You can tell The A Word is a great drama because it makes you want to yell at the TV.
Not because it’s boring or badly written – quite the opposite. The family tension is so believable, the characters so true to life, that you feel compelled to wade in on the arguments as if it were your own flesh and blood sniping at each other.
Marvellous writer Peter Bowker’s series has the difficult subject of five-year-old Joe’s autism at its core, but the story is just as much about adults trying, and often failing, to communicate without tearing each other’s heads off. And Lord knows, we’ve all got experience of that.
Of course, what most of us don’t have is the experience of a child with autism. The A Word is clever at showing some aspects of the condition and its impact without trying to be all-encompassing. As someone with an autistic family member, I think Bowker’s drama offers an insight into it, without suggesting that this is what all kids with autism are like. And just as in real life, there are myriad good and bad moments alongside each other. One minute Joe is singing songs — and the next he’s slapped his dad round the face.
As Joe’s family realise he’s not simply “in his own world” but has a real condition, they all deal with this revelation in starkly contrasting ways. Mum Alison, played by Grantchester’s Morven Christie, is filled with a fury and a fear that her son will be a social outcast, battling with Joe’s grandfather Maurice (Christopher Eccelston) who keeps putting his foot in it without the slightest concern about who he might offend. He has no time for all this sensitivity around Joe’s condition — it’s his grandson and he’s going to work out what’s “wrong with him” whether the parents like it or not. It makes for some light relief as family members nudge him to be a little more tactful.
And Joe, played by six-year-old Max Vento, the adorable blue-eyed kid for whom these battle lines are being drawn, is a pleasure to watch. His incredible skill for remembering the lyrics to alt-indie music makes for some great scenes in which he trundles through the Lake District singing all the words to The Arctic Monkeys’ Mardy Bum: “Oh, but it’s right hard to remember that on a day like today when you’re all argumentative and you’ve got the face on.”
There’s quite a bit of mardiness going on in the extended family too, as Joe’s uncle (Fresh Meat’s hilarious Greg McHugh) and his wife (Vinette Robinson) try desperately to get over her infidelity, and Joe’s older sister is slightly left out in the cold as ‘the A Word’ becomes the only topic of conversation. Joe’s condition is only adding to tension that was very much there before, and that’s where the drama’s strength really lies.
For those of us mourning the end of Happy Valley, this isn’t going to fill your Tuesday night thrill quota. But like Sally Wainwright’s drama, this has that absorbing domestic thrust that makes for a great, rather addictive plot in itself. Plus there’s something very soothing about the beauty of the Lake District, which somehow eases the pain of saying goodbye to the Calder Valley.
In the second episode Joe sings another The Arctic Monkeys song – “there ain’t no romance around here” – and it sums up the Hughes family rather well. There isn’t all that much romance or sentimentality in The A Word.
Instead, there’s lots of anger and confusion and love in this excellent, beautifully-shot drama about a group of adults trying not to throttle each other as things get even more complicated.