Photo: BBC Photo: BBC

Jamal Elaheebocus finds Martin Sheen’s directorial debut – a story of civil unrest set in his home town Port Talbot – gripping with disturbing allusions to elements of modern Britain

At first glance, everything about the storyline of ‘The Way’ seems dystopian in the extreme: civil war in a Welsh port town, Britain locked down and borders closed with the military and police patrolling the streets. But on closer inspection, the BBC drama, written by James Graham and Adam Curtis and directed by Michael Sheen, is a disturbing allusion to elements of modern Britain. 

The series follows a family based in the South Wales town of Port Talbot, who are forced on the run after being blamed for igniting civil unrest. The unrest is in fact fuelled by the death of a young steelworker who fell into molten slag and dies and his father’s consequent self-immolation, being destroyed by grief and anger. The multinational company running the steelworks fails to provide an adequate response and are blamed for the death, due to their chronic underinvestment. 

This sparks furious protests and civil unrest, resulting in people fleeing Port Talbot, the government bringing in the army and outsourced security firms to control the unrest and the closure of the England-Wales border. 

It is, startlingly, an echo of the situation in Port Talbot now. Tata Steel, the conglomerate which owns the steelworks, announced in January that the two blast furnaces would be shut down, which will lead to the loss of 2,800 out of the 4,000 jobs at the plant. Given that 1 in 8 people in Port Talbot are employed by the steelworks, this threatens to decimate the local community. 

This comes after Port Talbot, like many areas of Britain, has been crushed by austerity and cuts over the last decade and a half. It has one of the highest levels of people out of work, due to high rates of illness, disability and caring responsibilities. Many families have direct links to the steelworks or work in businesses, such as hardware stores and cafes, which gain most of their income from steelworkers. 

Gripping 

With a grey tone and unsettling soundtrack, ‘The Way’ reflects a community completely knocked of confidence and broken by the pit closures and subsequent austerity. Dee, played by Mali Harries, and union leader Glynn, played by Mark Lewis Jones, lead a strike in defence of the steelworks, which escalates to marches and riots. 

The second-and-third parts of the three-part drama lose the edge of the first episode and become slightly forced in their messaging. The series gets bogged down in the interpersonal dynamics of the Driscoll family, rather than the broader picture of the community in Port Talbot. 

There are, however, important messages about a state which appears to be becoming increasingly authoritarian, especially in response to strikes and mass protest. Following the uprising in Port Talbot, the government locks down Wales and sets up detainment camps, containing those arrested during the unrest. The state’s vast surveillance technology is used to track those who led the uprising, particularly Owen Driscoll who is played superbly by Callum Scott Howells. 

There is also attention paid to the demonisation of refugees, which has becoming particularly vicious under Sunak’s government. The Driscolls, after becoming the most wanted family in the country for their supposed role in the uprising, are forced to flee Wales and, eventually, the UK altogether to get to Thea’s partner in Germany. They are made to make the terrifying and dangerous journey that so many migrants make across the channel but in reverse, from the UK to France. 

Geoff, the troubled father of Thea and Owen, tragically loses his life after sacrificing himself by jumping off the flimsy dinghy as it begins to take on water. Towards the close of the series, there is a harrowing scene where Owen finds the body of his father washed up on the shore. 

The series ends in heartbreaking fashion, with the rest of the Driscolls having made it to the shores of France. However, the French police forcefully hold back Thea’s desperate partner as he attempts to reunite with his family. It is a stark reminder of the cruel and inhumane way in which our borders are policed by British and EU governments alike.  

While the series undoubtedly loses its spark in latter episodes, it is well worth a watch and the first episode in particular is thought-provoking and really quite gripping. 

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