Steffan Rhodri interview | The Way star on the most incendiary drama on the BBC

Steffan Rhodri as Geoff in The Way on BBC One
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We sat down with the star of BBC One’s fascinating new drama to chat politics, Port Talbot and TraumaZone.

“I’ve just done a BBC interview, and they told me not to say anything political”.

It’s hard to imagine Steffan Rhodri, star of the BBC’s new Port Talbot drama The Way, keeping schtum when it comes to politics.

It’s a pertinent time for him to be promoting his show, too. When The Way arrives in full on BBC iPlayer on 19th February, it will mark exactly a month since Tata Steel announced the closure of Port Talbot’s two blast furnaces, shedding up to 2,800 of 4,000 local jobs in the steel industry.

The coincidence is more than geographical. Directed by Michael Sheen and co-created with playwright James Graham and documentarian Adam Curtis, The Way tells the story of a local family forced to flee their home when a Steelworks strike becomes the catalyst for civil unrest in South Wales’ industrial heartlands. Blending hard-hitting political drama with local folklore and fantastical elements, the prescience of the show (which started development in 2017) is more than a little unnerving.

We sat down with Steffan to talk South Wales’ industrial present, reuniting with Graham and the state of industrial relations in the UK.

He says multiple things which are political.

How would you describe the The Way?

It’s a difficult show to categorise, really. Michael Sheen came up with the idea. What he wanted to do is create a story where we see a recognisable family – an identifiable British family that we might feel like we know – in extreme circumstances where they have to flee their community and their country, effectively becoming refugees.

I think a lot of people who have only watched the first episode won’t necessarily be able to guess where it’s going. It might appear as if it’s going to be a drama about a family and about Port Talbot steelworks closing down. In truth, that’s just the setup. It’s actually a kind of dystopian adventure.

Was that a premise that particularly resonated with you?

I’ve always been fascinated by that idea, actually. My partner is a documentary maker, and she has made a very, very good film about a family of Syrian refugees [Sky And Ground, 2018], who had to flee Syria during the war, when a lot of them came to Europe. And, you know, different European countries will allow some in, some are closing their borders, and so on. And she documented their journey from a refugee camp in Greece all the way through to their final destination in Berlin. So I’m fascinated by the ordinariness of a family who were in extreme circumstances.

And the inciting incident here is the shutdown of a steelworks…

Yeah, there’s a threat to the steelworks which sends the workers out on strike, and it all turns very nasty very quickly. A lot of different groups identify themselves with different factions in the in the civil unrest, and then the army finally come down and shut down the town of Port Talbot.

To go back to Michael, he needed to create the circumstances as to why they’d have to become refugees. If you set the show in Syria, there’s a war, if you set it in the Middle East or in Ukraine, you could immediately identify why, but in Britain? So, we have to create the extreme circumstances as to why this family are forced to flee.

My character, Geoff is at the centre of it because he is the father of the family, but he’s also a broken man. His son is estranged from him because of a drug problem, his wife is in the process of divorcing him. He’s living in a little bedsit above a Chinese takeaway, and he works as a shop steward at the steelworks. But he also carries a lot of history and legacy with him because his father was a sort of hero of the miners’ strike in the 80s, this local legend. And that’s a question for him, really: does he try to aspire to be what his father was? Or does he take a more pragmatic approach.

I mean, not to have too long a political debate about it. But that is always the dilemma of the left, isn’t it? Do you try to pragmatically improve things? Or do you go all out on change?

The show does a really unsettling job of combining real world footage with fantasy and folklore.

That’s Adam Curtis’s work, the use of found footage and CCTV and different ways of filming things. He’s an expert at bringing the unusual to life on screen, and his documentaries, films and series like HyperNormalisation and TraumaZone, use lots of discarded footage. If you imagine a one-minute news item on the Soviet Union, for example, you know the film crew has been there and shot stuff for two or three hours. He’s just an expert at juxtaposing these things and putting them together to make you look at society in a different way.

A crowd in an episode of The Way on BBC One
A steelworkers strike quickly gets out of hand. (Credit: BBC)

It’s interesting to find a show on primetime BBC One that’s so unapologetically political.

A lot of that’s James Graham, who wrote the script. It wasn’t his idea, but he uses symbolism very well, you know, so that the domestic events are very clear metaphors for what’s happening on a bigger scale. He did that in Sherwood, about Nottingham’s relationship with the miners’ strike.

And then, of course, Michael and Adam would have known how vulnerable things are in Port Talbot, but we’re just a couple of weeks after the job losses of nearly three quarters of the workforce have been announced.

You know, there’s a documented interview with Carwyn Jones, the former First Minister of Wales, categorically blaming Brexit for Tata Steel’s attitude towards investment in British Steel. And Mark Drakeford, the current First Minister of Wales, on the day of the announcement of the job losses, couldn’t get hold of either Rishi Sunak or Kemi Badenoch, the trade minister. It just shows, and what we try to convey in the show as well, is the disconnect between people, between industrial heartlands and the rest of the UK.

It’s impressive how current the show feels, too, because for a lot of people it feels like industrial Britain is a thing of the past.

I mean, there haven’t been coal mines or heavy industry where I’m from, Morriston, for a while. But I went to school in a place where there was still coal mines and open-cast mines and so on, and Port Talbot’s only eight miles down the road, it’s still so dominant in the area. It’s obvious that the town is there only because of the steelworks.

If it wasn’t for industry and these things then South Wales would be like the rest of Wales – green and lush and full of trees and so on, not rows of terraces and factories and smoke. Without that, I think there’s a real identity crisis. What are we without that heavy industry, you know?

All three episodes of The Way arrive on BBC iPlayer on 19th February, with episodes airing weekly on BBC One at 9pm.

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