‘It was refreshing to see what Sherwood did’: how the BBC’s acclaimed miners’ strike drama went down in the real pit villages

·12 min read

There isn’t really a high street in Annesley Woodhouse. The old Methodist chapel is shuttered. The miners’ welfare club, where everyone used to have their birthday parties and wedding receptions, has been demolished and built over. The closest Forest Road has toa community hub is Ian White’s grocery store, where locals from the adjacent former mining terraces and the smarter new housing estates get their basics.

In the past week, it is clear, there has only been one topic of conversation at the till there: James Graham’s unmissable BBC series Sherwood, which dramatises the village’s history over the past four decades. Graham, who grew up nearby, had a Saturday job at Ian White’s; his mother worked there, too. On Thursday morning, one former colleague, Dawn – reluctant to have her full name in the London papers – was unpacking boxes outside.

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When she first heard about the series, she says, she texted Graham’s mum to ask if he knew what he was letting himself in for. Apart from the trauma of the murder that was the primary inspiration for the fiction of Sherwood – Keith “Froggy” Frogson, former trade unionist, was killed with a crossbow and samurai sword a couple of streets away from the grocery shop in 2004 – there was also all the buried hurt and anger of the 1984 miners’ strike, which divided Nottinghamshire’s neighbours and families, the long-ago war that some still want to fight.

“I thought it was just going to bring loads of stuff up,” said Dawn. “But James did it so brilliantly. We are a very close community and everyone knows each other. When it first started, I sat there thinking: ‘Well, that didn’t happen and they weren’t married then’ and all that. But then you got into it.”

The former Annesley colliery is now a housing estate and country park
The former Annesley colliery is now a housing estate and country park. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Graham has suggested that one of the reasons he made the series is that he would not have wanted an outsider to tell that story. You don’t have to spend five minutes in Annesley to recognise the truth of that. The village, bordered by the thick woodland of Sherwood Forest, feels like a place that keeps its secrets close. Graham made a point of including the Frogson family at every stage of the process, inviting them along to filming and to a special screening in Nottingham. That makes a difference to people here.

For Dawn, and most of those I spoke to last week, two scenes from the drama stood out in particular. The first was the one in which the two estranged sisters, one the wife of a striker, the other of a strike-breaker, spoke to each other while divided by a redbrick wall.

“That was a bit how it was,” said Dawn. She was 15 in 1984. “My dad was a miner, a big bloke, and he carried on working. He kept us out of it, but I knew he was scared. Still, as he used to say, he wouldn’t have followed Arthur Scargill down the garden path.”

The other scene that hit home was in the final episode, where the characters gather for some “truth and reconciliation” in the working men’s club. In his dramatisation of that scene, which could be played out in any number of post-industrial towns, Graham gave voice on the one hand to the majority of Nottinghamshire miners who stayed in work – “Some of us just wanted to eke it out as long as possible” – and those who picketed: “We could have won. United we stand but divided we fell. [Nottinghamshire will be] scab country forever more.”The final word was given to the widow of the murdered man, who suggested that the continuing division between working people was exactly what the Thatcher government had always wanted.

“A former mining town? How the hell are we to move on when we talk about ourselves in terms of what we aren’t any more? We’ve had 40 years of this. You get one bloody life and we are spending it hating. Aren’t you all tired? I am. So fucking tired …”

The Observer photographer Gary Calton and I encounter all strands of this debate when we talk, and try to talk, to those who lived closest to that real-life drama. One or two ex-NUM members who agree to speak to us about watching Sherwood – men who stayed out of work for the whole year – contact us a few hours after we have chatted to say that they have changed their minds and want to withdraw their cooperation with this article “out of respect to Keith’s family”.

Among these men, that old line, “Which side are you on, boys?”, has never stopped mattering

The way their silence is still so quickly coordinated, across different valleys, among men who have not been down a mine for 30 years, seems like a potent illustration of how deep the bonds of solidarity go. Among these men, who never miss a funeral of a striking colleague, who keep the memorabilia– plates and badges, and banners on view – that old line, “Which side are you on, boys?”, has never stopped mattering.

A few suggest to me they will go to their grave “never having spoken to a scab”, though they might live next door.

Harry Paterson, whose book Look Back in Anger is a polemical oral history of the striking Nottinghamshire miners, is not surprised at this. “There is understandable suspicion about the press,” he said. “Some of those people were beaten up at Orgreave, were jailed, and persecuted by the full might of the state and then lied about.”He won the trust of these men for his book, in part because he is from a mining family; his wife’s father stayed out throughout the strike.

Paterson helped David Morrissey with some of that history for his role as the local detective at the heart of Graham’s series. “We can’t help but feel a degree of trepidation when these issues are tackled,” Paterson said. “Because we’re so used to the portrayal of the picketing miners as Scargill’s brainwashed boot boys. It was refreshing to see what Sherwood did.” Some people quibbled about emphasis and accents, he says, but “I have a WhatsApp group of 200 people comprised of most of the hardcore Nottingham left, and overall, I would say, people loved it”.

Harry Paterson, the author of Look Back in Anger, a polemical oral history of the Nottinghamshire miners’ strike
Harry Paterson, the author of Look Back in Anger, a polemical oral history of the Nottinghamshire miners’ strike. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

The only part of the drama Paterson disliked was that final scene of reconciliation. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We can’t sit around the campfire singing Kumbaya when the lessons of that dispute have still not been learned.” Quoting the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, he believes he is seeing the same tropes played out with the current RMT strikes, watching a government provoke confrontation for its own political end.

“The reality was that the miners’ strike was planned in advance, to deliberately destabilise the most powerful union in Britain. And the fact is, the working miners in Nottingham were an active, willing party to that.” In his book he gives a chapter to an interview with David Amos, a prominent Annesley miner who broke the picket. Amos was, Paterson argues, clearly “on the wrong side of history”.

Amos lives a few miles away from Annesley these days, though he was born in the street next to the old mine, the last of six generations of Nottingham miners. He worked down the pit until it closed. The only thing that he and Paterson agree on, he tells me in a study crammed with files and books and colliery plates, is that in 2015, when the last pit shut, the important thing was to get the history right.

Since the pit closed, Amos has gained a doctorate in that history. “I told Harry, listen, you and I are going to be pushing up daisies, but your book and my thesis will be out there. And people can make their own mind up about what really happened.”

Amos thinks Sherwood makes a key contribution to that debate. “It’s a masterpiece,” he said. “Our Boys from the Blackstuff. What James has done is what the Greeks were doing before democracy was invented. Dramatising stuff that really matters.”

Amos was 27 when the strike began, just elected to the NUM committee at Annesley. He later became part of the breakaway “moderate” miners’ affiliation, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM).

Arthur Scargill, NUM leader from 1982-2002, on the RMT picket line in Sheffield last week
Arthur Scargill, NUM leader from 1982-2002, on the RMT picket line in Sheffield last week. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

“Once Scargill came, the NUM was quite Orwellian,” he said. “We said: ‘Are you asking us what to do or are you telling us?’ And they said: ‘We’re telling you.’ Notts miners had a different tradition to that.”

Unlike Paterson, he loved that truth and reconciliation scene in the working men’s club. “That speech summed it up perfectly for me,” he said. “The battle now is over the story.”

No one, he suggests, engaged in that battle with greater stubbornness than Frogson. “I remember I heard about Keith on the radio,” he said. “It was before social media and I was so stunned I sat still there in my chair and waited for an hour later on the news to make sure I’d heard it right.”

Along with everyone else, Amos at the time assumed Frogson’s murder was tied up with the strike. “It was the 20th anniversary,” he said. “Keith had been on one side, the murderer on the other.” But when the full details of the killer’s paranoid mental state emerged, that unfounded belief was shelved.

Did he recognise Frogson in the fictional portrayal? “One thing they did get wrong was that Froggy never called anyone ‘scab’,” he said. “It was always ‘scabby bastard’.”

Is there still that standoff?

“It’s just played out by a few people these days,” he said. “It’s like ageing Jedi knights battling it out and everyone else is wondering what the bloody hell’s going on. Apparently there was a survey on Radio Nottingham last week that said most people under 30 didn’t even know what the word ‘scab’ meant.”

It is not all animosity. Amos mentions a friend, Bob Collier, a former NUM striker, as evidence that some reconciliation across these old divides is possible. In their case, it worked, he suggests, because of a shared passion for fishing.

Bob Collier, 75, started at the neighbouring Newstead colliery as an electrician when he was 15, the same year he signed amateur forms for Nottingham Forest as an uncompromising centre-forward. He was NUM branch treasurer at Newstead at the time of the strike, one of 44 men (and one woman, Doreen Brierley, who worked in the canteen) who stayed out all through, from about 800.

Collier was not a fan of Sherwood. “I watched it all but I have deleted it now and I won’t look at it again,” he said. For one thing, he is in touch with the Frogson family – he used to play in the same football teams as Keith – and does not like the way it has raked up pain for them. For another, he thinks too many details were off. “It showed miners swearing around the dinner table at home, for example,” he said. “We’d never have done that.” He thought, too, that the presence of the “truly vile” Metropolitan police imported into the area was underplayed.

Former miner Bob Collier has mounted a memorial in Annesley to those who lost their lives in pit accidents or through mining-related illnesses
Former miner Bob Collier has mounted a memorial in Annesley to those who lost their lives in pit-related accidents or through mining illnesses. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

“Like anyone,” he said, “I have friends and I have a few enemies. David Amos was a UDM man and I was an NUM man. We were friends before the strike. We never became unfriendly. When he comes to my house, he knows he’s going to get his tea in a striking miner’s mug. He’ll smile at it.

“I was the chairman of Newstead Miners Welfare Anglers’ Club and he was the same at Annesley. After the strike, though we were both crippling broke, we put £50 in and formed the Newstead and Annesley fishing club. We went from strength to strength. So we do keep in touch.”

You realise, talking to all these men, with their collections of badges and pit lamps, that symbols, like stories, are all that is left of a profound way of life. Collier has asked to speak to us next to the old pit tub he sourced locally and had mounted earlier this year at the entrance to the village, on the way down to the old mine, which is now a housing estate and country park.

“I’m on Annesley and Felley parish council now,” Collier said, “and they funded the project to get this put in. If you look at the wording on it, there’s nothing there to do with the strike. On one side it says ‘Annesley Colliery last working mine in the Leen valley’ and on the other side it’s dedicated to all miners who lost their lives in accidents or mining-related diseases. I fought to have it facing the cemetery because that’s where so many of those men are buried.”

That pit tub, on a stretch of rail, planted with flowers, means very different things to different generations. For men such as Collier, and men such as Amos, it is a symbol of sacrifice, of old mates and hardship and battles lost and battles won. For the generations below them, you guess, it is a nice bit of heritage, something their grandparents might linger at.

On the train back home from Annesley, I spoke to Graham by phone. He talked a bit about his sadness at how the high street in his home village is not what it was and is keen to hear how friendly or otherwise my welcome has been. It has been a relief, he says, to finally have this tale out there, the one you suspect made him want to write in the first place.

“Storytelling is still such a big part of life in that place,” he said. As the BBC’s Sherwood so brilliantly articulates, it is a British industry that we cannot afford to lose.

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