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Michael Sheen Reveals How The Pandemic Shaped His New BBC Drama With Adam Curtis & James Graham, And Why It Shifted From Middle England To His South Wales Hometown

EXCLUSIVE: Michael Sheen, Adam Curtis and James Graham’s BBC drama The Way has been gestating for almost a decade but, for Good Omens star Sheen, the wait has been a necessary one.

As the BBC prepares to launch the drama set in Sheen’s hometown of Port Talbot, he told Deadline the pandemic and other recent events played an important role in shaping the script and believability of the three-part series, which is one of the broadcaster’s most anticipated of the year, bringing together three of the nation’s supreme creative talents.

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Starring Sheen, who is making his directorial debut, Luke Evans (The Hobbit), Callum Scott Howells (It’s a Sin) and a wealth of talented Welsh actors, The Way tells the story of an ordinary family caught up in an extraordinary chain of events that ripple out from their home town. Driven by celebrated documentary maker Curtis, the drama takes an experimental approach by imagining a civil uprising in a small industrial Welsh town. Fleeing unrest, the Driscolls are forced to escape the country they’ve always called home and the certainties of their old lives, but will they be overwhelmed by their memories of the past or lay their ghosts to rest and take the risk of an unknown future?

Sheen said the idea had always been to make a story about an “explosion of unrest” as “believable” as possible. Before the pandemic, the team initially dismissed ideas around making an entire population remain indoors, or placing a hard border around Wales.

“Lockdown gave the story a whole new lease of life,” he told Deadline. “When it ended we revisited the story and it allowed us to be bolder, particularly around ideas of conspiracies and Covid. We knew it was ‘of the moment’ and didn’t want something to feel dated, but we didn’t ever imagine it would be quite as timely as it has turned out to be.”

Producer Bethan Jones, who runs The Way co-producer Red Seam with Sheen, said commissioners in the early days were worried it would be “a bit too dystopian” and were querying: “Haven’t we seen [shows like] this before?” “But now the audience have experienced some of these things themselves and are watching with all the knowledge of what that means,” added Jones.

As the episodes develop, Sheen said that “paradoxically the absurd nature of it all starts to come to the fore.” He said he wanted his first directing experience and Red Seam’s debut commission (it is co-produced with Little Door) to act as a mini guide to living in the UK over the past decade.

“That is a reflection of trying to capture what it has felt like to be living in our culture over the last 10 years, where you are never sure if you’re living in a sitcom or horror film,” added the four-time BAFTA-nominated Frost/Nixon star, who attended The Way’s screening last night.

Sense of place

Callum Scott Howells in ‘The Way’. Image: BBC
Callum Scott Howells in ‘The Way’. Image: BBC

The industrial Welsh location plays a crucial part in setting the tone and symbolism behind The Way. It was initially forged with a middle-class English family in mind, Sheen revealed, before being shifted to his hometown of Port Talbot, an industrial town that has been in the news recently due to the much-criticized closure of part of the legacy Tata steelworks.

“We knew we needed it to take place somewhere with a history of unrest,” he said. “It needed to feel like there was unfinished business there. That led me to thinking about my hometown and the steelworks, and the past then became more important to us in the story.”

Sheen moved back to Port Talbot around the time The Way was first developing. He subsequently sold his houses, gave the proceeds to charity and declared himself a “not for profit actor.”

He said his town is “full of interesting contradictions.” “It has a beautiful area by the sea and then there is the heavy industry in the middle of it. It has an extraordinary mixture of things and using that in the telling of this story was exciting.”

Working with the community was integral to the show’s authenticity and Jones explained that numerous local extras were used in protest scenes around the town hall and steelworks. “It’s that thing of people being stuck in the past and finding a new way forward,” she added.

Adam Curtis & James Graham

Adam Curtis (left) and James Graham. Image: Scott Gries / Tommaso Boddi via Getty Images
Adam Curtis (left) and James Graham. Image: Scott Gries / Tommaso Boddi via Getty Images

Four-time BAFTA-winning documentary-maker Curtis is cutting his scripted teeth with The Way and Sheen celebrated his influence both stylistically – including use of archive and CCTV footage – and on the development of the story.

“He has always been a fantastic provocateur and is good at thinking about where the power lies and what is under the surface” said Sheen. “And I wanted us to have a dream-like quality. By the end of our first chat I knew that even though [having Curtis involved] would make things more complicated, it was such an interesting possibility and I wanted him involved.”

Sherwood scribe Graham, meanwhile, who worked with Sheen on hit ITV drama Quiz, was the perfect choice to pen something “not typically dystopian and not overly serious.” “He brings a brilliant combination of big ‘state of the nation’ ideas with character, humor, warmth and the everyday,” added Sheen.

Together, the trio have forged something Sheen hopes will tap into the “strong British tradition” of filmmaking led by trailblazers such as Ken Loach, Alan Clarke and Jimmy McGovern, coming at a time when ITV’s post office drama has led to much excited chatter about the power of traditional broadcasting to deliver change.

“[The post office drama] took an issue that had been in the public eye for a long time but never really connected and made something fantastic out of it,” he said. “Long may that continue because it would be a terrible, terrible thing if we stopped making that stuff.”

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