Christopher Eccleston plays a granddad in Peter Bowker’s thoughtful and funny autism drama The A Word

Eccleston portrays a prickly patriarch in the drama which stars Lee Ingleby and Morven Christie as parents awakening to the fact that their son has autism

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He’s only 52 but former Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston is playing a granddad for the first time.

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He is Maurice in new BBC1 drama The A Word. Writer Peter Bowker (Marvellous, Occupation and Capital) was given the unenviable task of approaching Eccleston to ask him whether he was up for his first stab at a playing a grandfather. “It was left to me to send the email and I think it started, ‘You may want to tell me to **** off…” laughs Bowker.

The A Word follows the fortune of an outwardly happy, aspirational family living in the Lake District and their awakening to the fact that their son Joe has autism. His difficulty adjusting to school, his obsession with music and his introverted manner all point to a diagnosis but his parents find every excuse available to explain away his behaviour.

Eccleston’s a prickly, nosey, speak-your-mind busybody, a man who is grieving the loss of his beloved wife a year before and who spends a little too much of his time prying into his family’s business. He has just handed over control of the brewery he has built up to his son Eddie (Greg McHugh) so time is not something he lacks.

Maurice is fairly reactionary which gives him some of the best jokes. But he also has a physical vitality and energy that makes an intriguing combination.

“Some people would want their granddad on the sofa watching the wrestling not running up hills like Maurice does,” says Bowker who taught children with learning disabilities for 14 years before becoming a full-time scriptwriter. “There’s an edge to Chris which is interesting.”

But of course, for the drama, it’s probably a good thing that Maurice is such a vibrant nosey parker. His daughter Alison (Morven Christie) has failed to face up to her son’s behavioural problems – as has her husband Paul (Lee Ingleby) – so it is up to Maurice to push the matter, at some personal cost to himself, and get the family to face some difficult truths.

“This is a family who for want of a better word are aspirational,” says Bowker who has to be one of modern British TV’s best chroniclers of modern family life, as well as someone with a particular skill at giving voice to people who struggle to articulate their own feelings.

“They are fairly comfortably off, they are building a business, they are smart, they are articulate. But they still can’t talk about this stuff. That’s interesting. It’s not their lack of education or social class that renders them being unable to express this, it is something else. It is about emotion and guilt.” 

But don’t be fooled into thinking this is a harrowing examination of a family struggling to cope with a child with severe autism.

“Joe is on the mild side of the spectrum, he is not every kid with autism,” cautions Bowker, who acknowledges that parents who have to cope with extreme cases may feel that this is not a drama that adequately reflects the very severe hardships they endure every day. But it is not meant to.

“I wanted to write about hidden difference,” he says. And for that reason it has universality. Because being different is something every family – and family member – can claim with justification. Plus the struggle with idealised notions of family life which are never achievable and which put pressures on us all is also something many of us will recognise and connect with.

It’s definitely worth a watch and I reckon will be a hit. Or at least something Eccleston will be proud to show his own grandchildren when or if the day comes…

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The A Word is scheduled to air on BBC1 at the end of March