A young Doctor Who fan with Asperger interviews Christopher Eccleston about autism drama The A-Word

In an exclusive and very personal video interview, filmmaker Gerard Groves talks to Eccleston about the show's portrayal of a family with an autistic child - and tells us about the appeal of Doctor Who to those on the autistic spectrum

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Gerard Groves is a talented young filmmaker. He describes himself as being on the autistic spectrum. And he is a huge Doctor Who fan, whose love of the show began with Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston.

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So landing an exclusive interview with Eccleston about The A-Word, his new BBC1 drama about autism, and then editing a film about it must have ticked a lot of boxes for Gerard…

Gerard’s early obsession with Doctor Who will be recognisable to many fans, and it’s also what sparked his interest in filmmaking. 

“I was watching Doctor Who back in 2005 when Christopher Eccleston started and it was his portrayal of the Doctor that really got me into it,” says Gerard, now 19. “It was halfway into series one when I started making these films and when my whole childhood started revolving around his portrayal of this one character on TV.

“Back in the day, I did all kinds of different films… I did a series of films as a kid called Cat Who. Basically, due to my lack of available friends who wanted to be in a film on the internet – this was back when it was ‘what the hell’s YouTube, this weird thing? We don’t want to be on the internet’ – I ended up roping my cats in to being the companions to my Doctor Who, so I filmed these cats and added the voices in later.”

“After spending a year obsessing about that one thing, especially as a 7/8 year old, I think it kind of gets burnt into your brain, and into you as a person, and it holds that very special place for you, almost like how a parent or a granddad or someone close to you would. It’s funny how TV can do that.”

Gerard is not alone. Doctor Who is now a global phenomenon and there are millions of fans of all types, shapes and sizes around the world. But Gerard says that in his experience the show holds a special appeal for those, like him, on the autistic spectrum. 

“Doctor Who’s got a big audience – but especially an audience of people on the autistic spectrum,” he says. “I don’t know what it is about Doctor Who exactly but I was volunteering at the Doctor Who Festival a few months ago and what I noticed there was that there was a huge, huge autistic spectrum fanbase. And since Christopher Eccleston is not only a big name in [The A-Word] but also a big name in the Doctor Who world, so I thought he’d be a really good person to talk to; it kind of ties it all together.”

Eccleston doesn’t do a huge number of interviews (in fact, Gerard’s was the only one he did for The A-Word aside from the official BBC Q&A) and he doesn’t necessarily have a reputation as being particularly forthcoming. So what was he like?

Let’s just say Doctor Who fans scared of having their illusions shattered needn’t worry…

“He was absolutely lovely. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking to,” says Gerard.

“You often hear the phrase ‘don’t meet your heroes’ but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was scared going up to interview him as you see in the film… but he was so lovely and so warm. He was happy to talk about his role and he was happy to talk about my experiences [as someone on the autistic spectrum] and he reacted to it, you could tell he listened – in his eyes and in the way he spoke and in his reactions. 

“He’s just a very genuinely nice man. I think he’s caring and I think his work means a lot to him; that when he hears how his work’s impacted someone it means a lot to him. He’s always thinking about his work but I think what that boils down to is thinking about people, and how people work. And I suppose when you’ve got someone whose job is people, and taking on those roles, you’re going to get someone who’s really nice and a people person.”

And how was it for Eccleston? “You got me then,” he tells Gerard at the end of the emotional interview. “You got me crying…”

Watch Gerard’s exclusive interview with Christopher below and see for yourselves.

But as someone on the autistic spectrum, what did Gerard think of Eccleston’s new drama, penned by Peter Bowker, which follows a family who discover that their child is autistic? Having seen the first two episodes, Gerard says that at times “it was like staring into a mirror”.

“Watching it was a really bizarre thing. I had goosebumps all up my arms. It was like staring into a mirror or watching a biopic of my life. Some of the moments in it that the family have were just so representative… I was thinking ‘I can relate to a lot of those moments from my childhood’ and ‘this is maybe what my mum was going through’, that kind of thing. 

“It was really nice to see it all being represented in such a positive and real way. I think it’s very easy to fall into those pitfalls of doing something negative and dreary and showing someone that’s in distress, and a family being stressed out. But that almost becomes voyeuristic and a very negative way of doing something. I think it’s better to show the fun moments too, and that’s what I really loved about the show.

“All the characters could have their own spin-offs – that’s how you know a show’s really good, they’ve all got those dimensions to them. And each of them have their own funny moment. I was sat through this show with goosebumps, with some moments very close to the bone but then others where I was really laughing.”

The A-Word starts on Tuesday 22nd March at 9pm on BBC1 

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See more of Gerard Groves’ work on the BBC RAW YouTube channel which showcases content made by a diverse range of young working-class filmmakers