Dramatist and screenwriter James Graham has a knack for skewering venerable British institutions, from the royal family in an episode of “The Crown,” to the tabloids in his play “Ink,” to politics in Channel 4-HBO special “Brexit: The Uncivil War,” which starred Benedict Cumberbatch.
Even his own industry hasn’t escaped Graham’s examination with last year’s ITV limited series “Quiz,” in which Matthew Macfadyen (“Succession”) and Sian Clifford (“Fleabag”) played a real-life couple convicted of defrauding the gameshow “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
So the Metropolitan Police have good reason to be nervous now Graham has turned his eye to law enforcement in upcoming BBC series “Sherwood” starring David Morrissey (“The Walking Dead”) and Lesley Manville (“The Crown”). The six-part show is loosely based on the true story of two unrelated murders that took place within weeks of each other in 2004 in the Nottinghamshire mining village where Graham grew up. Both killers went on the run in a nearby forest, resulting in one of the largest manhunts in British history.
Graham, however, was less interested in the grisliness than exploring how the police presence re-opened old wounds in his “red-wall” village. (“Red wall” voters are traditionally British working-class Labour supporters alienated by the party’s metropolitan stance on Brexit and the culture wars.) For that reason, he says, “Sherwood” should “resonate and tap into all the conversations people are having in the U.S. about communities that were left behind by the East Coast/West Coast liberals or by globalization.”
Why did you decide to write “Sherwood”?
I’ve always wanted to try and set something in my hometown, which is, for better or worse, like those kinds of communities, the “red wall” communities, [that] feel like they’re in the national focus at the moment, and even the international focus in terms of what was going on in the U.S.
It feels like the right moment to be setting a story in this community. And [it’s a] story about British policing, which I know is also an anxiety at the forefront of lots of our brains at the moment and policing across the world: what that contract is between police and citizen.
Have you ever tackled the subject of policing before?
No. I feel like it’s been my great thrill to spend the last decades [annoying] the various different parts of the British establishment. The joy of “Quiz” — the real joy of that for me — is it was essentially a crime thriller but there was no body. It was completely non-violent. It was like a “Did they do it?” Not even “Who do it?”
So, this is [my first opportunity] to delve into a police procedural but in a way to enjoy all the opportunities of that genre but not to be limited by them. Because it’s also a story of community and families and history and industrial relations and culture.
How did you sidestep “Sherwood” simply turning into a procedural?
I think you have to just be conscious of it. And I love those procedurals as much as anybody else. But for me, I think you just have to keep at the front of your brain what it is you want to write about. And I guess I was more drawn to a story of a community that is being tormented and old wounds and fractures being re-opened, of which the police are a component part.
Do you feel there’s a dearth of creatives from working class backgrounds in the industry?
Yeah, sometimes. We know statistically that actually the creative and media industries are the worst sector in the economy for their access for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, which is devastating and completely counterintuitive to what [the industry] claims to be, which is an all-inclusive way of dealing with universal issues.
With domestic television increasingly reaching global audiences, do you have to think internationally when making a show like “Sherwood”?
Yeah. It’s always a completely worthwhile exercise to look for the universals in any story and what the widest possible audience you can reach to access what can still feel like a very culturally specific world. And the American dramas never make any apologies about that stuff, they really embed you in, whether it’s the towns of “True Detective” or “Mare of Easttown” or the cities of “Succession.” I think the more specific you are, the more — strangely — universal they can feel.
Can you ever see yourself moving into directing?
No, I would be really shit at that. I’ve learned this a lot in lockdown, like being a dramatist is not the same as being a novelist. There’s no part of me that wants to just work on my own and have complete autonomy over the final product. It’s the collaboration and the collective way of building something and then the collective way of sharing something that makes it really special to me, so I’d never give that up.