The balance for television writers addressing sensitive issues is a complex one. Not only do they have a responsibility for accuracy and a duty of care, but also, of course, a requirement to entertain.
The A Word, which follows the Cumbrian family of a boy with autism, and returns for a richly deserved second series, achieves that blend with extraordinary skill.
Focusing on five-year-old Joe Hughes, who has communication problems and is isolated by his peers, the first series explored Joe’s diagnosis with autism and its impact on his parents Alison and Paul, his half-sister Rebecca and extended family.
Although the programme is not, and was never designed to be, a public information film, writer Peter Bowker (Capital, Marvellous, Blackpool) takes his job seriously, and peppers his story with moments that are resonant, emotionally truthful and uncannily accurate.
“The truth is,” Bowker told RT last year, “that you cannot and should not be writing a drama to inform. If you are writing about a subject purely to inform then you should be writing a documentary. But if you are writing a drama about a subject as sensitive as autism then you should be getting most of the facts right, too.”
Bowker aimed to do this based on his experience as a teacher of children with severe learning disabilities, plus conversations with teachers and parents of children on the autism spectrum, the National Autistic Society and various consultants. “Although even then,” he added, “I would say there are areas that are so inconsistent throughout the country that it is pretty much an impossible task to get everything right.”
However, it was clear there was a hunger for this kind of drama. The A Word began on BBC1 in March 2016 and attracted a solid audience – series one averaged 4.2 million in overnight figures, peaking at nearly 5 million. To put that in context, series three of the acclaimed Line of Duty, starting the same week, averaged 3.5 million in overnight ratings, albeit on BBC2.
From the opening scene Peter Bowker consigned any “worthy but dull” accusations to the scrapheap. It began, as many episodes do, with a boy in coat and headphones ambling happily through a spectacularly beautiful Lake District valley. You would think the images might be accompanied by genteel, classical music on the soundtrack. But The A Word isn’t that programme. Young Joe’s musical landscape is more indie (Mardy Bum by Arctic Monkeys) and thrashy (Everybody’s Happy Nowadays by Buzzcocks).
Joe (an astonishing performance by young Max Vento) keeps a confusing world at bay by listening to pop music, of which he has an encyclopaedic knowledge. He doesn’t make eye contact and fails to integrate at school, but doesn’t seem distressed by this.
His parents Alison and Paul (superb Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby), on the other hand, are worried out of their minds. The build-up to and fallout from Joe’s diagnosis permeated series one. It was all there in Mum and Dad’s fumblings in the dark with autism, in their consequent lack of attention to their daughter Rebecca (Molly Wright), and in the incomprehension of the “call a spade a spade” Old School, personified by Christopher Eccleston’s Maurice.
For parents who have been in the same or similar situation, Bowker has got all these details heart-wrenchingly accurate. Those viewers will have recognised the insecurities, the simultaneous relief and heartbreak of a medical statement, the discomfort at children’s parties and so on.
Tom Purser, head of campaigns at the National Autistic Society, told RT after series one, “What we’ve seen over six weeks… has been what the best TV does – it has connected people to an experience that so many families have to go through alone.”
It’s the micro-moments that tell you how well Bowker has researched his subject. And there are many of them in the brilliant opening episode of series two, where we catch up with Joe, two years on.
There has been another “incident” at Joe’s school, one which worries the other parents, and brings Alison and Paul at a gallop. Joe has climbed up a ladder to a flat roof, and another boy has followed him up. When the panic has died down and it’s clear no harm has been done, that boy’s angry mother rounds on Alison with “Joe is a lovely boy but…” Alison’s eyes are cast down. She has a tired, resigned smile. There is always a “but”, and she knows what’s coming.
She is used to the mothers’ mafia, the tactless remarks and ignorance, the playground huddles and the dread of feeling judged.
Elsewhere, sister Rebecca has so much to contend with in the fallout from the A bomb, but she is fiercely protective of Joe and won’t allow anyone to slight him. One particularly thoughtless reaction by her new boyfriend is met with a sharp rebuke.
But the best moment comes when Alison heroically addresses concerned parents at the school – and what she has to say comes as a surprise. It’s a beautifully written speech, the crux of which is the line “I’m not apologising for Joe”.
As Peter Bowker says, “I love Alison. I think her response comes from a fierce and important place. Alison as a character is there to honour all the mothers I met over the years who fought for their children to receive the education, the help, the living conditions to which they were entitled.”
It’s clear that The A Word wants people to look at autism in a different way, and to strip away the negativity surrounding the condition.
We know that there are failures in the mental-health system; news reports about diagnosis delays and lack of funding have been commonplace this year, with at last a growing appreciation of the impact these problems can have on individuals.
Television can represent those people who are being failed on a daily basis, and this wonderful, human drama does just that, with intelligence, wit and respect.
In fact, the “A” in The A Word should also be for “awards”. It deserves every single one in the book.