Port Talbot MagNet followed The Passion every step of the way, from the day the project went public to the moment Michael Sheen was crucified on a Sandfields roundabout. Rachel Howells tells the behind-the-scenes story of following this unique performance.
“We’d like you to be community partners of The Passion,” says Catrin Rogers, press officer for National Theatre Wales. We are sitting in my car on a cold February day, racing down the M4 from Cardiff to get to a party being thrown by NTW for residents of Llewellyn Street.
Of course, the party itself was a great chance to meet some lovely people and find out more about the production. Things were still very hazy back then – nobody really knew what was going on, what the plot was or how they would be involved in the production, but there was already a feeling that, whatever was going to happen, it was going to be very special.
Being community partners of something like The Passion was the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come along every day, especially for a new venture like ours. Here we were, 18 months after setting ourselves up to run a news service for Port Talbot, and we were only just in a position to launch our website. We’d been working so hard for so many months, trying to get funding together and explain our idea to people, but it was a slog without something concrete to show. We had come to the conclusion that the only thing to do was pay for the website out of our own pockets, write the content in our own time, for free, and show people what we could do.
Being asked to be community partners of The Passion was a huge vote of confidence from one of the highest profile projects to hit Port Talbot in decades. The Passion was focused on the community, on giving people a voice and bringing prosperity and pride to Port Talbot – the same list of aims we wanted to achieve with our news project. We were delighted to be asked, and of course we agreed.
So, although we had been posting a regular, exclusive blog from Adele Thomas, project associate of the production, it was from the moment of the Llewellyn Street party that we really went Passion-mad. As community partners we decided we would go all-out to cover the event, with reporting, photography and video, and we would aim to capture as much as we could so that we would have an archive for future generations of Port Talbot.
With The Passion as a deadline, we worked doubly hard to launch our website, write new stories and recruit volunteers to help us cover the action. One of our first steps was to decide on a new name – we had been called Local News Port Talbot up until then, but we wanted something that would feel a bit more friendly to local people. MagNet was the final choice, which we liked because it had connotations of being a magnetic hub bringing people together, as well as the pleasing double meaning that comes from splitting the name into mag (magazine) and net (on the internet).
We also met up with XS radio to form a partnership, and they talked us into running an advertising campaign in the run-up to The Passion so we could tell people all about ourselves. And NSA, who have been helping Port Talbot MagNet since we first started, offered us the use of their Sandfields office as an invaluable hub for the weekend. We were all set.
Next, we pestered Catrin Rogers with requests for interviews – not least for a chance to interview Michael Sheen, of course, but we also wanted to meet local people who were involved with the project in some way. In the run-up to Easter we were lucky to interview everyone from scriptwriter Owen Sheers, to Ken Tucker, Michael Sheen’s school drama teacher, from Mercedes Kemp, the community director, to Adele Vye, a local artist who took part as a community performer.
But no Michael Sheen interview though. In fact it was with just a week to go that we had confirmation we’d been given some time with him. Myself and camera operator Ingrid Bousquet were invited to a press call on the sand dunes by the Naval Club at dusk on the Friday before Easter. Although I have been a print journalist for many years, I had never interviewed anyone on camera before. Ingrid had lots of experience, and had even made documentaries, but we had borrowed the camera from a group in Swansea and so all the equipment was unfamiliar.
With just a smidge of apprehension, we made our way to the top of the dune, where crews from BBC and ITV waited with their hi-tech cameras and enormous boom mikes. Trying unsuccessfully to blend in, we got out our little camera, mounted it on the tripod – and realised we had a problem. The tripod was about as high as our ribs – a disaster for close-up interviews of someone’s face.
Soon it was our turn. As if things weren’t tense enough, we were told our ten-minute slot would have to be cut down – we had exactly eight minutes to get what we needed. Luckily Michael Sheen is an amenable interviewee. To get his face in shot, we had to ask him to stand downhill, and he spent a few seconds slipping downwards before digging himself a foothold in the sand before we could start the interview. No sooner had we overcome this hurdle than two men arrived on a large lorry to unload some very noisy metal containers in the car park next to us, providing a lovely metallic soundtrack.
It may not have been our best work, but the footage actually came out very well in the end. We even managed to sell it to Sky News the following week. Not bad, for a first effort.
The last few days before The Passion were manic. We were busy lining up volunteers and putting plans in place. Ingrid and I spent a day driving around locations, photographing everything for an interactive map for the website. We spent another day interviewing cast members and attending rehearsals for the supper, where (as a big Misfits fan) I was very excited to spot the actor Iwan Rheon warming up for his set.
But it was as we were about to film the very last item that day that Ingrid made an important discovery. The tripod had a little additional handle at the top, that raised the camera an extra foot or so for close-up interviewing. I had a flashback to Michael Sheen slipping backwards down the dune, trying to square up to our too-short camera. Luckily, Ingrid saw the funny side.
At 5.15am on Good Friday, I picked up some very bleary-eyed journalists and we set off to the beach. Crowds had already gathered, and the actors were ranged along the dunes, dressed in white pyjamas and dressing gowns and moving in eerie silence. In the shallow water stood a dozen cast members, ranged in a semi-circle in the incoming tide. Further out, the Stranger stood waist deep in the waves, anchored by his staff. Perhaps two hundred people were on the sand, waiting for the action to start, and as the sun slowly rose above the mountain, revealing a clear sky and the promise of unblemished sunshine, a man walked down from the dunes. It was Michael Sheen, in character as the Teacher.
He discarded his shoes and jumper at the water’s edge, and waded through the freezing water to the Stranger, who held him beneath the surface, and then brought him, screaming, to the other actors, who wrapped him in a blanket and carried him on their shoulders to a fire in a hollow in the dunes, singing a haunting song, which repeated the phrase ‘He is come’. James and Ingrid took some fabulous shots of that morning, and Phil and I interviewed crowd members. People were so excited that The Passion had finally begun.
There were many special moments during The Passion, and everyone has their own memory of that weekend to cherish. For me, it was that morning on the beach, where a small group of us waited on the wide sand for the sun to come up, where we paused for something special to happen. The peace, the calm, the expectant silence, the sound of the waves in the milk of early light, and the feeling of witnessing something unique – that’s what I’ll remember about The Passion.
It’s ironic that I remember something so comparably uneventful in such a dramatic weekend, but there is a good reason. Truth be told, sadly, that’s probably the closest I got to the action in three days. The rest of the weekend I spent driving people to different locations, or, more commonly, behind a laptop, writing and editing stories, or mingling with crowds on the fringes of performances, getting reactions for our coverage.
I’m looking forward to seeing the second part of the BBC documentary about The Passion, just so I can see what I missed. Mind you, I got a pretty good idea from seeing the excellent coverage our MagNet journalists put together.
The journalists in our team that weekend – Neil Beer, Ingrid Bousquet, Philip Dewey, Ken Smith, James Snaith, Paul Starling, Jeremy Veale, Mike Witchell, Donglin Xu – all went out in the field to witness the action. We captured five hours of video, one and a half hours of audio, took more than 2,000 photographs and wrote more than 20,000 words. Our coverage was extensive, timely, and, I think, great quality – and it was all provided by professional journalists volunteering their time for Port Talbot. It just goes to show what we can achieve. Our thanks go to them for the dedication, commitment and talent they brought to the project. We hope to work with them again.
The Passion was a wonderful thing for Port Talbot. It brought people together, and showcased what is great about our town. It did the same for Port Talbot MagNet. Now we know what we are capable of – and we intend to do a lot more of it.
The BBC’s The Passion is on BBC One, Sunday June 12 at 10.35.