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6 March 2024

Michael Sheen: Why Kemi Badenoch is wrong about Port Talbot

The actor on arguing with the Tory MP, going on stage in pyjamas, and his new series The Way.

By Michael Sheen

On a recent February morning, I woke up to find I was wrong. Not a particularly uncommon experience in itself, but unusual to discover that on this occasion I was being publicly accused of it by the Secretary of State for Business and Trade. “Michael Sheen has said that ‘the people of Port Talbot have been let down’,” Kemi Badenoch wrote in the Daily Mail. “But he is wrong.”

It was a big day. I spent all of last year directing a three-part drama series for the BBC called The Way, which was to air that night. It begins in my hometown of Port Talbot, where a strike at the local steelworks becomes the spark that ignites a violent descent into national chaos. Clearly, Ms Badenoch had been given a sneak peek of the series before forming quite a strong opinion on it. But no: reading her article, Ms Badenoch admits that she hadn’t watched it at all. Why let a total lack of information prevent a full-throated denouncement, eh? Presumably, she also assumes that we managed to write, film and edit the entire series after Tata Steel announced the imminent loss of some 2,500 jobs at the steelworks mere weeks ago.

While the winds of change have only been blowing in one direction for many years, the events in our story were dreamed up some years ago and act as a fictional catalyst for all that follows. Surely even Tory ministers understand there is no VIP fast lane for making a TV series. This isn’t a PPE contract, after all…

Nothing to see here

After that episode aired, it occurred to me that such shenanigans in the right-wing press could have been about a couple of things. Since the ITV drama about the Post Office scandal, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, caused public outrage, I imagine the government has a new fear of the impact a TV show can have. A pre-emptive strike against a series it perceives to be criticising its actions around the steel industry must have seemed a useful tactic. And, having seen Breathtaking – based on Rachel Clarke’s memoir of how the Covid crisis unfolded in the NHS, which aired on ITV the same night as The Way – I wonder if her piece was an attempt to distract attention away from more dangerous territory.

It gave Ms Badenoch a chance to trot out her line about how the people of Port Talbot should be grateful for all that the government is doing to save the steel industry, not moaning about the impact job losses will have on their community. But the people of Port Talbot have been let down, no matter what Ms Badenoch wants us to think. Not by any single entity, but by years of neglect. That she immediately assumed my comments referred to her and her government tells its own story. In the words of a much older drama than mine: the lady doth protest too much, methinks.

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Then and Nye

“This crisis is a privateering racket with your friends lining their pockets!” No, not an accusation against Boris Johnson, but something I currently say to Winston Churchill every night. We opened a new play called Nye at the National Theatre this week. I play Aneurin (“Nye”) Bevan, who attacks the prime minister for turning a wartime crisis into a money-making scheme for him and his cronies. It’s one of many moments in the play that seem to speak to past and present at the same time.

The entanglement of “now” and “then” is heightened by the fact that I am wearing pyjamas. Nye is lying unconscious in his hospital bed at the end of his life, and we follow him through a dream of his past. He wanders from childhood memories of overcoming his stutter in Tredegar library to his meteoric rise through local politics, to becoming the youngest member of Clement Attlee’s pioneering postwar cabinet. And, of course, as minister for health, his tumultuous birthing of the NHS on 5 July 1948. It’s an extraordinary, surprising
and moving experience telling this story on stage each night. That shared space between actors and audience, where all is felt but unseen, crackles with electricity.

Once more, with feeling

It seems that exploring the motives of politicians, the uses and abuses of political power, and the quest for justice that saw the creation of the NHS taps into deep wells of emotion. Like the pockets of gas that miners feared within the coal seam, their release brings risk and reward. At a recent show, we had three instances of people needing to be helped out of the theatre, the final one forcing us to pause the show moments from its end. Thankfully, it was nothing more serious than someone fainting. But emotions are running high.

I’m more than happy to invite Ms Badenoch to a performance. But I realise, of course, there’s no guarantee she would make it to the end.

Michael Sheen is a Welsh actor and former guest editor of the New Statesman

[See also: How Breathtaking brought tears to the Baftas]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain