Ashfield-born playwright James Graham reveals hometown inspiration behind forthcoming BBC TV drama Sherwood

For the past couple of years I have been writing and producing a new television drama set in Ashfield where I grew up, and inspired by tragic events that took place here, writes playwright James Graham.

By James Graham
Friday, 27th May 2022, 2:22 pm
Updated Wednesday, 8th June 2022, 12:48 pm

Because of the pain involved, I’m aware that there will be questions over what the show is, and ‘why now’?

We all watch TV dramas that are ‘inspired’ by true crimes. They can be compelling, and even illuminate issues that help us to make sense of senseless tragedies.

But there’s also the danger, if done badly, that they feel exploitative and do more harm than good.

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James Graham is an ex Ashfield pupil who is now a successful playwright.

Growing up in Kirkby, I know how lucky I am to find myself writing plays and films for the stage and screen – it was going to Ashfield School, with passionate teachers who believed working class kids should have access to theatre and the arts that got me into writing.

I’ve written dramas like Quiz on ITV, about the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire ‘coughing major’ scandal, and musicals like Finding Neverland with Gary Barlow.

But it has genuinely been the honour of my life to speak to and work with some of the family members and police officers involved in those cases that inspired this drama, and any other individuals who felt comfortable when contacted to engage with the project in order to help us try to tell the story responsibly.

I was always worried – given the hard-to-believe nature of the real events – that someone from the outside would one day parachute in and adapt this for the big screen in a flashy and insensitive way and that, as a local lad, I had a responsibility if I could to try to delicately explore it first.

Robert Glenister as Detective Inspector Kevin Salisbury, left, and David Morrissey, as Detective Chief Superintendent Ian St Clair, in Sherwood.

The tragic killing of Keith Frogson in 2004, which led to one of the biggest manhunts in history through the woods around Annesley and Hucknall that once made up the old Sherwood Forest – hence the title, Sherwood – remains understandably raw to this day.

“Froggy’s” family are naturally keen not to receive any extra attention, and we ask everyone to respect that.

It’s one of the reasons I took the decision to fictionalise the story, with new names and characters, so that it is not a literal adaptation but a few steps removed.

That being said, I cannot express enough my admiration for the way they have been open to speaking with me, visiting the set, meeting the actors, and the bravery they display every day.

Philip Jackson and Lorraine Ashbourne as Mickey and Daphne Sparrow, in Sherwood.

I was so proud to be able to show them the series first, before anyone else.

They are the living embodiment of their father’s favourite phrase: “Still solid.” An Annesley trait, if ever there was one…

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Killing

Perry Fitzpatrick as Rory Sparrow in Sherwood.

Through other invented characters, and with a cast that includes some exceptional British actors like The Walking Dead’s David Morrissey, Oscar-nominated Lesley Manville, and Downtown Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt – all doing, I think, very good East Midlands accents, but you be the judge – Sherwood dramatises the days after the killing of a former miner, here called Gary Jackson and played by Alun Armstrong.

As in real life, we explore how, in the days that followed, there was a misguided fear that the killing may have been politically-motivated, given the victim’s role in the 1984 Strike.

However, none of this was true.

The crime had nothing to do with any historic feud, and the culprit didn’t even have any connection to the family.

That didn’t stop the media making this link though, causing the police to fear the inflaming of old divisions in our village.

It was so important to me that this drama was able to set that record straight.

A tense scene in Sherwood.

Divided

It’s also important to me that different characters get to express their views – those who went on Strike in 1984, and those who didn’t – dividing families and friends.

That, to me, is the power and importance of drama. Empathy, for different people and views.

Many will remember that, in real life, there was a second killing entirely unrelated to the first, with the perpetrator likewise seeking refuge in the woods.

Once again, we heavily fictionalised the characters of this other tragedy, with new names and relationships, so as not to stir up unnecessary pain where possible.

There haven’t been many national television dramas set in our community, and maybe there won’t be many more in the future.

But despite the tragedy of the events they relate to, I hope that giving a platform to the people around here, their massive heart and gallows sense of humour, their resilience and their hopes for a future, that local people find some relief and even pride in Ashfield being briefly on the nation’s screens.

Sherwood, a six-part drama, airs on BBC One on Mondays and Tuesdays at 9pm, from Monday, June 13.

A wedding scene in Sherwood.
A scene from Sherwood.
Adeel Akhtar as Andy Fisher in Sherwood.
David Morrissey as Detective Chief Superintendent Ian St Clair, left, and Terence Maynard, as Sergeant Cleaver, in Sherwood.