Sherwood: Season 1 REVIEW – In With An Arrow

There's a killer on the loose, and it's not even the most traumatic thing present.


If you wanted to present an on-the-nose metaphor for dragging up the past, you couldn’t do much better than having Robin Hood’s old stomping ground of Sherwood Forest being plagued by a guy who’s going around killing people with a bow and arrow. But against all odds, this is a part of the loosely-based-on-fact Sherwood that wasn’t made up.

This isn’t the grim, gritty take on Robin Hood we’ve all been waiting for. In fact, David Morrissey’s gruff old-hand detective is quick to pour cold water on anyone who starts burbling on about those historical parallels. Instead, the past being dragged up is much more recent, the still-raw wounds of the 1984 miner’s strike, usually thought of as purely a Yorkshire phenomenon but one which extended to many parts of the British isles which bore coal, including Nottingham.

David Morrissey and Robert Glenister are very firmly leading the cast, two different flavours of the same sort of regional copper. Meanwhile, Lesley Manville’s bereaved victim-by-proxy takes a back-foot role that is, somehow, still definitely a lead – not advancing the action in the same way as the investigating officers, she presents a doorway into the community for which even the locallest of coppers are always at a bit of a remove.

But among these bigger beasts, Adeel Akhtar shines as a man who’s clearly tormented before he’s even done anything, and who eventually manages to claw back a little dignity. Even playing a flimsy, put-upon type, he achieves some moments of frightening intensity.

Sherwood writer James Graham is better known as a playwright, and it shows. Admittedly not so much in grand, sweeping shots of armies of cops combing the woods as helicopters buzz overhead, but when a majority of important events take place on the same Nottingham street, that’s the calling card of a man more used to writing for three walls and a curtain.

Occasionally the need to cover a lot of factual, historical ground slips into preachiness – this is not a judgement on the topics being addressed, merely the manner in which they’re delivered. You may have your own feelings about the British police spying on innocent members of the public, but when you have a posh woman turn up to po-facedly monologue out a big dollop of exposition, something has gone badly wrong.

For a certain sort of British work having a go at socio-political commentary, some explanation like this is inevitable – Irvine Welsh certainly makes a habit of it. And Sherwood has a tougher hill to climb there, digging into the infighting between two separate miner’s unions, the NUM and the UDM (get used to the acronyms) rather than the familiar, straightforward story of noble-savage miners being shafted by Thatcher’s cabinet of guffawing monsters.

Admittedly, the posh woman who comes in to explain to you, the viewer, what you should now think is a notable aberration. There’s plenty of characters who are forthright with their views, but none of them are speaking directly to camera. In fact, usually they’re speaking directly to their next-door neighbour, who disagrees on every level.

But this is exactly why that one lapse is so jarring. Usually Sherwood operates much more effectively by weaving its local history into the fabric and architecture of the narrative. Having characters relate that they are (x), and think (y) isn’t wholly naturalistic, but is the kind of shorthand you have to accept in drama – and can be justified as a necessary explanation for Glenister’s visiting cockney. Most of the time, though, it doesn’t even need that justification, it’s slipped in painlessly enough for you to get clued-in without it being too obvious it’s happening.

Likewise, if you were to sit down and do your sums, you can tell it’s slightly off that Sherwood is contemporary, rather than taking place in 2004 like its real-world inspiration. The youngest veterans of the coalface are burly, still-game 40-and-50-somethings, rather than pensioners as they would be today. But bar the occasional use of smartphones and mention of Zoom calls, you’d hardly notice.

What this comes down to is that Sherwood is an old show. Not in the obvious ways, it’s filmed in colour and its cast aren’t quite staggering around with ear trumpets, but in the density of its history. Most of the main characters have lived lives, and are still perpetually looking back at, yes, their pivotal formative experiences during the strikes, or otherwise looking to the few kids present and hoping they somehow have a better time of it.

Sherwood is tautly written, and knows when and how to deploy tension – but resists the temptation to offer a similarly taut conclusion, where everything is summed up and is okay again. Really, how could it, having started in a situation already defined by the scars of the past? Simply catching and charging the perpetrator, be it a madman with a bow or neoliberal ideology as a whole, doesn’t suddenly fix what’s been damaged.

You might think it’s easier for a work based in fact to suspend disbelief, and that is probably often the case. But remember that truth-is-stranger-than-fiction detail I led with – this is based on a case where a killer was stalking Robin Hood country, shooting people with a bow and arrow. If ever there was a factual story in danger of not suspending disbelief, this is it.

But through all its turns and developments, Sherwood never comes close to feeling unrealistic. Come to that, it’s never anything less than believable. Even the occasional quieter moment of breathing space (e.g. Morrissey and Manville breaking for Orwell’s favourite, the nice cup of tea) slots in without the seams being visible, never feeling flabby or time-wasting. If a maniac came to your town with a weapon that’s historically ironic, it would probably look a lot like Sherwood.

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Humble, backwoods, forgotten regions are the kind of place great storytelling comes from, but Sherwood stands out even given this advantage. Possibly the most enthralling mystery-thriller this year.