Boris, Sherwood and the politics of the past

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

It feels like the end, but we’ve been here before. The past months of Boris Johnson’s teetering administration have felt like the final act of a Shakespearean tragedy and yet the curtain just won’t fall. This week saw one of those rare electric nights of drama when a prime minister looks set to be toppled. At least, they used to be rare. In the first 25 years of my life I had only three prime ministers. The past chaotic decade looks to be about to produce its fourth. The axe hovered in the air for Johnson, but was prevented from falling – at least at the time of writing – by Nadhim Zahawi, the MP for Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon, denying us the climax. The question many have is – why? What is the great mission the Prime Minister is defying convention and warping political reality in order to deliver?

One mission, we are told, is ‘levelling up’, and I like to think I delivered my own little bit of that in the past couple of weeks by penning a television drama set in the Red Wall village where I grew up. I’ve been relieved and grateful for the response to Sherwood on BBC1. It’s ostensibly a crime drama (because we don’t have enough of those) loosely inspired by two killings in my old mining community in north Nottinghamshire, leading to – at the time, back in 2004 – one of the largest manhunts in British history as the two suspects fled into the old Sherwood Forest. One of these outlaws was – appropriately, given the folklore of the surroundings – armed with a crossbow and a quiver full of arrows. But almost anything and everything is political, especially in these towns where the quiet hum of the past can be felt throbbing beneath the earth of the undug coal, and heard echoing on streets leading to empty fields where once the pit-heads stood. It’s why the political, to me, is always intertwined with the personal. The pain of the miners’ strike was particularly acute in Nottinghamshire, where three-quarters of the colliers rejected the calls from the NUM’s Arthur Scargill and returned to work for the majority of the year, eventually forming their own breakaway union. These decisions split families, friendships and communities, and the trauma has not gone away. Even though, in the real-life story behind Sherwood, the killing of one of the few striking miners in Annesley Woodhouse had nothing to do with the politics of the past, it still reignited the divisions.

I’m obviously teasing about levelling up – although then again maybe I’m not, for surely the regional disparities that still exist aren’t solely economic. They’re also cultural. Drama, art and storytelling has always played a part in giving a voice to the voiceless. That’s why one of the great anxieties I felt swell up inside me this week was prompted by the news of more universities cutting arts and humanities degrees. Sheffield Hallam announced the pausing of its dedicated English literature degree and Wolverhampton cancelled more than 40 of its creative arts subjects. I don’t want to blame the universities: this is part of a wider, depressing trend. Applications for these subjects are falling and institutions are simply responding to, I suppose, the ‘market’.

No, I don’t believe the government benches are full of philistines, or that there is a secret plot to reduce the country’s capacity for creative thinking, shrinking the cohort of pesky poets and political playwrights. The decline is an accidental consequence of a solution to a real problem. The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was introduced by the coalition government in response to low literacy and numeracy levels, narrowing the core curriculum to maths, science, a language, geography or history, and English. One result of this was a shift in secondary schools away from art, music and drama. Funding and teaching time for these are plummeting – by around 20 per cent in the past few years.

By coincidence, the architect of the EBacc, Michael Gove, is now the Secretary of State for Levelling Up. Mr Gove has kindly come to see my plays, and even reviewed them positively. Yet if the educational climate which he oversaw had existed when I was a student, I would not have written them. The story of Sherwood, from the exact communities we must level up, would not be on screen had my comprehensive school not encouraged me to do an artistic degree. The advances schools have made in numeracy and literacy should be celebrated, but a well-rounded education – not to mention a fair and equal one – should include at least one creative subject in the core curriculum. We’re hitting crisis point for art in schools, and this is not an exaggeration.

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