Newport has become embroiled in a row with one of its favourite sons after actor Michael Sheen said the council’s decision to bulldoze a much-loved mural to make way for a shopping centre had “shamed” the city.
The Frost/Nixon star took out a full page advert in the South Wales Argus for an angry open letter to the city’s people condemning the destruction of the 115-foot artwork commemorating the Chartist uprising in the 19th century.
The demolition, which had not been announced by the council, was “absurd as well as tragic” he said, adding the failure to save it “brings shame upon us all”.
“This is about more than the mural itself. It is about standing up for certain values and freedoms and ideals when they come under attack, whether through greed, malice, ignorance or sheer stupidity.”
The mural by Kenneth Budd in John Frost Square, which was made of 200,000 pieces of tile and glass, was completed in 1978.
It marked the uprising led by John Frost in Newport in 1839, where Chartists demanding political reform rebelled against authority, leaving 24 people ddead.
Sheen, who was born in Newport, opened the Chartist exhibition in the Newport Museum and Art Gallery in 2012.
He called the destruction of a mural celebrating the movement as “vicious irony” as it was created “to celebrate those who risked much for the good of all”.
The work had survived demolition plans in 2009 but, despite protests, it was torn down earlier this month to make way for the Friars Walk shopping centre.
A spokeswoman for the council said they had found Sheen’s letter “very interesting” but added the mural’s future had been on public record since March 2012.
“We understand these decisions have been difficult to accept for Newport residents both near and far.”
The council had deemed it “too expensive” at £625,000 to preserve and move it, while calls to list the mural by charity 20th Century Society were rejected by heritage body Cadw as the work did not meet the “special architectural interest criteria”.
Over 4,600 signed the petition to stop the mural’s destruction, and a protester’s queried the figure cited by the council and asked why the artist’s son, Oliver Budd, a mosaic specialist , was not consulted.
The campaign said the chartist movement prompted one of the most important political reforms in the UK and the mural “offers a unique insight to the history of the city as well as celebrating the democracy won by the people of Wales for the whole of Great Britain”.
Sheen said that “the responsibility is ours, if we wish to honour the values of the Chartists – fairness, equality and a political system that truly represents the needs of the people”. He added that “clearly that political system has let us down in this case.”
He called for another monument to the Chartist values but “as much within the ownership of the people as possible” so it is not left vulnerable “to the next time someone wants to build a bigger shopping centre”.
To keep the costs down he proposed art school students working on it using found materials and as much of the original destroyed mural as can be salvaged.
Creative people from the town “could connect the past with the present in a grounded and economical way” adding it “would reflect how the people of Newport feel now about what the Chartists stood for”.
He added: “Forgetting what has been struggled for in the past makes it so much easier for those who would take from us in the present.”
The spokeswoman said Sheen’s letter was “forward thinking and contains some practical suggestions which the council will consider.”