The Way – Michael Sheen’s new drama

The reviews are… mixed. And it is certainly a programme you will love or hate. But that is one of the main themes; our daily lives sometimes suck, so why are we so reluctant to fight back? Call it a people’s version of The Capture.

Photo: A town on the edge … Callum Scott Howells in The Way. Photograph: Jon Pountney/BBC/Red Seam

Clipper Media: 21 February 2024

The Guardian: 19 February 2024 | Lucy Mangan

The Way review – Michael Sheen’s thrilling new drama is like nothing else on TV

The power and ambition of this Adam Curtis-directed, James Graham-written series about Welsh revolution is utterly innovative. It’s so fresh and different you have to take notice

The BBC’s new three-part drama The Way is Michael Sheen’s directorial debut. It has been nearly a decade in gestation, this story of civil unrest fermenting in Sheen’s Welsh home town of Port Talbot – cradle of militant unionism and symbol of working-class fury and pride.

It has been created with writer James Graham (Brexit: The Uncivil War, Quiz, Sherwood) and – slightly more unusually, documentary auteur Adam Curtis.

The opening episode is something so different and fresh that even if you can’t say you’re actively enjoying it (though I was), the power and ambition of it all, the unashamed idiosyncrasy that permeates the direction, the allusiveness of the narrative and its slightly dreamlike (or nightmarish) off-kilter quality surely makes you sit up and take notice. It has a clear, accessible narrative at its heart, for sure, but the sensibility is rare and all its own.

It’s a tale of civil discontent, sparked by the death of a youngster in a vat of molten slag at the steelworks and his father’s self-immolation – in grief, in protest, in some unspeakable combination of the two – thereafter. The union blames management and decades of underinvestment.

Management offers to reline a furnace, a sop to the emotion of the moment, rather than a recognition of needs. “We didn’t realise we were buying a mood,” says one of the new investors, with a combination of bafflement and frustration.

The unfurling of the unrest plays out for the viewer mostly through the long-established local Driscoll family. The late paterfamilias was a committed striker in the 80s, the failure of which terrible feat of suffering and endurance is largely blamed by the family for his death.

His son Geoff (the stalwart Steffan Rhodri, last seen in the excellent Men Up at the end of last year) takes an approach to communicating with the bosses that is more pragmatic/conciliatory/weak/treacherous – delete according to political proclivities.

He is separated from his wife and family for reasons that become clear over the succeeding episodes, as does the specific bad blood between his son, benzos addicts and petty dealer Owen (Callum Scott Howells), and his police officer daughter Thea (Sophie Melville).

As the internet is shut down within the town, tensions rise, curfews are imposed and riots between townsfolk and police start to break out. The Driscolls become the police – and the media – scapegoats for it all, and are eventually forced, along with Owen’s eastern European girlfriend, Anna (Maja Laskowska), to flee their home and their town.

Threaded through this growing but none-too-incredible – especially to a post-lockdown audience also being assailed with headlines about coming redundancies at Port Talbot’s Tata Steel (though business secretary Kemi Badenoch has extensive explanations about how government investment is actually saving the works) – dystopian landscape are, presumably thanks mostly to the Curtis influence, potent illustrative clips of real-life news and CCTV footage.

Through them the sense of dislocation increases, while the themes of the drama only become more closely knit. From Graham – and, I’d posit, Sheen’s powerful sense of Welshness and all that means historically as well as currently – come the more mystical, ancient touches.

The importance the town places on the works’ pilot light never going out; the sword made of the first steel forged in the town, long before modern industry got there; the red-hooded figure appearing and disappearing; Sheen as Geoff’s father’s ghost and/or manifestation of his conscience, pursuing him as they make their escape. And then, as the Cambrian borders become increasingly policed, there is (garbed in a costume somewhere between pastor, Clint Eastwood nemesis and Matthew Hopkins’ finest) the Welsh finder.

It is a bravura opening episode – powerful, confident, ambitious, confrontational and unexpected. It conjures precisely the feeling of a town on the edge, a tinderbox for the powder keg that is an increasingly divided Britain as a whole. Then it pushes things a little further and if you squint just a tiny bit, you could be looking at the future. Maybe even a blueprint, if you were so minded. It feels like a drama fully in the tradition of Bleasdale, Loach, Alan Clarke and Jimmy McGovern, and if it occasionally falls victim to the last’s tendency to agitprop, that still leaves it head and shoulders above the usual fare.

It doesn’t quite meet the high bar it has set for itself over the remaining episodes. Although they gesture towards the issue of displaced persons and what is to be done with waves of desperate people, they become too much about the internal dynamics of the Driscolls and their family history to feel as innovative or thrilling as that which has gone before. But you can live off the first hour for quite some time to come.

The Way aired on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer


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