It is tempting to characterise Radio 4’s tradition of getting guest editors for the Today programme in those unforgiving days between Christmas and New Year as a plutonium-grade exercise in de haut en bas. And certainly, the series opener, in which a millionaire actor who lives most of the year in Los Angeles gave his slant on the challenges facing ordinary Britons drew predictable criticism.
It would surely be wrong to assume that Radio 4 thought that Michael Sheen, having played the roles of Tony Blair, David Frost and Brian Clough, brought with him some of the gravitas, experience and wisdom of those whose persona he once inhabited, although, at the conclusion of his stint, Sarah Montague, the regular presenter, virtually said to him: “Go on, Michael, give us your Tony Blair.”
No, Sheen was chosen because he’s got something to say, and the fact that he’s a movie star, and therefore a communicator by trade, made him an interesting choice as guest editor.
He certainly didn’t shy away from speaking his mind, so much so that Nick Robinson had to conclude the programme with a Twitter-style disclaimer that these were Sheen’s personal views, and that other opinions would be represented in the days to come. He was thinking particularly of the way in which Sheen rejected the idea that some of Britain’s foreign aid budget should be directed towards the victims of the current flooding in the North of England.
The actor pointed out that only “0.7 per cent of our national income goes on foreign aid. That is about being part of a global community.” He added that it was a “false dichotomy” to push “British people against foreigners”. Not a particularly controversial view, to my mind, but enough to create something of a backlash on Twitter, with many questioning Sheen’s qualifications to make such a statement.
I was much more interested, however, in the section on the programme in which he went back to his home town of Port Talbot (or, as those who are familiar with the town call it “Per-Talbot”). I spent my first years as a journalist in this town built primarily for workers brought in to take jobs at the nearby steel plant (it’s the only place name in South Wales which doesn’t have an historic Welsh translation).
The polyglot nature of the population, plus its astoundingly varied topography – an impressive sandy beach, mountains, a beautiful river flowing through a steep, wooded valley, plus industry on an epic scale – made it a hugely interesting place for a young man on a local paper.
But what was, and is, most impressive is Port Talbot’s sense of self and the strong feeling of community, and this was depicted evocatively by Sheen. He went round the town interviewing unexceptional members of the community, who, despite the fear of further social welfare cuts coming their way, exuded the energy and spirit and warmth and resourcefulness that I found most striking in my time there. They didn’t have enough money for Christmas lights in the town this year, so the local rugby club paid for them. It was an affecting vignette, a touchingly parochial contribution to the debate about whether charity should begin at home.
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