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

Latest Hackney Stories

Yesterday, 18:27

An unbeaten half-century from James Harris saw visitors Middlesex complete an outstanding recovery to beat Leicestershire by one wicket in a marvellously tense finish to their Specsavers Division Two county championship match at the Fischer County Ground, Grace Road.

Yesterday, 17:28

Belgium and Tunisia have met on three previous occasions in all competitions, with a win apiece and a draw. The encounters have been tight affairs, with victories decided by one-goal margins, but today’s match didn’t follow the same trend.

Yesterday, 12:00

Gareth Southgate’s promising young England side look ready to make a mark on the world stage and help atone for the disappointments of recent tournaments.

Yesterday, 08:30

The drama surrounding the threat to Gillett Square continues apace with over 1,500 new signatories in the past month to the petition to Save Gillett Square, writes Adam Hart FRSA, chief executive officer Hackney Co-operative Developments (HCD) 1996-2012, co-director Vortex Foundation, resident and parent for over 35 years.

The temperature nudged the mercury towards nearly 30c as the man sat down on a bench, sited between Grace Road’s evocative pavilion and the sight screen.

Middlesex ended day three of their County Championship match at Grace Road on 82-3, 299 runs adrift with only seven wickets remaining.

Fri, 16:33

Brazil and Costa Rica were winless in their opening matches at the World Cup and were both hoping for their first victory of the tournament at the Saint Petersburg Stadium.

Middlesex bowled Leicestershire out for 186 in their second innings on a baking hot afternoon at Grace Road, to leave the visitors facing a challenging target of 381 to win.


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

Hackney Gazette twice-weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Most read entertainment

Show Job Lists