lazy variation on a theme.
Graham has a fine line in taking a seemingly straightforward subject – the Coughing Major Scandal, the Vote Leave Campaign – and cutting it with powerfully subtle undercurrents. He is a master of the vagaries of motivation: what drives character, which in turn drives their actions, and ultimately the way the world works? There are few demons in his work, as there are few angels. Like the best dramatists – and something that defines fellow Notts writers such as Lawrence and Sillitoe – the fascination lies in the deeply human. In these polarised times, this feels crucial.
A divided community
The Miners Strike left scars everywhere it raged, but in few areas was it so divisive as Notts. The refusal to join the strike divided communities, often streets, often families, neighbours and friends. Despite the collieries having long closed and the headstocks dismantled, the wound feels far from healed.
‘Scab’ is a word that burns with painful power here; despite workers being more likely to be fulfilling orders at the vast Sports Direct warehouse than wielding a pick axe. These communities have more running beneath them than seams of dark, energy-rich anthracite.
Sherwood takes this seething, simmering feeling and weaves it through the story. This is as much social history as crime drama, one that is often overlooked. How do we move on? How do decisions made many decades ago resonate?
It has been noted that there is something of a cultural renaissance in Notts right now, that we’re moving from the post-industrial, the post-retail to getting our voices out there and celebrating. Some may argue that this is a city thing, a metropolitan effect that doesn’t ripple out deep enough into the wider ‘left behind’ county.
Yet James Graham constantly offers up evidence against this assumption. “I was disappointed that there was not a single mention of culture and the arts in the Levelling Up White Paper,” he says, and he’s right to be annoyed. Should we wish for more James Grahams, more Vicky McClures, more Shane Meadows, then it is key we value how culture reimagines place.
Sherwood may be fiction, but perhaps the north Notts coal belt is a microcosm for a divided nation, still picking at the scab of Brexit. Can we imagine a better Britain than this?
View the series trailer here: