Lewis Arnold, the Bafta and RTS winning director of Sherwood, Time, Des, The Long Shadow, Cleaning Up, Humans, Broadchurch and Misfits argues for the importance of representing all communities in the UK both in front of, and behind, the camera.
Storytelling is never more important than when it is helping to reflect the lives of underrepresented or unseen communities. I feel that we are in an incredibly privileged position to be able to tell stories, which transmit into the homes of millions of people. This responsibility means we must collectively strive to reflect a modern United Kingdom, representing communities across the country.
When I read Sherwood, I remember being immediately struck by how recognisable, relatable, and beautifully drawn-out James’ characters were. An ex-mining community, within a contemporary setting, is something I’d rarely seen onscreen, and James had written people I recognised from my own childhood in Birmingham – fifty miles down the M1 from his hometown of Ashfield. These people were larger than life. They were fun and loyal but if you crossed them blood would be spilt. It was working-class without the poverty porn or downtrodden nature of social realism. There was a beauty to be found within the house-proud homes of Julie and Sarah, the social aspirations of Ian or the love one has for their own family. The scripts spoke to me without needing to experience the divides and conflict of the miners’ strikes.
I personally felt a strong pull to try to reflect this community in a way which felt honest to the people who still lived there – including James’s own family and friends. For me, this meant pushing against the visual style one could attribute to shows and films about the working-classes. So we aimed to create a more considered look, less handheld, with warmth in the design and grade of the show whilst also capturing the beauty of the Nottinghamshire landscape, particularly Sherwood Forest itself. Whilst it would be a dark story, we would find room for humour and allow the heart of the characters to shine through.
It was a project that made me very grateful to be able to tell this story and James and myself would often reflect on our own journeys in forging a career in this crazy industry. Realising an ambition to become a director or writer isn’t an easy or straightforward path for anyone with aspirations of making a career in the TV or film business. For me it had often felt like a closed industry. It can take years of experience, failures, knockbacks and money to hone a craft and find your voice. And this is all before you’ve found yourself in a position of paid employment or financial backing.
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend university and study video production as young aspiring filmmaker, but it’s much more costly now than back in 2004. This meant more people were able to attend, regardless of their economic background, due to financial support. People weren’t left with crippling debt for the rest of their lives as they are now. From a filmmaking point of view this was great too, as you found yourself mixing with a wide variety of people from all walks of life, learning from each other, as much as you are the tutors. For example, now when I go back and teach, I find there tends to be a lot of the same stories and themes told in the students’ work, as they’re all from a similar upbringing. It’s no surprise that nowadays, a lot of the working-class voices are missing from those institutions due to how expensive it has become.
In my early years making films, I also found huge inspiration in local filmmakers like Shane Meadows and writer Geoff Thompson, creating wonderful films like Room For Romeo Brass, Dead Mans Shoes or Bouncer. These filmmakers were carving a new way through the industry, showing Midland talent that it could be done. This made it all feel slightly more attainable for me, personally. Visibility in our industry is so key, and the reason why it is important the industry continues to do more to support underrepresented filmmakers.
These filmmakers, as well as writers like Jimmy McGovern in Liverpool, Levi David Addai in London, or Sally Wainwright in Huddersfield, are all so good at writing from within the worlds they know, that audiences really respond to the truth of the characters and the landscape. I think this is what was so compelling about what James achieved with Sherwood. Writing from a place that felt pure and familiar to him gave the scripts such life and energy. It was our job to really facilitate his truth in the making of the show. Whether this was by casting authentic Nottingham talent in Perry Fitzpatrick, Philipp Jackson and Andrea Lowe or filming in ex-mining communities themselves, finding what made it personal for James was at the heart of our all decisions.
I think most of the scripts I’ve been excited by as an audience member or a filmmaker, come from a personal place deep from within the writer. I don’t think I’ve ever been as moved so deeply in the last few years than by Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin and it’s writers like RTD and Jack Thorne, who are really shining the light on representation, helping us all to think more about our shared responsibility.
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