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The Assembly review – Michael Sheen is grilled by 35 neurodivergent young people … and it’s pure TV joy
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The Assembly review – Michael Sheen is grilled by 35 neurodivergent young people … and it’s pure TV joy

First question: “Was John Taylor from Duran Duran your first ever crush?” Answer: “I thought he was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen, man or woman. His hair was like a miracle.” And so begins The Assembly, in which 35 autistic, neurodivergent and learning disabled people quiz one Michael Sheen, the award-winning Welsh actor. I think we can safely assume in more than three decades of interviews that Sheen has never been asked whether he knows “anything about the long-term celebrity Tom Jones?” It’s a question that leads to an anecdote about Sheen bonding with the Welsh singer’s sister over a broken toe in hospital in LA. You won’t find this sort of thing in Sight and Sound magazine.

I love the concept of this special, which airs during Autism Acceptance Week at a time when diagnosis is increasing and support has never been more stretched. The Assembly is simple and profound. I say this as the parent of a 10-year-old autistic boy who asks me about 100 questions a day, the revolving top two of which this week are: “Can we go skiing?” (we’ve never been) and “are you wearing tights?” (a sensory thing). My son loves to ask highly specific questions as much as neurotypical people in positions of power love to evade them. As for answering them? Not so much. He didn’t, indeed couldn’t, answer questions for years. He still answers very few, and finds open-ended ones especially overwhelming, incomprehensible, meaningless – or perhaps has entirely another feeling about them that I don’t yet understand.

The Assembly is an adaptation of a French show, Les Rencontres du Papotin, which saw president Emmanuel Macron and actor Camille Cottin face neurodivergent journalists and became the channel’s most watched unscripted show of the year. I can see why. We’re living in the age of the hyper-policed, ultra-dull interview in which the right questions aren’t asked and the wrong people are held to account. Even celebrity interviews have become about as fun as waiting for the next general election. The Assembly, then, is a breath of fresh air. The UK version is produced by Michelle Singer and Stu Richard’s Rockerdale Studios, whose work seeks to put disabled agency at its heart.

But The Assembly is not only about disability. It’s about, in this case, Sheen, and this is what makes it so lovely, novel and effective. Instead of a documentary investigating, say, the heartbreaking autism employment gap in this country – only 22% of autistic people are in paid work – we get an autistic woman explaining that her community experiences constant job rejection and asking for tips on how the actor copes with being turned down for roles. Which leads Sheen to speak about how he once played a character with cerebral palsy but wouldn’t do so now because “if a certain community has been shut out of an industry and has had to watch other people who don’t have their life experiences get those roles, there’s something wrong there”.

If all this makes The Assembly sound humourless, it is not. It’s endearing and sometimes very funny. Sheen, of course, is charm personified. I guess you have to be to play Tony Blair twice and still be loved by everyone. He clearly enjoys getting a grilling and is a kind, empathic presence with an unbreakable grin, even when asked what it feels like to be dating someone only five years older than his daughter. Ouch. Later, after a question about why he returned his OBE, the same mischievous interviewer pipes up again to ask: “If you could replace two members of the royal family, who would you replace them with?” Great question! Sheen swaps Prince Andrew – who he is playing in Prime Video’s A Very Royal Scandal – for Joe Lycett, and Queen Camilla for David Attenborough. Great answer!

I’ve learned all sorts of things about Sheen that I didn’t know I wanted to know. His favourite Disney film is Moana. His favourite food is egg and chips. He cries every day. His house in Wales is prone to bats flying in and sleeping in the folds of the curtains. His greatest fear is being alone. He can beatbox the Dynasty theme tune. And he’s happy to walk people through the before, during and after of his passionate kiss with David Tennant in Good Omens. All the while, the assembled group shouts out impromptu encouragement (“Michael! You’re doing fabulous!”), a bit of extra info (“By the way, my mum likes you!”), or a song, Here Comes the Sun, which makes Sheen cry.

My favourite moment, though, is when one interviewer, Leon, prepares to ask his question then struggles to find the words. “You take as much time as you want,” Sheen says softly. Everyone waits patiently. More time passes. Then Leon does it, reeling off his question seamlessly: “You say there is no writer other than Dylan Thomas. Do you relate to his work on a personal level because you are Welsh?” Then someone else stands up and gives a powerhouse recital of Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. And Sheen wells up again.

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  • The Assembly aired on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer.

Source: theguardian.com