“Causing destruction in your hometown can be extremely gratifying”: a look into Michael Sheen’s explosive Welsh revolution story.
Last month, on a Friday, a protest took place outside the Port Talbot steelworks in south Wales. The demonstrators were expressing their opposition to the closure of the site’s two main blast furnaces. The protest was peaceful and did not result in any incidents. It was briefly mentioned on the evening news. However, let’s imagine for a moment that the protest had turned violent and led to a full-scale rebellion in Wales. In that scenario, Port Talbot would no longer be seen as a declining industrial town, but rather a hub of revolutionary activity and a symbol of what is to come.
In summary, The Way is a lively BBC drama set in a fictional version of Britain that closely resembles our own. The show follows a family caught in the midst of a civil war and the consequences of a strict border separating England and Wales, turning the Celtic population into fugitives. Formerly known as a destination for book buying, the border town of Hay-on-Wye is now a refuge for those seeking a covert path into England.
Michael Sheen, the actor, created and oversaw The Way. He brought on James Graham, a writer from Sherwood, to pen the script and convinced documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis to join as an executive producer. Sheen also chose his hometown as the main setting for the drama, seeing it as the heart of the story. He describes Port Talbot, a steel town that has transformed into a resilient post-industrial community, as haunted by the ghosts of past rebellions. Sheen believes that the town has a dormant rebellious nature ingrained in its DNA and compares it to a sleeping dragon in a cave.
Sheen, similar to Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins before him, completed his education in Port Talbot and then moved to London and Los Angeles to pursue a successful acting career. However, unlike them, he has returned to live in the local area. He believes that the reason for this was the highly praised 72-hour production of The Passion that he directed in the town in 2011. This experience allowed him to reconnect with his roots and gain a better understanding of the community.
Returning to my hometown and seeing it transformed into a film set wasn’t a new experience for me, says the actor. However, this production required more time and effort, including shutting down the main street for a week. Naturally, not everyone was pleased about it, but I was grateful for the remaining trust I had gained from my previous project, The Passion.
The Way quickly navigates through the town, taking us from the factory to the stores to the residential areas and finally to the beach as the demonstrations continue and law enforcement responds with force. Its main focus is on the Driscoll family, who are at odds with each other (separated parents and struggling adult siblings) as they flee through Afan Forest Park while being chased by the British military. Each member of the Driscoll family has been deeply impacted and emotionally wounded by the steelworks, almost like a troublesome relative that sits in the background.
Mali Harries, originally from Cardiff, portrays the character of Dee Driscoll, the fearless Mother Courage in the story. Harries remembers being driven past the steelworks as a child and feeling intimidated by its size, noise, and smell. She recalls seeing massive towers and lots of steam, even dreaming about using a giant Berocca tablet to clean up the pollution. Despite its intimidating appearance from a distance, Harries acknowledges that once you become part of the community, you see its true heart, generosity, and good humor. As a child, she only saw the towers and smoke, but as an adult, she also sees the people.
Callum Scott Howells, who was born in Rhondda, plays Owen, the son of the Driscolls who struggles with addiction. He remembers avoiding Port Talbot during his younger years, only passing through when going on walks with his parents. He notes that the steelworks in the town are hard to miss when driving on the M4, making it an unlikely destination for a day trip. However, he now realizes that it has many similarities to his own hometown, which is also a former mining community. Both places are part of the same post-industrial Welsh landscape.
Howells is most famous for his portrayal of Colin, the tragic youngster from the Welsh valleys in Russell T Davies’s It’s a Sin. He expresses a desire to film more roles in southern Wales, as there are many compelling Welsh stories waiting to be shared. However, the challenge lies in successfully adapting them for the screen without losing their essence. He praises The Way for its grand scope and ability to showcase the potential of Welsh television with its use of Welsh actors and crew without compromising the story. He hopes it sets a higher standard for Welsh television.
In the drama, the Driscolls are on the move. They are navigating through the Welsh border while the plot follows closely, moving unpredictably alongside them. The landscape constantly changes and the script is inconsistent. The Way begins as a urgent tale of social realism but then jumps between genres without finding its footing. It alludes to The Wizard of Oz and WB Yeats’s The Second Coming. It is a wild, unpredictable creature that keeps everyone on their toes.
Sheen acknowledges that there is a peculiar vibe to it. It’s unclear whether we’re in a scary movie, a comedy, or a ridiculous situation. Our goal was to keep the audience on their toes and capture the essence of our experiences over the past decade – the sheer absurdity of reality and the predicament we find ourselves in.
The path inevitably takes us to the desk of Adam Curtis, the genius behind acclaimed documentaries Bitter Lake and The Power of Nightmares. Curtis is officially recognized as the executive producer of The Way, meaning he serves as its guiding force and mentor. A typical dystopian story would not have captured his attention in the slightest. The Way’s unpredictable nature, however, became its main appeal.
Curtis states that people have become accustomed to genres. When they watch something on TV, they quickly categorize it and feel trapped by the expectations that come with the genre. However, this unconventional approach offers a way to break free from the limitations of traditional structures.
Curtis is discussing TV dramas, but he believes that they only reflect a narrow view of the world. He worries that our stories have become overused and unoriginal. He states that our society is stuck in the past, relying on nostalgia and outdated beliefs. He rejects the label of dystopian for his work and is also hesitant to call it a Port Talbot tale. He sees it as a larger commentary on society and its flaws, using Wales as a setting.
Home is always with us, whether we stay or go. Sheen can relate to this feeling, as it is reflected in his film The Way. He acknowledges that it is a significant political narrative, but also a deeply personal one that resonates with his own emotions about home.
In the background, Port Talbot is facing an uncertain destiny. The closure of the blast furnaces will result in nearly 3,000 job cuts. Locals fear that the town may soon become abandoned. Onscreen, the situation is even more dire. This alternate version of Port Talbot has become the epicenter of the revolution. It is the initial site of the war, and potentially its first victim as well.
Sheen recalls how HG Wells chose to place his novel The War of the Worlds in his hometown of Woking. He also notes that director Edgar Wright followed suit by setting Hot Fuzz in Wells. This practice seems to have become a small tradition, and now Sheen is joining in by setting his own story in his hometown and imagining its destruction. He smiles at the idea of transforming the familiar into an apocalyptic wasteland, but adds that it is done with affection.
The arrival of The Way is approaching on BBC iPlayer and BBC One.