The United Valleys Action Group, which I am a part of, is featured in this Walesonline newspaper article. We are all very pleased with the write up and how our group’s activities have been presented.

Michael’s television programme will be on at 9pm Tuesday 24th Feb BBC2 Wales.

Michael Sheen’s Valley Rebellion BBC TWO WALES 9pm 24th February

Hollywood star Michael Sheen gets really, REALLY serious

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

 

 

(l-r) James Dean Bradfield and Michael Sheen in BBC Two Wales’ Valley Rebellion

Michael Sheen is angry.

He’s not spitting and swearing, no – not angry in a Roy Keane kind of angry, or with me. But 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.”

What the Chartists did

The Chartist Mural in Newport before demolition
The Chartist Mural in Newport before demolition

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 – 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 Labour-led 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 he was.

“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.”

A long way from Hollywood

Michael Sheen as Aro in Twilight (2011)
Michael Sheen as Aro in Twilight (2011)

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.

“Obviously the circumstances of my life now are very different to the circumstances of a lot of people who I met making the programme, but I don’t think that means that you can’t have an interest in what’s going on, and a desire to try and do whatever you can to help in whatever way you can – even if it’s just to create a platform for people to air their opinions and concerns.

The film and television roles of Michael Sheen

“You can still have an interest in the same values and a shared desire to create change for the better.”

The beliefs which were instilled in him by growing up in Wales, I suggest.

“I think the tradition of a rebellious political conscience is probably one that’s shared between Wales, Ireland and Scotland, because of historically what happened with their relationship to England, so there’d always been a sense of rebellion there.

“But I think it’s more to do with the labour movement, the rise of that from the Chartists up to Nye Bevan and the creation of the Labour party and then onto what Nye Bevan spearheaded with the NHS and the welfare states.

“The labour movement and the Chartist movement were national, if not international, so I don’t think it was peculiar to Wales.”

Communities working together for change

Michael Sheen at a meeting of the United Valleys Action Group
Michael Sheen at a meeting of the United Valleys Action Group

The programme introduces Sheen to many people who feel powerless and frustrated with the political system, including the United Valleys Action Group in the Rhymney Valley.

He says groups like theirs fill him with hope about the system.

“The group members represent a larger group of people, and it’s an organisation that they have created. They have definite issues that they’re trying to address that have a direct impact on their community and they organise themselves and come up with direct strategies as to what they can do.

“That seems like a very healthy and vibrant reaction. They’re not going against the law, they’re not doing anything illegal, but they’re also not aligned to a political group, so it’s not strictly speaking a conventional political way of doing things, it’s more a community-based one.”

The organisation of groups like this one are what will help drive social change forward, Sheen believes.

“The Chartists were a huge amount of people all over the country with a lot of different agendas, but through organising, through having an open channel of communication, they were able to do something.

“The whole history of the labour movement is also one of organising people – the people in power who owned the industry were very organised, and they rely on the workers to not be organised in order to do whatever they want to exploit them.

“So it’s when the labour movement is organised, and the workers are organised, that they have some power.”

Protecting the NHS

Michael Sheen is concerned that the NHS is being dismantled
Michael Sheen is concerned that the NHS is being dismantled

This is when he becomes more agitated about the NHS, but it seems to be more of a passion than a rage, a desire to help everyone see what they might be missing – that these precious parts of our country are at risk.

“I’ve been spending a lot of my time in America where they haven’t had a national health system or welfare state like ours and you realise that the way people think over here is very different because of that.

“There’s a kind of mistrust of that sort of system, the whole Obamacare [a US reform package to provide affordable healthcare for all Americans] thing. They think it’s extraordinary and a betrayal of the American people.

“It makes me realise that our way of perceiving our culture and communities has been very affected by having something like that. That doesn’t mean to say that things have to stay the same all the time – obviously things have to change and adapt.

“But we have to be very careful not to lose something that is of immense value to us, not just in terms of the service it provides, but also in the kind of culture we want to be, the way we want to relate to ourselves and other people.

“I think any culture is judged on how it regards its most vulnerable, and the NHS has always been a symbol of that.

“A healthy NHS is what we should work towards rather than getting rid of it. That’s my own personal opinion.”

With the countdown to the general election underway, and voter turnout at a low, Sheen was keen to investigate whether there is something wrong with democracy.

“What I heard a lot was people talking about how they feel politicians have become professional politicians and they tend to feel like they’re not being represented.

“I think there’s a general suspicion that a lot of politicians are looking out for corporate interests rather than the people’s interest and therefore people start to feel disengaged.

“But just before we did the programme was the Scottish referendum where there was such huge engagement, so clearly it’s not about apathy, it’s that the means of engagement seem to be not working for people. And something needs to change.”

Despite all the intensity of the arguments for the UK experiencing current times with relationships between the people and our elected representatives seemingly at an all-time low, Sheen insists there is hope.

“We can always pull things back because it’s always in our hands. The democratic system is based upon the fact that if the people want something then they are able to affect change.

“The difficulty is when our political system becomes obfuscated and difficult to engage with, and also when people aren’t aware of what it is that’s going on – then it becomes problematic. But there is always the possibility of changing it, because we just have to say what we want.

“There are so many access points for getting information about what’s going on that it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, but I think that’s better than having one or two sources which can be easily manipulated.

“The first responsibility is for people to find out exactly what’s going on and then work out what they want. It’s certainly never too late.”

What Michael really thinks of Russell Brand

PA WireRussell Brand, now an activist and campaigner who has encouraged the British electorate not to vote
Russell Brand, now an activist and campaigner who has encouraged the British electorate not to vote

With the countdown to the general election underway, there’s a lot of talk about voter turnout. With comedian and self-styled political activist Russell Brand telling young people not to vote because our political system is flawed, I ask if Sheen feels agitated about that message going out on such a vast platform.

“I think what Russell Brand has been doing is fantastic, because anyone who is getting people to think about what they’re doing and putting forward arguments is great for people who are engaging with it and listening to it, whether they agree with it or not.

“That’s the whole point – we should have discussions about it, rather than sitting watching rubbish on the TV. Let’s have this argument, let’s talk about it, let’s say, ‘Yes, I think he’s amazing, I think he’s absolutely right’, or, ‘No, I think he’s an idiot and what he’s saying is wrong’.

“I’m never concerned about whether someone with a loud voice who is getting heard is going to overly influence people because everyone should have their own opinion. But it does make you think about what you think or feel about what they’re saying as well, and that’s the important thing.”

With the lineage we’ve discussed, from the Chartists and more, can he and will he be expressing his own feelings come May 7?

“I do get a vote in the UK, and I certainly will be using it this election,” he assures me.

Michael Sheen’s Valleys Rebellion is on Tuesday on BBC Two Wales at 9pm

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