The Way Review: Earnest, Weird British Dystopian TV Is Back

Remember the politicised society-falls-apart TV of the 1960s and 1970s? The Way does.

Callum Scott Howells holding a sword aloft in the poster for BBC One's The Way
Photo: BBC

First of all – is the BBC allowed to air a drama without a detective or a horse-drawn carriage in it? Can somebody check?

Crime and period’s drama dominance isn’t the only modern TV trend bucked by The Way. Actor Michael Sheen’s directorial debut is a wild throwback to the society-falls-apart TV of the past: Threads. The Year of the Sex Olympics. The Guardians. Cold Lazarus… all those wiggy, provocative Nigel Kneale and Dennis Potter stories that aimed for more than just audience share.

Written by Sherwood and Quiz’s James Graham, and co-created with documentary maker Adam Curtis, The Way also aims high – too high for what it’s able to achieve in three episodes, making it much more a curio than a must-see.

The drama imagines a Welsh civil uprising that turns the country into a closed-border police state and its people into persecution-fleeing refugees. It follows the Driscolls, a Port Talbot family of four who’ve been fractured by the drug addiction of youngest son Owen (It’s a Sin’s Callum Scott Howells). When a local superstition about the town’s future is fulfilled, Owen drags the family into a fight against the authorities and they become accidental poster children for revolt. So begins their escape attempt into England and beyond, through a weird landscape of intolerance, mysticism and folkloric myth.

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Dad Geoff (Steffan Rhodri) is a union steward at the local steelworks who’s rejected the political activism of his own father – a prominent striking miner in the 1980s played in flashback by Michael Sheen. Mum Dee (Mali Harries) is a no-nonsense firebrand frustrated with Geoff’s refusal to stand up to the steelworks’ overseas owners. Harries and Rhodri are great as Geoff and Dee – funny and convincing as a couple, despite having to sell some strange domestic twists on this symbolic journey. Daughter Thea (Sophie Melville) is a police sergeant and mother of one whose husband (Aneurin Barnard) has been forced to seek more prosperous work in Europe, while the aforementioned Owen starts off as a dropout with no stake in his or his country’s future.

At the beginning of the story, the Driscolls occupy various positions on the political spectrum – fire-carrier, appeaser, pragmatist, disaffected. As they travel together, their priorities sharpen and realign as most learn the inadequacy of their old approach. They encounter larger-than-life characters, from a truth-telling riddler to a people-smuggling priest to the cartoonish ‘Welshcatcher’ (Luke Evans, underused). Owen’s drug withdrawal leads to expressionist fantasy sequences and spooky hallucinations.

The Way’s problem is its insistence on explaining its mad moments, and worse, over-explaining them. Its script won’t allow the weirdness to stand and repeatedly jumps in to translate images that aren’t subtle enough to need captioning. A grandfather passes fire to his grandson, the family is literally threatened with sinking under the weight of history, a visitation from the dead ends with the thudding line “Because I am dead.” If a drama like this one is bold enough to exist in the first place, it should have the courage of its convictions.

And is it paradoxical for Adam Curtis’ collage technique – in which news footage and pop culture images are glitchily layered up – to lead to a conclusion on Britain’s corrosive nostalgia about itself inside such a retro-styled package? Or is that the point? Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether audiences will put up with this eat-your-vegetables stuff. The last time the BBC served it in Russell T Davies’ Years and Years, it wasn’t popular.

Earnest and political, with spasms of weirdness and capital letter Themes and Symbolism, it’s a wonder that The Way was ever commissioned. Without the star power of Sheen perhaps it wouldn’t have been. That’d have been a pity because original, ambitious political drama is rare and important, even if The Way’s conviction in its rarity and importance is what makes it teeter under its own weight.

A second wonder, incidentally, is that The Way has been scheduled opposite ITV’s Covid-19 NHS drama Breathtaking, another trend-bucking three-parter with plenty to say about contemporary Britain. In whose interest could it possibly be for these two to drown each other out?

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The Way continues on Monday February 26 at 9 p.m. on BBC One. All episodes are available on BBC iPlayer.


3 out of 5