TV

Filmmaker Adam Curtis on epic new BBC drama The Way – and how the power of TV is shaking up Britain

Adam Curtis is best known for bold and innovative documentaries that join the dots between modern social, cultural and political events. He explains why he’s joined forces with Michael Sheen to make the switch to drama with BBC One’s The Way

Callum Scott Howells in The Way

Callum Scott Howells in The Way. Image: BBC Pictures

Watch out Rishi Sunak, television drama is in revolt. The astonishing public reaction to ITV’s Mr Bates vs The Post Office was just the beginning. Now more primetime TV dramas are keeping political failure and public discontent firmly in the spotlight, with The Way on BBC One following Covid drama Breathtaking on ITV. 

The Way is an epic story that, while fictional, feels all too real. It is set in Port Talbot, Wales, where (as in real life) the local steelworks, once the bedrock of the town, has been sold off and is being dismantled, leaving many locals adrift. People protest. Their protest catches a public mood. It becomes a major story. Private security firms are drafted in to back up the police. And before long, Wales is in lockdown and a family are on the run. 

It grew from an idea Michael Sheen had to create a drama showing a British family becoming refugees – mirroring the journeys of millions around the world. What began with Sheen grew to include pioneering documentary maker Adam Curtis. And Curtis’s influence is everywhere in this series. It is there in the stabs of piercing electronic music punctuating the drama – uncanny, unsettling, startling. And it is there in his uncompromising determination to show exactly what drives the Driscoll family away from their hometown.

“I said the thing that intrigued me, which you never see in nice liberal films about the plight of refugees, is what are they actually fleeing from,” says Curtis. 

Adam Curtis
Adam Curtis. Image: Paul Best/Getty Images

“So I told Michael I’d be interested if we could use this story as a way of examining what might have caused it. Was it an uprising? Was it a revolt?”

James Graham, creator of Sherwood, was brought in to deliver the script. And it truly delivers – it’s playful, experimental, surprising, witty, engaging. 

“We talked and talked about why there have been a number of revolts – both of the left and the right, yet they never seem to come to anything,” Curtis continues. “So you had Occupy, you had Brexit, you had Jeremy Corbyn, you even had Liz Truss.” He lets out a hollow laugh. “But they all fizzle out. So I wanted to examine what would actually cause a rebellion.”

Curtis is a compelling talker. And the creator of serious documentaries – such as The Power Of Nightmares, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head and 2022’s Bafta-winning Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone – is surprisingly mischievous.

We sit in the cafe at the BFI on London’s Southbank. The conversation veers from the balletic action scenes of John Wick 4 to his thoughts on Saltburn (positive), his love for late-era Smashing Pumpkins to why filmmakers are still so obsessed with steam punk aesthetics. In recent times Curtis has been taking a world tour via Netflix – watching drama from South Korea, Japan and India. 

“When I come home at night, I watch these great Indian melodramas, because they do what dramas should do, which is show how you are connected, as an individual, to a system of power,” says Curtis. “They show how it floods through you and shapes your life in good and bad ways. Here, drama doesn’t do that. Happy Valley? It’s all shit. It’s not about the system of power you’re in, is it? Sorry, I mustn’t criticise!”

TV drama is taking aim at political failure at the moment. And why not? There is a lot of it about, and, as Mr Bates… showed, our appetite for understanding the impact of these failures is strong. Curtis says his bosses at the BBC were caught on the hop by the strength of the reaction to ITV’s big drama. 

“But I will tell you why it got that response,” he says. “It connected with the way people experience the world. I’m not saying everyone has a Post Office manager who’s been thrown into prison. But everyone has been on the phone and been told ‘computer says no’, right? 

Mr Bates… showed how power now works in the modern world.”

Curtis sees this as a driver for recent political movements – the Brexit vote, Trump, the toxicity of online debate.

“Every age, those in power have a map in their minds of society and how it works and how people function,” he says. “So they know how to navigate it. But the map in the minds of most of the people in power – politicians, journalists, TV producers and artists – does not reflect the territory.

“What we’re waiting for is someone who can create a new map that describes the territory we’re dealing with. That is what I tried to suggest to Michael [Sheen] that we do in our series. That was my underlying thinking.”

The key character, for Curtis, in The Way is alienated, numb and lost young Owen Driscoll, played, beautifully, by It’s a Sin’s Callum Scott Howells. We meet him explaining how he doesn’t really feel anything these days. He is recovering from addiction, but also struggling to find meaning in the world. 

“He feels very alone and I think that will resonate,” Scott Howells tells the Big Issue. “We’ve all felt lonely and like we’ve had to face our problems on our own. In this digital age, we are so overexposed to everything. There is so much happening constantly. I think we all feel this numbness at some point.” 

In one scene we see Owen stumble into the Port Talbot protest [see main pic]. He’s not there for political reasons. But we see something ignite in him. We see him feel for the first time in months. 

The Way director Michael Sheen also stars as Denny Driscoll
The Way director Michael Sheen also stars as Denny Driscoll. Image: BBC Pictures

“The editor did that beautifully,” says Curtis. “You see it all in his face. Energy floods into him. It’s coming from somewhere in his cluttered, chaotic brain which has previously been despairing. 

“We live in a very unequal, brutal and uncaring society. But audiences are getting fed up with dystopian stuff. I kept banging on about how The Way has to be optimistic. And that is the moment optimism begins to grow.” 

The Way is on Monday nights on BBC One and available on iPlayer.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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