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

PUBLISHED: 14:00 05 October 2017

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


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.

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.

“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


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Hackney Gazette visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Hackney Gazette staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Hackney Gazette account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

Latest Hackney Stories

Yesterday, 22:23

Gareth Southgate’s men capped a promising display with a deserved victory as an experimental England side secured victory thanks to Jesse Lingard’s first international goal.

Yesterday, 21:51

A paedophile who tried to broker a swap for a 12-year-old girl to rape and torture in exchange for providing crystal meth has been jailed for nine years.

Yesterday, 15:40

Arsenal fans can celebrate after midfielder Leah Williamson signed a long-term contract with the club.

Yesterday, 14:53

International breaks are rarely welcomed with open arms by fans who miss their Arsenal fix – but for football lovers this week is serving up some tasty ties with 14 players from the club set to be amongst the action. Find out more with Rosie Tudball’s comprehensive round-up.

Per Mertesacker has given a number of young fans with Down’s syndrome a day to remember as part of Arsenal in the Community’s excellent work.

Yesterday, 13:00

Leyton Orient face a crucial game at home to Woking in the National League with safety still not secured.

Yesterday, 17:18

A mental health charity off Mare Street is appealing for runners to take on the Hackney Half in the wake of government cuts.

Yesterday, 17:44

Matt Smith is training the Gazette running team for the Hackney Half. He will be giving readers regular fitness tips to help in their own preparation or just inspire them to get off the sofa. This week, he tackles the phenomenon of over-training.


To celebrate LGBT history month, Hackney resident Amanda talks about her journey to becoming a foster carer, with the council’s support and training.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Most read entertainment

Show Job Lists