An Important Role to Play; Better Known for Blockbusters Than Soapboxes, Michael Sheen's New BBC Two Wales Programme Is a Study of the Hard-Won Democracy of Wales. He Tells Kirstie McCrum Why Voting Is Imperative, Why He Treasures the NHS - and Why We Should All Listen to a Wealthy Hollywood Actor

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), February 21, 2015 | Go to article overview

An Important Role to Play; Better Known for Blockbusters Than Soapboxes, Michael Sheen's New BBC Two Wales Programme Is a Study of the Hard-Won Democracy of Wales. He Tells Kirstie McCrum Why Voting Is Imperative, Why He Treasures the NHS - and Why We Should All Listen to a Wealthy Hollywood Actor


Byline: Kirstie McCrum

ICHAEL Sheen is angry.

He's not spitting and swearing, no - not angry in a Roy Keane kind of angry, or with me.

MBut angry nonetheless. It's happened as we're discussing the NHS. Sheen, dialing in from New York City, is chatting to me about a BBC Two Wales programme which airs this week, Michael Sheen's Valleys Rebellion.

As measured as the actor's comments are, delivered in his recognisable and melodious Port Talbot rumble, there's an intensity which comes through as we talk about the state that our National Health Service currently finds itself in, alluding to political parties Left versus Right.

"The struggle between certain political ideologies is one between trying to break down the organisation of the labour force, to get rid of unions, to break apart the welfare state and the NHS.

"I think it's important to realise that there is very much on the one hand an attempt to dismantle, and has been for a long time, things that have been fought for so long, that have had such huge impacts on our culture and society and the way we think."

Sheen, perhaps better known for appearing in Hollywood blockbusters such as Underworld, the Twilight films and The Queen, got on board to make the programme to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Newport Rising.

But although the actions of the Chartists who marched on the Westgate Hotel to demand parliamentary and social change may seem a world away, he insists that what they fought for - and 22 of them died for - is not unrelated to our own modern drive for a democracy that engages with its people.

"The Chartists were something I didn't know too much about until I heard about the mural [contractors working for Newport Council demolished a commemorative Chartists mural on October 3, 2013].

"I'd seen it in Newport - it's something that I had grown up having an awareness of without really knowing the whole story, and then once I started to hear about it with the mural, I got drawn into the whole thing more and more, and that was it."

In fact, he became so involved that, on October 18 that year, he published a full-page open letter in a local newspaper in which he described how the "irony of something that was created to celebrate those who risked much for the good of all, being wiped out without consulting the people themselves, and under the auspices of a Labourled city council serving the needs of profit above all else, is both absurd as well as tragic".

Strong words indeed from a man who's made his living acting, but he insists that he's just as politicised as anyone else who has been brought up in Wales at the same time as him.

"Growing up you just accept that things are the way they are and you don't really question it - and then at a certain point I guess you do start to question it.

"As I talked to a lot of people on the programme, it became clear that the miners' strike was a pivotal moment for a lot of people of a certain age growing up and developing a sense of a political conscience, because it was such a powerful thing for so many people, certainly in Wales.

"I think that was probably something that I shared with a lot of people, that started to politicise a whole generation."

Sheen's on-screen journey takes him from the Heads of the Valleys, through Blaina and Tredegar and Rhymney, meeting with Manic Street Preachers singer James Dean Bradfield from Blackwood and socialist campaigner and journalist Owen Jones, trying to work out why the voting turnouts in these areas have dropped while social issues like poverty and unemployment are still such a large factor in daily lives.

It's a subject he feels very strongly about, even though, as he acknowledges, his life and career have taken him far away from these streets.

"My background - where I come from, where my family comes from - is not a million miles away from the towns and villages that I was going through in the programme, so there are certainly points of connection. …

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An Important Role to Play; Better Known for Blockbusters Than Soapboxes, Michael Sheen's New BBC Two Wales Programme Is a Study of the Hard-Won Democracy of Wales. He Tells Kirstie McCrum Why Voting Is Imperative, Why He Treasures the NHS - and Why We Should All Listen to a Wealthy Hollywood Actor
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