BBC One’s Sherwood manages to encapsulate the historical drama of the 1984 miners’ strike in this one powerful relationship – and it’s a family dynamic that is relatable for many.
Warning: this article contains spoilers for BBC One’s Sherwood.
If you’ve tuned into BBC One’s Sherwood, you’ll know that the drama makes for edge-of-your-seat viewing. As well as murder and all the other things we love in a crime drama, the series also underlines an important slice of British history and how it still reverberates through parts of the UK today.
Ashfield, the small Nottinghamshire town where the series is based, is one where the tensions of the past are still very much alive and well. ‘Scab’ is the worst thing you can call someone, people still harbour memories over what side of the picket line they were on during the 1984 miners’ strike and, as a result, what seems like a neighbourly town is actually hiding a multitude of tensions beneath the surface.
In episode one, quips about politics and history were made at a wedding reception when some of the men of the town congregated at the bar. Similarly, in the workers’ club that these older men frequent on weekend evenings, people keep to themselves, casting glares at others, which only underlines the longheld (opposing) opinions within the community.
But it’s one relationship in particular that represents just how divisive the history of what this series is based on really is.
Julie Jackson (Lesley Manville) is the grieving widow left to pick up the pieces after her husband Gary’s death. Gary was a loyal National Union of Miners member until he died, and he was one of the few miners from Ashfield on the picket line in the 80s – something he doesn’t let anyone forget. But it’s Julie’s marriage to him – and her own opinions on the mining strike – that has affected her in more ways than one.
In the first episode, it came as a surprise to many to realise that the neighbour who knocked on her door complaining of bonfire smoke was actually her own sister Cathy (Claire Rushbrook).
The exchange is tense – much like dealing with an expectantly annoying neighbour can be – and ends with Cathy storming off and Julie slamming her front door shut. It’s only when Cathy’s back in her own home and her husband Fred (Kevin Doyle) calls Julie “an asshole” that she stops him, stating that “she’s my sister”.
In episode two, Cathy frets over what to write in a condolence card for Julie. “I just don’t know what to write in a card like this,” Cathy says to Fred.
He snaps: “Well, you don’t write. She’s your bleeding sister – you go round, for christ’s sake.”
The sisters don’t speak, although they live a stone’s throw away from one another. Their families don’t mix and they’re estranged because of their dividing loyalties during the miners’ strikes.
But it’s in episode three (which airs tonight) that the sisters’ relationship is truly put to the test. Police officers visit Cathy and Fred to tell them that NUM members will be coming to Ashfield to attend a memorial service for Gary. They’re advised to keep a low profile on account of Scott – Cathy’s stepson and Fred’s son – being accused of Gary’s murder. It could also be a piece of advice given on account of Fred’s own history as a Union of Democratic Mineworkers working miner.
Cathy says: “There’s a memorial – shouldn’t we be going? I should be going, he was my brother-in-law. I mean, what are the rules for this sort of thing? I don’t know what I’m meant to be doing, Fred.”
It’s another example of how the couple are continually ostracised by certain people in the community, and later, as Fred points out to DCS Ian St Clair (David Morrissey), it’s a case of learning how to survive and who to survive it with.
But it’s this life of isolation, emotional strain and burden that finally takes its toll on Cathy in this episode. Julie hears her weeping in her garden and hesitantly walks across to the wall between their houses. The wall is too tall for either to see each other, so Julie calls out and asks if she’s OK.
“Why are you asking me that?” Cathy says. “It’s me who should be asking you. It’s you who’s lost someone.”
Cathy apologises on behalf of Scott, to which Julie says that she hopes he rots in jail for his “entire miserable life”. You’d expect such a sentiment to rile Cathy up; instead, she remains apologetic and asks what they should do now. It’s clear – even from the way that they speak to each other in this scene – that Cathy has been ridiculed for her decision to stick by Fred’s side and is often the one being berated. It’s a dynamic she’s used to, evidently; she looks to her older sister for advice, which is something she asks for here.
But there’s nothing that can be done in this case; there’s a manhunt on and all they can do is sit and wait. Instead, the sisters stand with their hands on the wall, reaching out to one another for support without actually touching. It’s a metaphor for the fact that they’ve always tried to look out for one another from a distance.
Their divisions still exist – if anything, they’re exacerbated even more right now. With Cathy’s stepson standing accused of killing Julie’s husband, you’d expect tensions to be at an all-time high, but instead, it provides the siblings with common ground on which to sympathise with one another.
It also gives them – and the viewer – room to pause and reflect on the fact that although this history is an important one and one that still divides people to this day, there are bigger issues to contemplate. In the case of Sherwood, there are murders to be dealt with and real family relationships to repair.
It’s a relatable point. Many of us go through familial strife and estrangement, but life has a way of reminding you how trivial that can all be at times.
Episode 3 of Sherwood airs tonight on BBC One at 9pm, with the fourth episode airing tomorrow night at the same time.