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21 February 2024

Michael Sheen’s The Way is audacious, intellectual TV

This collaboration between James Graham, Adam Curtis and the actor asks big questions, and has things to tell us about ourselves.

By Rachel Cooke

Well, this is something. Michael Sheen, the Welsh activist-actor, has got together with James Graham, whose plays include Dear England and who had a TV hit with Sherwood, and Adam Curtis, the cult (perhaps that should read occult) documentary-maker, and together they’ve made a strange but gripping drama called The Way, in which civil society breaks down in Port Talbot, and a man and his family suddenly find themselves refugees in their own land. As you might expect, it’s both hazily dreamlike and quite potently Welsh, a retro sensibility running right through it like a pattern in a pub carpet. The soundtrack, for instance, is straight out of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, all hums and bleeps and fuzzy reel-to-reels. But it’s also quite thrillingly political, as if someone had lit a match beneath Newsnight and all the rest.

If you’ve been thinking about the miners’ strike after watching one of the films marking its anniversary, this is for you: though it’s set in the present day, everything that happens is rooted in the industrial strife of the Eighties. But it also looks to the future, its particular bleakness born as much of the internet as of urban decline (it was filmed before the recent announcement that Tata Steel is to close its Port Talbot furnaces, with the probable loss of 2,800 jobs).

It’s about the fraying of the British, the way people are losing their minds, and whether this is with good reason, or because they’ve been preyed on by populists and conspiracy theorists (it may be both). “What is it that rises up the same moment it falls?” a half-mad homeless man asks. Only later (there are three parts, all on iPlayer) do we learn that the answer to this riddle is: the people.

Sheen directs a fantastic band of actors (he also has a small part himself). When the plot gets creaky, they save it, so much conviction in their faces. In Port Talbot, a beleaguered divorcee called Geoff (Steffan Rhodri) is just about keeping it together. He works in the tiny museum at the steelworks, where he tells visiting children (an old story, this) that should the flame which burns at the furnace 24 hours a day ever go out, the town will fall. But only a paper separates myth from reality. When the plant’s Japanese owners talk of relining the furnace, what do they really mean? Geoff trusts them, but his union colleague Glynn (Mark Lewis Jones) does not, and after a series of eldritch happenings, he calls the men out on strike.

I know. This doesn’t sound very apocalyptic, and I would struggle to describe on paper how, exactly, things descend into chaos (you need to watch). But somehow, they do, quickly. Politics plays a part – the local Labour MP legs it, leaving the rhetoric to a rabble-rousing nationalist – and so does personal history. Geoff’s ex-wife, Dee (Mali Harries), and Glynn are stirred by the disappointments of the past: why can’t Geoff be as pure as his late father, Denny (Sheen), a miner whose daring acts in 1984 are still remembered? But perhaps it’s something deeper and more powerful that’s the ultimate trigger. Geoff’s son Owen (Callum Scott Howells) is depressed and isolated; he tells his GP he’s no longer able to feel anything. Faced with a mob, however, and he’s all feeling. What we’re looking at is a twisted version of EM Forster’s “only connect”.

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It might have been made on a budget, but this series is provocative – audacious, even – in a way television rarely is now: not for the sake of it, but because it has an intellectual heart. It reminds me, in a good way, of dramas I knew growing up: Edge of Darkness from 1985, say, or Alan Bleasdale’s GBH, from 1991 (Graham recently adapted Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff  for the stage). I like the uncompromising way it looks, especially the flickering clips – home movies or footage from surveillance cameras? – that must have come courtesy of Curtis, and I relish the intensity of its focus, the particular deployed in the cause of the universal. You’ll want to talk about it afterwards. It asks such big questions, and it has things to tell us about ourselves.

The Way
BBC iPlayer

[See also: I was excited about The New Look – but the series is cringe inducing]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation