Following Happy Valley was never going to be an easy task, and thankfully BBC One have decided not to fill that Tuesday evening slot with another crime drama, but rather a lovely heartwarming drama about family dynamics, The A Word.
Some of you might remember the Sheridan Smith led drama The C Word from last year, but before I talk about The A Word, I wanted to make it clear that despite the similar title, the two dramas actually have nothing to do with one another.
The A Word is written by the brilliant Peter Bowker, who brought us Marvellous in 2014, and is about a messy, extended family with a child with autism at its centre.
When the series opens, we don’t know that five-year-old Joe Hughes, played brilliantly by six-year-old Max Vento, has autism.
Of course as a viewer we do know this, because that’s how the series is being marketed, but the people around Max don’t know, although some have their suspicions. The A Word marks the first time the BBC have tackled autism in a drama, and why it’s taken until 2016 for that to happen I really don’t know.
Perhaps the scripts have never been great? Perhaps no writer has wanted to tackle the issue? Whatever the reason, I’m thankful that Peter Bowker has written a brilliant script and hasn’t been afraid of tackling the issue of Autism. In fact at a recent press launch for the series, he revealed that he’d been wanting to write about autism for "quite some time”.
The A Word is based on an original Israeli series called Yellow Peppers, and what Peter (together with the original production company Keshet) didn’t want to do, was just transcribe and copy the original. Peter said: "I wanted to cherrypick what I liked from the original, or what I could use from the original, but also I was a teacher for fourteen years, teaching children with learning disabilities, so I encountered a number of children and adults at various stages along the autism spectrum - so it was pouring that experience into it.
I wanted to write about difference, and difference within families, and having a child that’s different. I think every family experiences that, and I think it’s been hidden.
I wanted to open up a conversation about autism. People who might not naturally be drawn to the subject matter might come to it, and start thinking about what it might be like to have a child that’s different."
At the heart of The A Word is five-year-old Joe who is impossible to not fall in love with. Hats off to Max Vento who plays Joe, because at only six-years-old he has delivered a performance of the highest quality.
The series opens as the extended Hughes family reunite for his fifth birthday party, but tensions soon rise when newly-arrived Eddie and Nicola suggest Joe has communication problems. He doesn’t interact well with children his own age and obsesses over music. Rarely seen without his headphones, Max knows all the lyrics to songs from the likes of The Arctic Monkeys, Human League and Buzzcocks.
Believable, emotional and real are three words which I would use to describe his performance. So it’s a real credit to the people around Max, who have been able to draw such an incredible performance out of him, one which is of course so key in portraying this story accurately and sensitively, no easy feat for a child actor, but Max appears to do so with ease.
Joe's autism isn’t overplayed, and at the press launch, when asked why he chose to portray a child who perhaps less “hard work” and not as far along the autism spectrum as other children, Peter Bowker said: “I wanted to write about hidden disability, hidden difference. I felt that if you had a child pretending to be a child with severe autism it would become unwatchable, exploitative and wrong.
I’ve been around a lot of children who are mildly or mid-way on the spectrum and it’s the inconsistency in how they present themselves to the world, that the parents and the family have the most problems with.
What I wanted to do was get under the bells and whistles portrayal of visible disability and look at what happens when there are a number of different behaviours that don’t quite fit.
I didn’t want to do a “rubbing it in your face” drama, where you showed someone in extreme distress, with extreme problems and parents barely able to cope."
As well as being about Joe, The A Word is very much also about family, perhaps more so than it is about autism.
Joe’s family work, love and fight just like any other, but when he is diagnosed with autism, they don’t feel like every other family anymore. In my opinion this is another one of the series’ great strengths - its ability to portray accurately family life, and more than that, the different ways in which family members would respond to such news.
Joe’s mother Alison is played wonderfully by Morven Christie (Grantchester). Out of the entire family, it’s perhaps Alison who takes the news of Joe’s autism the worst. The moment she hears confirmation of Joe’s condition, she knows there’s no going back and that frightens her.
She is a classic control freak and desperate to fix Joe’s autism... of course, there is no cure. There comes a point where she realises this, and admits to herself that if she wants to help her son, she has to relinquish control. That’s not to say she’s going to find it easy.
Joe’s father Paul is played by Lee Ingleby (Our Zoo). He hasn't noticed any learning difficulties in his son because rather than focusing on what Joe can't do, like play football or fly a kite, he has focused on the fact that they share a love of music and that Joe is a cool kid. Sometimes being too close to something can cause blindness.
After the autism diagnosis, Paul's response is to go out there and bend the world to Joe’s needs. On the surface it seems like he's coping well, but underneath his feelings are altogether more complex.
Joe isn’t their only child though, there’s also Rebecca, played by Molly Wright and as the series goes on her relationship with her younger brother is explored further, and we get to see how his autism is affecting her.
Aside from Max, the real star of The A Word is Christopher Eccleston (Safe House) who gives a scene-stealing performance as patriarch, grandfather and widow Maurice Scott, Alison’s father.
Having lost his wife Sandra a year ago, Maurice is currently in denial over his grief. Having built a brewery up from nothing, Maurice is successful and self-made, and has handed the brewery over to his son Eddie. His main purpose in life now is to make his family safe, even if on occasion, his actions have the opposite effect.
Why? Partly because Maurice is as un-politically correct as you can get, even admitting at one point in the first episode that he’s “...still getting used to not saying 'spastic' and 'mongol’” a line most writers would have steered clear of, but not Peter Bowker.
Much like Alison, the main difficulty Maurice has coming to terms with Joe’s autism is that it’s something he can’t fix.
Speaking about casting Eccleston as a grandfather for the very first time, Bowker joked at the screening that he “...half expected him to tell me to fuck off’. But it was a risk worth taking.” and he plays the role so well that I don’t think this is the first time we’re going to see Eccleston play a grandfather.
There’s also Maurice’s son and Alison’s brother, Eddie, played by Greg McHugh (Fresh Meat) and his wife Nicola, played by Vinette Robinson (Sherlock). Having left London for the Lake District, the couple have decided to move into the family home in a bid to save their troubled marriage, following Nicola’s infidelity with a colleague.
When Joe chooses to listen to music rather than open his birthday presents, Eddie and Nicola give each other a knowing look, a look that doesn’t go unnoticed by Alison who snaps and asks “What was that look?” to which Eddie replies “You don’t think Joe might have kind sort of communication disorder? It’s just something that might be worth checking out”. Summing Joe up perfectly, Eddie goes on to point out how Joe is "Gifted in some ways, but seems unable to follow simple instructions”.
Almost choosing not to listen, Alison talks about how Joe has recently had his hearing checked and it was perfect, something it’s clear she wants her son to be. She’s not the only one unhappy with Eddie’s interference, Paul dismisses Joe’s behaviour as “wanting his own way on his birthday” and nothing more.
Of course we know that Nicole and Eddie’s worries actually carry some weight, as after a few tests, Joe is diagnosed with autism and what makes this drama great, is the way in which each family member deals with the news differently. They each have their own flaws, and Peter Bowker is so brilliant at unearthing these flaws across an entire series.
I absolutely adored the first episode, and am so pleased that Bowker’s script was never preachy or patronising. Something that can so easily happen with issue-based drama. I genuinely can’t wait to watch the rest of the series and am so excited to see how each of the characters in this ensemble cast develop.
The A Word is real. It deals with real emotions and that’s what I think will draw people to it each week. So just when you thought you were getting your Tuesday evenings back, it’s time to push your plans back another six weeks as this is not a series you’re going to want to miss.