The A Word
By DJ Forrest
Written by Peter Bowker
Directed by Peter Cattaneo
Broadcast March 22nd, 2016
The A Word has been a powerful BBC drama this Spring, touching heavily on the subject of autism, and told from the perspective of a family, living in denial.
Joe (Max Vento) has autism. He lives in a world of his own mostly dominated by music. It’s his safety net. The place he goes to when family and life get too much. Once his headphones are on, his Walkman is switched on, he is in his zone and he sings along to whatever songs from the 80s onwards that he likes.
The songs selected are from his Dads collection of songs loaded onto the Walkman. When Joe has a tantrum, such as at his fifth birthday in the first episode, the only way to get him to come around and be sociable, was by putting back on the music they switched off, and singing to him.
Joe’s ‘condition’ became noticeable to Nicola, who with her husband Eddie, came to stay alongside the family, in the house next door. A doctor by profession, Nicola could already tell that Joe was on the autistic spectrum, but being alienated by the immediate family for having an affair behind Eddie’s back some time previous, and for wrongly diagnosing Joe’s grandad for prostate cancer, her diagnosis is shrugged off and ignored.
But as the series progresses, Mum (Morven Christie) begins to ask Nicola (Vinette Robinson) for help with Joe, which puts a strain on an already fragile relationship between Eddie and Nicola.
Ideally, thinking back now, I could so easily have put this as a Connection for this month, considering the number of Who cast present. Of course, top of this list has to be Christopher ‘Lots of planets have a North’ Eccleston who plays Alison’s dad, Maurice. Head of the Scott’s Brewery empire, Maurice had taken early retirement after his wife died, to allow his son Eddie to take the reins. Maurice is very much a difficult character to like, but also a difficult character to really dislike. He’s got his own opinion about life and family, and doesn’t believe that Joe needs as much fuss made of him as his daughter Alison seems to think. He also doesn’t agree that the child should be home schooled. In retrospect, there’s something very autistic about the way Maurice reacts to social interaction, especially in the brief relationship he has with Louise Wilson, his music teacher.
Morven Christie plays Alison, mother to Joe. She’s a fiery, headstrong woman who fights her children’s corner, although from one perspective she approaches everything with a bullish attitude, especially with regards to Maggie White, Joe’s Speech therapist, who refuses to be Joe’s full time therapist but could recommend so many other people to help him.
When Maya, a family friend, faces deportation, she fights tooth and nail to keep her in the country. Her interest in keeping her son Joe happy, contented, and the truth about his condition secret from the world outside her window, the only reason.
As a parent, you would move heaven and earth to protect your children and fight to get them the help they needed. But a lot of Alison’s behaviour bordered on bullying tactics, something of which Maggie was all too aware of from the past.
And soon, even her husband and family become aware that Joe is her main focal point, and nobody else matters. Poor Rebecca, her eldest child becomes all too aware that her mother doesn’t even know she exists and seeks friendships outside of the family.
The series was shot around the Lake District, Keswick, Cumbria, Thirlmere and The Space Project from October 2015 and broadcast on 22nd March 2016 for 6 episodes. I really hope there’s a second series, as there are a few unresolved issues to deal with. It deserves another series but then, in some ways, perhaps one series is enough. Perhaps another series would dip and lose the flavour that this one carried. It does happen!
When you watch a British series such as this, there are always going to be some people from a popular sci fi show. It’s really hard to escape that. So obviously after getting hugely excited at seeing Eccleston in another Northern series, there were a couple more faces that rang bells. Such as Morven Christie who played Alison Hughes, Joe’s Mum. Morven played O’Donnell in the two parter Who story – Before the Flood and Under the Lake. Vinette Robinson played Abi Lerner, the doctor in 42. Pooky Quesnel who in this series played Louise Wilson, the music teacher with a Downs Syndrome son, played the Captain in A Christmas Carol.
If you haven’t seen the series, I think it’s still available on iPlayer. I hope it comes out on DVD as this is a hugely watchable series which has been enjoyed several times already and still it never disappoints.
The A Word was written by Peter Bowker, who drew his own experiences and observations as a teacher and with his own family.