Sherwood review: James Graham’s true-crime series is bolstered by an extraordinary cast

There are few places on our fair British shores that have as distinctive a local lore as the Midlands county of Nottinghamshire. Icons of Hollywood sex appeal, from Errol Flynn to Kevin Costner, by way of a dashing red fox, have all donned the tights and beret to portray the righteous bandit of Sherwood forest: Robin Hood. But behind the kitsch lure of that legend is a real place; a place that James Graham, playwright and native of Ashfield, is seeking to illuminate. Sherwood, far from being another reimagination of the Hood legend, presents a community frayed by a long history of the rich robbing the poor, and not, despite the optimism of the myth, vice versa.

Sherwood opens like the first scenes of an Agatha Christie novel, with both the killer and their victim a secret. A mystery needs multiple motives to work, and it’s soon clear that cantankerous ex-miner Gary (New Tricks’s Alun Armstrong) isn’t long for this world. The rifts date back three decades, to the Thatcher government’s assault on Ashfield’s coal industry. Lines – both picket and metaphorical – were drawn, and crossed. Gary never misses the opportunity to highlight a “scab” – the name given to locals who broke the strike to keep working – even after all these years. “It were thirty f***ing year ago!” one of those locals, Dean (Shameless’s Sean Gilder), yells at him, launching a snooker ball in the working men’s club.

But the area has a deep memory, and crimes of the past have not been forgotten. David Morrissey brings his signature hangdog sincerity to the role of DCS Ian St Clair, a local copper who has hit the big time without forgetting his roots (“I know the potential of something like this to inflame divisions in the community,” he announces solemnly). He returns to Ashfield on the hunt for a murderer, knowing that the search will disturb long-suppressed ill will. He’s assisted, meanwhile, by DI Kevin Salisbury (Hustle’s Robert Glenister), a Met officer with a mysterious backstory of his own.

Morrissey and Glenister are serviceable as this detecting odd couple, but it is the local cast that brings together an extraordinary array of acting talent. Lesley Manville’s customary poise grounds Gary’s doughty widow Julie (“I feel as rough as a badger’s a*****e,” she opines), while there are also meaty parts for Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt, Poirot’s Philip Jackson, Line of Duty’s Perry Fitzpatrick, and both Ali and Ava from Ali & Ava, Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook.

The sprawling canvas on which this murder mystery plays out requires some finesse on the part of the writer, James Graham, to keep things under control. And he doesn’t always achieve it: the temptation of Robin Hood iconography proves irresistible but distracting, and a Romeo and Juliet subplot involving grandchildren from rival families feels like a B-story too far. But as with 2020’s excellent Quiz, Graham proves adept at sympathetic, vibrant storytelling. When the whiff of Robin Hood starts to appear during St Clair’s investigation, his deputy Cleaver (Corrie’s Terence Maynard) observes: “The boss hates that kind of thing. Stories, highfalutin ideas.” It is an earthiness that the characters hint at, but thankfully – after endless BBC shows that take themselves more seriously than HMRC – don’t live up to.

Artfully combining a drama about the long tail of hurt from the colliery closures with a macabre whodunit (and increasingly, as the series progresses, blending the two) is no mean feat. One of the suspects declares himself “sick of history”, just as Nottinghamshire locals might be sick of their real history being replaced by a spandexed vigilante twirling around the forest with a monk and his pals. It won’t replace that story, but Sherwood is altogether merrier than you might expect, with plenty to tuck into.