wed 17/04/2024

The Way, BBC One review - steeltown blues | reviews, news & interviews

The Way, BBC One review - steeltown blues

The Way, BBC One review - steeltown blues

Michael Sheen's ode to Port Talbot stretches credulity

Director, producer and actor Michael Sheen

This three-part drama arrives trailing clouds of big-byline glory. Michael Sheen directed and produced it (as well as making fleeting appearances on screen), James Graham wrote it and documentary-maker Adam Curtis co-produced it.

But what is it? Part social commentary, part Welsh myth and part travelogue, it tells the story of a family from Port Talbot, the Driscolls, who get caught up in a cataclysmic industrial dispute at the steelworks and end up going on the run. In an ironic and not very subtle inversion of the never-ending saga of Channel boat crossings, they flee across the Welsh border into England with the aim of crossing the Channel in the opposite direction, aiming for mainland Europe.

The Way, BBC One review - steeltown bluesThe fact that the first episode of The Way focuses on the take-over of the Port Talbot plant by a company called Shanan, apparently from the Far East (a chap called Mr Kwan is now in charge), gives it a keen edge of immediacy. Looming job losses have triggered rage and dismay among the workforce. Of course, it was only weeks ago that the real-world news broke about Tata Steel’s plans for Port Talbot, which will involve the disappearance of 2,000 jobs (pictured above, Mark Lewis Jones as Glynn, Mali Harries as Dee).

The drama has already provoked an irate response from pugnacious business secretary Kemi Badenoch, who took issue with a comment by Sheen in an interview with The Times where he said that “the people of Port Talbot have been let down” regarding the fate of the steelworks. Au contraire, insists Ms Badenoch – the government is making a big investment to keep the steelworks going into the next century. Hell yeah.

For his part, Sheen (a fervent Welsh nationalist who grew up in Port Talbot) contends that the drama has been gestating for several years, so its proximity to real-life events is coincidental. Nonetheless, the vivid scenes of angry steelworkers going on strike, then being corralled by riot police and the Army as a repressive government buses in outside workers, do have an unmistakeable political undertone, triggering memories of the mid-Eighties miners’ strike. Except this time the security operation is run by a private company, which sounds as if it’s supposed to be something like Capita. The inclusion of scenes seemingly taken from CCTV monitors and security cameras intensifies the atmosphere of Big Brother-ish oppression.

The Way, BBC One review - steeltown bluesIt’s the fallout from the rioting, and the way young Owen Driscoll is identified (spuriously) as one of the main trouble-makers, that sends The Way off on its eccentric travels. The notion of an ancestral, mystical Welshness is evoked by the legend of an ancient abbey. If its last remaining wall collapses, goes the myth, it will mark the fall of Port Talbot. The mysterious figure of a red-robed monk adds a bit of ghostly intrigue, while union organiser Geoff Driscoll (Steffan Rhodri, pictured above) symbolically arms himself with an ancient sword from the local museum.

As the series progresses, it increasingly creaks at the seams, as the drama can't successfully carry the metaphorical meanings. The notion of surly Englishmen aggressively patrolling the English border to repel the Welsh (“worse than vermin, they are”) is beyond risible, though obviously they wouldn't want to let Mark Drakeford in, and the introduction of a black-robed “Welsh Catcher” is positively delusional. It probably all seemed like a good idea at the time, but somewhere between the drawing board and the editing suite the wheels have fallen off.

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