Christopher Eccleston has endless love for BBC drama The A Word, and is full of praise for his co-stars. But there’s one performance he’s very critical of: his own.
Since 2016, Eccleston has played Maurice, the grandfather of a boy living with autism. Maurice has an extremely abrasive and blunt personality; he also provides us with plenty of comedy moments – as in series three when we see him puffed up with pride about his new volunteer role with the fire brigade, or hiding behind the kitchen door to catch his scotch egg thief in the act of raiding the fridge.
“It’s an odd experience playing Maurice,” the former Doctor Who actor tells RadioTimes.com. “There’s a kind of craziness to him, I think, a wild energy.”
But while The A Word fans have loved seeing him play Maurice, Eccleston actually struggles to watch himself in this particular role.
“I mean, I’m an actor who really – my comfort zone is in serious drama,” he says. “I find my performance in The A Word a little too broad and very difficult to watch. I have to say, I think you can see an actor still struggling with how to play comedy. But I’m very grateful for the opportunity to try.
“I find it a bit face-pull-y. It’s not a performance I can particularly look at, and it’s a performance that some of my close friends and family have questioned. It’s a difficult watch for me, Maurice – what I’m doing as Maurice. But with other people it seems to have registered… I’m glad that some people enjoy it.”
And they do enjoy the show very much, as Eccleston can tell first-hand: “The response I’ve had in the street, the number of times I’m stopped – and they don’t speak to me about Maurice, they speak to me about the portrayal of autism or the representation of Down’s Syndrome. So many people are touched by that. They celebrate the fact that we don’t do it in a po-faced manner, we’re not overly serious about it, it’s just a part of people’s lives. I get so many emotional outbursts from people.”
At the centre of The A Word is an autistic boy called Joe (Max Vento); he’s now 10 years old and struggling to adjust to living between two homes with his divorced parents, Paul (Lee Ingleby) and Alison (Morven Christie).
But series three also spotlights the stories of several other characters, including Mark (played by Travis Smith, an actor with autism) and Ralph (played by Leon Harrop, an actor with Down’s Syndrome).
We see Mark try to reject his “autism” label and apply for the army, a decision which complicates his relationship with friend and boss Paul (Lee Ingleby). And we see Ralph announce his decision to marry girlfriend Katie (Sarah Gordy) and move out of his mum’s house, taking a huge step towards independence.
That gave writer Peter Bowker the change to build the penultimate episode around the wedding of Ralph and Katie, who tie the knot surrounded by their loved ones and then blow everyone away on the dance floor.
“It functioned for me and a number of the actors and crew as a focus point in the way that weddings do in the span of your life,” Eccleston says. “We were all driving towards that… and it felt like a celebration and a vindication of Pete Bowker’s vision for this series.
“I think it’s possibly a first. I can’t think of many episodes of television drama which have been centred around the wedding and celebration of independence of two people with Down’s Syndrome. I can’t.
“So I think in a very quiet and modest way, The A Word is a benchmark, really. And I think in 10, 15 years it’ll be looked back on as something that changed what we do on television, because we’re not on BBC Two, we’re not on Channel 4, we’re on BBC One, primetime, and our series is carried by a character who lives with autism, and a number of characters who live with Down’s Syndrome.
“I think it’s a quietly radical vision that Pete’s put forward. I’m very proud to be part of it.”
Eccleston also firmly believes that viewers are more open and accepting than TV bosses would assume.
“I think the audience are always ahead of television commissioners, and people who work in television,” he tells us. “The people I want it [The A Word] to change are those people, because for instance I think Leon is perfectly capable in the right circumstances of leading and carrying his own series.
“I think in the past that’s never been done because, quote unquote, people say ‘they’ can’t do it. And Leon clearly can. Leon’s got the charisma, the presence, and the technical and creative ability to lead his own series.”
He adds: “The A Word, and Hillsborough, and Our Friends in the North, are why I became an actor. To make those kinds of dramas… I feel it’s a responsibility for me to find dramas like that, which respect the audience’s intelligence.
“A good deal of television is made which talks down to audiences, and I know from my own experiences of watching television as a child with my mother and father, that audiences are far more sophisticated than television executives like to think in their ivory towers.”
As for the question of a fourth series? No word yet from the BBC, but Eccleston reckons we need to “create a campaign” to keep The A Word going.
“I really hope that we do a fourth and a fifth and a sixth,” he says. “I think there’s an appetite for it, clearly, with the audience, and if you look on Twitter. As with everything in television it depends on ratings and decisions at an executive level.”
But there’s no question that Eccleston is on board: “I will be there.”
The A Word continues on Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC One. The full series is available as a box set on BBC iPlayer. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide.