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James Graham’s Diary: Music, dance, comedy and theatre can bring immeasurable benefits to a community

I remember how moving it was in Hull to witness an increase in self-esteem and purpose during a year of events that brought people back into the centre of their city
June 16, 2022

I am immersed in the world of “true crime” drama right now—and no, I don’t mean the avalanche of lawbreaking at Number 10. As a writer, I’m more at home adapting stories from our recent political past, such as my parliamentary play This House or the Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, so a police procedural thriller is not necessarily a genre I thought I’d dip my toe into. 

But this new drama, Sherwood, begins its run in mid-June on the television—the actual television, that box you’ve forgotten about in the corner, rather than a streaming platform: the kind of thing Nadine Dorries thinks all analogue channels could and will one day become. It is—or is attempting to be—a crime drama with a socio-political bent, as it is set in the “Red Wall” where I hail from, and addresses our current political divisions.

The real event that it’s inspired by is barely believable: a killing in 2004 of a former miner, a few streets from where I lived. The culprit used a crossbow and arrow before fleeing into the surrounding woods that made up the old Sherwood Forest, improbably evoking memories of old Nottinghamshire folklore.

But it evoked something more dangerous as well. North Nottinghamshire was a crucible of violence during the Miners’ Strike in 1984. In the absence of a national vote, three-quarters of the colliers in the county decided to go back to work. Which is why Arthur Scargill’s flying pickets focused a large amount of their attention on the villages across the border with Yorkshire, where I grew up. It saw the London Metropolitan Police arrive in their hundreds into these previously quiet and unassuming villages, and frequently adopt an aggressive and some believe—with evidence—unconstitutional level of policing. 

Their presence soured relationships with many local officers who became ostracised from their own communities, being tarred with the same brush.

Imagine the painful irony when the killing of a miner—who was one of the very few to stay on strike in my village, clashing with the Met 20 years before—triggered the return of the Met in their hundreds once more, this time to catch the miner’s killer. It was an upsetting reminder of a difficult past that split families and friends along a binary line of striker and strike-breaker, long before Leave and Remain did the same to communities and loved ones decades later.

I was told the story of two old friends living locally who didn’t speak to one another for the rest of their lives after they chose different paths in 1984—to the extent that one felt unable to attend the other’s funeral. But such remained the repressed love between them, he found himself compelled to sit in a field overlooking the church on the day of his burial—there, but not.

I think this is partly why I have little time for the reckless encouragement, in the modern populist mould, of artificially dividing people along class or identity lines for cheap short-term political gain in the absence of substantial long-term policies to unite people and improve their lives. There is always a very human cost.

Speaking of long-term polices, if such things even exist anymore, a new initiative has been launched at University College London called the Policy Lab, with the aim of formulating “transformative policies” for the unprecedented and extreme challenges facing the nation and the world. I was delighted to be welcomed as a visiting professor, despite wondering genuinely what a playwright might contribute to the cause. But the hope is that academics, economists, data scientists and yes, even storytellers, might tackle the crisis of ideas and the lack of imagination we seem to be suffering from, where returning to imperial weights and measures is the most inspiring national plan the incumbents seem to have.

A lot of the activists and thinkers I spoke to at the launch event were focused on the notion of place: of real-life community and a public realm. Coming from a post-industrial town as I do, I’ve seen both of these go into terminal decline and yet, despite our obsession with our digital lives and the forthcoming Metaverse, still measurably matter to voters when asked. 

I was excited to see a new City of Culture announced: in 2025, Bradford will take the crown from Coventry. In Hull, which held the crown in 2017, a data analytics team I spent time with attempted to measure the social, economic and even emotional benefits that music, dance, comedy and the theatre can bring to a community. I remember how moving it was to witness, alongside tourism and investment, an increase in self-esteem and purpose during a year of events that brought people back into the centre of their city.

Almost as a joke, the data team also tracked one further measurement: that year there was a calculable increase in the belief in “magic,” however locals chose to define it. Could there be a more moving tribute to the power and culture
of place?