Michael Sheen, the acclaimed film and stage actor, has spoken of his fear that disadvantaged British schoolchildren no longer have a way to discover culture.
Talking in support of a new project to tackle cultural poverty, the star has called for children from all backgrounds to be given more opportunities to see a wider range of films and take part in local drama groups. Sheen, who grew up in Wales and discovered he loved drama at school, bemoaned the lack of access to youth theatres and to the classics of cinema for many poorer children today.
"I now realise I had a huge amount of advantages when I was growing up in West Glamorgan," he said. "Not just in terms of my family, but because it was a golden era, where free cultural opportunities were available to me."
Sheen, 43, who lives in Los Angeles and starred in Midnight in Paris and Frost/Nixon, attended a Port Talbot comprehensive school as a boy, where his drama teacher suggested that he should join the local youth theatre. "My old school does not have a drama department any more, so there is no question of someone being able to follow in my footsteps. It has all been washed away," he said.
The actor welcomed the launch of the Children's Cultural Poverty Forum in Wales and added that the key involvement of Film Club, a national charity that he supports, will allow more schools to introduce pupils to films. With a membership of more than 7,000 schools across Britain, Film Club publishes children's reviews each week on its website.
"Films are a very good way of reaching children who do not easily engage with culture in other forms," said Sheen. "Through films they become a member of a community and talk about what they have seen. They are not aware they are being educated, so it is particularly good for children who have found formal education hard; but it stretches the academic children too. They all have greater self-esteem, which is reflected in improvements in their work."
Sheen became involved in the charity, which was founded in 2006 by film director Beeban Kidron, after seeing her lecture on the importance of a cultural education. "Beeban made it clear that our whole understanding of ourselves is shaped by the narratives we tell each other. The idea that culture is simply an add-on is ridiculous," added Sheen. "It's at the very heart of our culture."
The young Sheen discovered the cinema by watching black-and-white classics on BBC2 on Sunday afternoons. "Those were the things that developed me," he said. "But these days it is not just a question of the quality of the films children see; it is a question of whether they see any at all. The focus ought to be on whether there is any culture available. It is mind-blowing to me, but in Wales 32% of children live in poverty. So I am very pleased that the Welsh government is supporting the new forum."
The forum was launched in Caernarfon this month in collaboration with the Welsh Film Agency, the Children's Commissioner for Wales, Save the Children Wales and the End Child Poverty Network Cymru. Abi Beacon, deputy head at Gaer junior school in Newport, runs the school's film club and is convinced of its value in a place where 25% of children are eligible for free school meals. "Going to the cinema is simply not an option for many of our learners," she said. "The nearest cinema is nearly five miles away and the cost is prohibitive for most families living on our estate."
Sheen believes the clubs offer an entry point into cultural experiences. "Of course, it is not about everyone becoming an actor, but these are things every child should be able to try at a time when people are spending most of the time talking to each other on computers."
The actor, who is to star opposite the US comedian Tina Fey in the film Admission, added that he is also suspicious of commercial stage schools. "They make money, but do they offer the same experience for children? I am not entirely sure. What is often offered is a sop."
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