Christopher Eccleston has starred in a lot of groundbreaking TV drama, but nothing, he says, has had the impact of The A Word. “I’m a runner and people stop me in the street all the time – they stopped me about Our Friends in the North, they stopped me about Cracker, they stopped me about Doctor Who. But this is the one that I’ve got stopped for most. It has touched people.”
Peter Bowker’s autism drama is back for a welcome second series. The A Word has had its critics – me included. After two episodes, my autistic daughter and I reviewed it, asking why autistic children were invariably portrayed as unusually gifted.
In the case of The A Word, five-year-old Joe appears to know the words to every great song in pop history. But later episodes showed that his ability to recite lyrics didn’t make his life any less of a struggle. As the drama developed it became more and more accomplished – as a soap (about the interconnected lives of an extended family in the Lake District), as a sometime comedy (Eccleston’s well-meaning character Maurice has perfected the knack of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time), and as an exploration of special needs (as well as Joe, there are two other characters with learning disabilities).
Today, Eccleston is with Leon Harrop who has Down’s syndrome and plays Ralph, and Pooky Quesnel who plays Ralph’s mother, Louise. In The A Word, Maurice has an on-off relationship with Louise, and offers Ralph a job in his brewery. It’s soon apparent that in real life the three actors have an unusually close relationship. If you didn’t know otherwise, you might well assume Eccleston and Quesnel are Harrop’s parents.
“One of the strengths of The A Word,” says Eccleston, “is we’ve not just soapboxed and depressed everybody, we’ve celebrated the fact that people who have a child on the spectrum don’t stop living, they keep moving forward.”
He’s also been so impressed by Harrop’s performance that he’d like to see the 25-year-old get his own TV series. “Leon has the ability and technical nous and work ethic to carry a show. He has what people in the comedic world call funny bones. Leon technically understands comedy in a way I don’t. Maurice has been a big leap for me so I’ve learnt from Leon in terms of timing of gags.”
Harrop started acting at school in Oldham. He says he always thought he could become a professional actor because he has a positive attitude. Did he have role models? He thinks hard. “I saw a lad called Alex and he had special needs and he was in Coronation Street. And I said, ‘I want to be like him and be on TV.’” But apart from Liam Bairstow, who plays Alex, Harrop struggles to think of others.
Which goes back to why Eccleston thinks so many people stop him to talk about The A Word. Representation. Or, rather, lack of it. He says the drama strikes a chord because we so rarely see people with special needs in TV drama. “Clearly there isn’t enough representation. Why is the BBC doing Howards End again?” He humphs.
It’s 15 years since Eccleston appeared in Flesh and Blood, another drama written by Peter Bowker, in which he played a character whose parents had learning disabilities. Bowker, a former special needs teacher, also wrote Marvellous, the drama about Neil Baldwin, the former Stoke City kit-man. Eccleston says, largely thanks to Bowker, things are improving in terms of representing people with special needs. But he believes the change is too slow, and radical action is needed to remedy that.
“The four main TV channels have to be politically pressured to have a certain number of story lines, a certain amount of programme time, devoted to programmes like The A Word. So people with special needs see themselves and their lives reflected in drama. I think writers are desperate to do it.”
“It’s another aspect of life that’s great to explore,” says Quesnel. “There’s a perception of, ‘Oh we can’t write that because it won’t get commissioned’.”
Eccleston nods. “There was a lot of, ‘We don’t want to see people like that on television.’” He pauses, and says he’s not just talking about special needs. “That’s true about race, about women… we’re dinosaurs. We’re still as prehistoric as the Weinstein scandal has shown us.”
At times Eccleston and Quesnel finish off sentences for each other. Perhaps it’s not surprising. They go back a long way. At the age of 17, they were in the same drama group at Eccles Sixth Form College (as I was) and had a brief romance. Although they remained friends, they had to wait 30-odd years to be cast together.
Eccleston says that if it hadn’t been for Quesnel he wouldn’t have pursued a career in drama. He was a working-class boy retaking (and refailing) his O-levels at college, she was a middle-class girl with academic parents on her way to Oxford university. Quesnel introduced him to Brecht and Stanislavsky and Eccleston was hooked. Quesnel says it’s not just drama they had in common. “We’re a bit intense. We’ve always been a bit rghhhhhhh!” She roars.
Is Eccleston as intense as his reputation might suggest? He grins. “I’ve always been like this. I don’t really know what intense means. I have strong opinions, I feel things deeply, I drink two bottles of red wine not one, I have two pies not one, I run 20 miles not ten, if that’s intense, then guilty, yeah.”
And there’s nothing he’s quite so intense about as the issue of class. He believes he wouldn’t stand a chance of even making it to drama school today. “I had no academic qualifications, but I didn’t need them because the grant from Salford Council was discretionary. They then offered a tax break called a covenant to my parents, which meant that I could go to drama school. There were 28 people in our year, and five of us were from working-class backgrounds.”
Does Eccleston think there’s a danger of the upper middle-classes taking over acting? “There’s not a danger, it has been taken over. I’m 53, I’m going to play Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company. How many people from my background, no education, no university, have played Hamlet or Macbeth at the RSC? And, more importantly, where are the people coming from who will do it after me?
“The attitude is that Shakespeare should be done by white middle-class people, in a white middle-class voice. Why? Because the white middle-class face and voice ‘has the keys to intelligence, sensitivity and poetry’. That’s the message that kids of colour and kids like me are getting. It feels to me like in the last ten years it’s got worse in terms of class.”
Again, he says a radical solution is needed. “It has to be policy. There has to be a quota for people like me who have not got academic qualifications, whose parents can’t afford the funding, drama schools have to accept them, channels have to make television about them.” And once there is a quota, writers will fulfill it, he says. “There was a culture within the BBC and even ITV when I was growing up that the channel’s remit was to reflect social-issue based dramas, like Play for Today. Everyone sat down and watched, say, Cathy Come Home. And we don’t have that now, do we – a weekly drama where the nation sits down and has a look at itself?”
Eccleston realises he’s one of the lucky few who’ve made it despite their background. Not lucky simply for getting the opportunity to do Shakespeare but also to be in The A Word. I ask him why it has been so been important to him, and before he even touches on the subject he mentions the people he has worked with. “I’ve got Leon – we’ve got this great friendship. Me and Pooky get to work together having planned to be actors together years ago. That’s massive!” As for Harrop, he’s looking forward to seeing Eccleston in Macbeth, but he’s not interested in doing Shakespeare himself. “I’d love to do more drama with Chris and Pooky, but my big thing is to be in Corrie or Emmerdale.”
Eccleston and Quesnel look like proud but slightly disapproving parents as he talks. “He’s a massive fan of Coronation Street, but we’re not going to let him do it because we want him to do films first,” Eccleston says. “And he needs his own show. Genuinely.”
The A Word returns on Tuesday 7th November at 9pm on BBC1
By Simon Hattenstone