Ian McDiarmid talks playing Enoch Powell in What Shadows at the Park Theatre

Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell in What Shadows at the Park Theatre. Picture: Ellie Kurtzz

Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell in What Shadows at the Park Theatre. Picture: Ellie Kurtzz - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton talks to actor Ian McDiarmid about playing vilified MP Enoch Powell and whether there might be a Star Wars spin off for his evil emperor Darth Sidious

Playing a baddie is hardly new to Ian McDiarmid.

He was, after all, cinema’s evillest emperor in the Star Wars movies.

But his portrayal of vilified MP Enoch Powell at The Park should be more nuanced than the diabolical Sith Lord.

The classical actor brings his rich vocal skills to Powell’s notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech in a play that both sets it in context and draws parallels with Brexit, Ukip, and Trump.

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Nearly 50 years after Powell’s incendiary address, Chris Hannan’s What Shadows moves between the 60s and 90s to examine Britain’s ongoing tussle with immigration and identity.

McDiarmid was at drama school when Powell delivered the speech at Birmingham’s Midland Hotel.

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“I remember the fuss it caused, I remember thinking he must be a racist. He looked like the big bad wolf.”

In fact Powell was a grammar schoolboy who became an Ancient Greek scholar and poet and served as a Brigadier in WWII.

“He was an extraordinary interesting and complex character,” says McDiarmid, who has “devoured” YouTube clips of Powell and feels he was “too intelligent to be a racist”.

“An inveterate intellectual and a brilliant mind, he was the most capable politician of his era. He thought he was speaking for a large portion of the population about the urgent need to do something on an issue that was too explosive to talk about.

He felt too many people arriving who would not be assimilated would lead to civil war. No-one ever hears the rounded speech, it’s usually just snippets but we show the high octane debate.”

Like the Brexit vote, Powell’s critique of immigration policy echoed the unease of Britons who felt their concerns were ignored.

“He was a radical visionary, a romantic nationalist. (Tory leader) Ted Heath sacked him the next day saying that language was incitement to racial hatred. He knew he was sending up a rocket, but he was giving a voice to people who were not being listened to and who felt they were not being represented by those they elected. A large number felt at least he was speaking up for them.” Heath became Prime Minister in 1970 and took Britain into Europe in 1973, and well, the rest is almost history.

“The play is not about now yet it is,” says McDiarmid. “It’s about national identity and a situation that continues, People felt Trump was speaking for them and with Brexit that no-one was paying attention to how communities felt beleaguered.”

Hannan introduces a young mixed race Oxford academic whose Wolverhampton childhood was shattered by Powell’s speech, and who tracks down a frail but unrepentant figure.

“She felt it was a hate speech against her and wants to confront him personally. Like Powell she’s a flawed human being. As with all good plays it encompasses his contradictions with no resolution, they have the debate and it’s over to the audience.”

But the play is daring in showing such a hate figure as a “human being”.

“It gives him an emotional context. At 80 he is bedevilled by Parkinson’s fighting for his mind to overcome his body, that’s immediately touching. The speech was disastrous for him but if he did regret it he never said so publicly. It was deeply felt, truth was important to him even if it impacted on his own relationships.”

McDiarmid is due back on our screens in Jez Butterworth’s Roman-invasion TV series Britannia but is he playing another baddie? “There’s no such thing, you’ll have to make up your mind,” he teases. As for a return for him in a Star Wars spin offs, he says he greatly enjoyed making the originals and prequels, and is open to offers.

“It’s given me a good life and career and it still surprises me the kick I get from being involved. The recent films have been really high standard and extraordinarily clever in ensuring the saga continues to be interesting. It’s a great story there’s a lot of juice in it, you could see it go in all sorts of directions. I think I am dead, but the series is going back in time so there is a possibility I might come back. Although you journalists will know about it before I do, if that was the case I wouldn’t be able to talk about it.”

What Shadows is at The Park Theatre until October 28 parktheatre.co.uk

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