A nation divided. Two factions at war over foreigners. One side claims to tell it like it is. The other cries racism. Neither can agree. Brexit Britain? Well, yes, but also Birmingham in April 1968.
That was when the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West forced immigration on to the political agenda. His name was Enoch Powell and what he called his Birmingham speech would prove even more incendiary than he’d hoped. Reacting to Labour’s Race Relations Act, Powell argued that allowing mass immigration from the Commonwealth was “literally mad” and prophesied doom in the language of the Roman poet Virgil: “Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
Nearly 50 years on, the “Rivers of Blood” speech is still enflaming emotions and making headlines. That’s why, a short walk up the road from the city’s former Midland hotel, where the speech was made, actor Ian McDiarmid is looking shifty. “I was rather hoping I might be stopped and searched,” the actor jokes after passing some police officers on his way into Birmingham Rep, “because my bag is full of material about Enoch Powell.”
It sounds an unlikely cache of documents for this trim 72-year-old to be carrying, but he has good cause. The man known to legions of Star Wars fans as the Emperor Palpatine is now playing Powell in Chris Hannan’s play What Shadows. He’s even grown a silver-grey moustache for the occasion.
How does he feel about getting his tongue around Powell’s divisive language? The answer, from an actor who has played such polarising characters as Galileo, Denis Thatcher and Satan, is typically magnanimous. “I have to do him justice. Chris has written a rounded character, so I’ve just got to get it right.”
When pressed, his instinct is not to excuse Powell’s racism but to see him as a politician infuriated by the reluctance of either the Conservatives or Labour to discuss immigration in public. That, I suggest, sounds like an actor who will identify with a character at any cost.
“Absolutely,” he says. “That’s always more interesting. He’s packed with contradictions. He started off as an atheist and ended up as a high Anglican. He was a supporter of what we would call gay rights. He was against capital punishment. He was a rational man par excellence. He worshipped Greek philosophy. He was also a deeply emotional man and a romantic. You’d see him moved to heights of rhetorical fury but he also cried a lot in private. That’s a gift for an actor to play.”
Yes, but Powell was also prepared to quote one of his constituents as saying: “In this country in 15 or 20 years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Conservative leader Edward Heath said the speech was “racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions” and sacked him as a member of the shadow cabinet. How does it feel to be echoing such sentiments?