Talking to Peter Bowker is a little like watching his TV dramas – serious subjects are injected with a comical counter-point which deftly offsets the intensity. “It’s almost an instinctive thing for me,” he says, “and probably an instinctive thing our family did – it becomes second nature.”
He’s friendly with Craig Cash, the actor and co-writer of The Royle Family, and the two have been comparing notes on a great many funerals (ever a source of dark humour) they both seem to have attended recently. “There was a lad at one funeral who was particularly distraught and was asked ‘Were you close to Joan?’ to which the reply was, ‘Well, she was the only woman who’d let me smoke in the house.’ So that was his tragedy,” says Bowker. “There’s always that germ of comedy around – sometimes to help you survive – and it feels to me that’s the way people are.”
Most recently, we saw Bowker’s adaptation of John Lanchester’s Capital, about the not entirely enviable lives of different families living in an aspirational street of south-west London, forced to unite when they are targeted by a series of sinister leaflets. The appealing Toby Jones played a banker in the series – and also starred in Bowker’s previous Bafta award-winning Marvellous as Neil Baldwin, a special-needs adult who has lived the most charmed and charming life, fulfilling all his dreams, despite his disability.
Bowker’s new series, The A Word, is about how a couple (and their extended family) deals with the realisation that their five-year-old son, Joe, is autistic. The setting is spectacular, a small community of houses dotted around winding roads cut deep into the hills of the Lake District. It opens with Joe – beautiful eyes with a faraway look – headphones clamped to his ears, walking along a deserted road singing to an Arctic Monkeys song, Mardy Bum “…you’re all argumentative. And you’ve got the face on”.
Joe’s retreat into music with an indie sensibility – his personal idyll – makes his communication with the outside world even more remote. “I wanted to start the journey of challenging the world that he’s created for himself and then ask, hopefully, interesting questions about at what stage when intervening in a child’s life – a child who might be struggling to understand the world – are we attacking his personality rather than his disability?”
Music is important to Bowker. His own personal collection of the Buzzcocks and the Mekons – “all those pale sensitive boys with good guitar riffs” – Joy Divison through to The Smiths, became Joe’s playlist. A little boy singing such slouchy lyrics makes one smile but it also rings true. Bowker recalls when his now teenage children were small, hooked on the soundtrack of Shrek, singing the words of Hallelujah from their child seats on car journeys, “‘She tied me to a kitchen chair…’ I’ve always loved the incongruity of that!
“And I like the incongruity of looking for moments in the drama where this boy doesn’t quite fit. I think it’s about children who are different and it’s a good shorthand for marking out his difference.”
Like Dennis Potter, one of his writer heroes, he believes in the potency of cheap music to convey profound emotion.
In the flesh, he’s very indie-looking with his Morrissey haircut. “I might as well confess,” he laughs, “one Christmas me and my mates had all done unfortunate punk haircuts and there was a series of Elvis Presley films at 10am, so this was originally An Elvis. Then Morrissey comes along, and my mate said, ‘Hey, he’s copied your look!’”
He blames his kids’ fish fingers for then ruining his look. “I call that my ‘fat Elvis’ period…”
Bowker was born in Stockport, Greater Manchester, to Eric – a poster-writer-cum-screen printer for a cinema chain, and Marie, a barmaid and shop assistant. Their son inherited his parents solid Old Labour values. For him it’s a combination of Benn and Healey; Kinnock and Hattersley. “What Jeremy Corbyn lacks is a Healey or a Hattersley, that’s what worries me about him.”
He read English and Philosophy at Leeds University, from 1978 to 1981, started writing in a committed way, had two short stories published in tiny magazines and a lot of rejection slips. His fellow students were going off to work as bus drivers, but Bowker thought that an indulgent gesture. “You’re a bit over-qualified to be a bus driver and there are probably people who need that job.”
His statement was to become a porter at a hospital in Leeds for people with learning difficulties of all ages: “On my first day, I felt fearful, worried, not sure what I was going to encounter, and then within half a day, I felt very at home. If someone is struggling to go to the toilet because they are profoundly physically disabled and you help them, you have a practical, immediate effect.”
He went away in 1984 to do his teacher training and returned to teach at the hospital because, “I liked working with children and adults with very severe problems and I found I had a capacity for that.”
When he was 30, Bowker decided that, much as he loved this work, he needed to give writing his best shot. He re-mortgaged a house he’d bought for £18,000 in a suburb, more down-and-going than up-and-coming, and applied to do the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia, switching from novels to screenwriting on the strength of his dialogue. A year later, Bowker was writing scripts for Casualty.
The A Word was first an Israeli production called Yellow Peppers made by Keshet, the company that made the original Homeland and In Treatment. A number of Bowker’s dramas have involved adults or young people with special needs, but all his work, he says, is informed by the 14 years that he worked in the hospital – “It’s always about people who are marginalised and feel judged or misjudged or about people who can’t communicate.”
Bowker is concerned that men, in particular, are using Aspergers, a milder form of autism, to hide behind: “Men who should know better use it as an alibi to say ‘I don’t talk about my emotions because I’m on the spectrum’. No you’re not, mate, grow up! One, it’s dishonest and two, it denigrates the real condition.”
He is wary of being considered any kind of expert. “You won’t understand autism by watching The A Word although you might understand some small aspects – I’d really like people who are properly interested to go off and look into it deeper.”
What he does find gratifying is when people come up to him and talk about their own children. With Marvellous, a mother told him that she had a nine-year-old child, like Neil, and that she was full of fear for his future but that Bowker’s drama had helped her to relax.
“That’s not what I set out to do but it’s nice when it happens. I’ve been incredibly lucky to do two jobs that I’ve absolutely loved and that have been joyous. It’s a real privilege.”
The A Word begins Tuesday 22 March at 9pm on BBC1