24 March 2016

TV Review: The A Word - Episode One

Review by Tom Newsom

It’s clear upon watching the first episode of this new series what the ‘A Word’ in the title is: awkwardness. Specifically, family awkwardness. This has it in spades.

It’s a series that, I have to confess, ticks many of my boxes. Among the cast is fine, fine actor Lee Ingleby (George Gently, Our Zoo), the sweet and naturalistic Morven Christie (Grantchester, Doctor Who) and Christopher Eccleston (legendary), returning to the Lake District after ITV’s Safe House, and playing a granddad (yes really - he’s more than old enough, but still - and surprisingly he’s the oldest person in it). But it’s very BBC One in the best sense, has pretty countryside, a clever indie soundtrack. And I wondered who the director was, turns out he’s done the much-loved Rev. - and something small called The Full Monty.

And for me, a major draw is that it’s written by Peter Bowker (in fact adapted, from the ground up). He’s drifted onto my own radar in the last few years from being quite prolific - the mighty Marvellous, Capital, and previously known for Blackpool and Eric and Ernie in particular. This one reminded me of his 2014 drama From There to Here, in that both are about a dysfunctional extended (Northern) family - the former was all about the mid to late 90s, in this one they’re in the present day but dealing with their five year old son.

So, enough with the italics and the pedigree - does it work as a drama? Yes - no surprise there then. The first episode is full of characters saying clever, natural, human dialogue - of the sort that was last seen, um, seven days ago when Happy Valley finished (there's a good writing pileup this month!). This series has more awkwardness, more shouting, but is just as entertaining to watch. It rolls along, creating its lovely funny little world, only really taking its time when the more pivotal scenes come round ten minutes from the end.

Not so spoilery: in the scenes, the parents discover that yes, their son Joe has a communication problem; in fact, he’s on the autism spectrum. From what I know about it, the portrayal here feels accessible but true. Because it’s an impossible balance to get right, especially given the details can vary a lot - on the one hand you have to create a real living character, but also give them enough traits that we’d recognise as being ‘autistic’ (the series tries not to use the word in places). Not enough to be a cliché, but enough to create a character for TV. In short, then, a bit like last year’s similarly titled The C Word about cancer - whilst that had the benefit of being based solely on real experiences rather than creating something purely fictional, it managed to shrug off the burden of standing for ‘every sufferer ever’, whilst at the same time portraying a reality that doesn’t get talked about, including what people it touches really experience, rightly or wrongly. The trick, of course, is research and the spark of bloody good writing.

It’s perhaps too early to see if it’s as ‘bloody good’ as the premise. Though the family dynamics and characters are top notch so far, they haven’t had to gel with the ‘autism’ scenes, if I can distinguish between them - and at the moment, you very much can.

Also, in a thought admittedly nicked straight from a preview in The Guardian, Joe’s parents say that he ‘never stops talking’, but on-screen most of his scenes are with him mute, listening to music on his massive headphones. Kind of the point of the drama, and also I love the listening-to-music idea as part of his character, especially for telly and the cool soundtrack, but when it finished I wanted to have seen and heard more of him.

But then I read that the actor’s six years old, and he’s already stealing every scene he’s in somehow. And I realise the limited scenes are just part of the reality of making a TV programme - which stands out because the rest of it is so realistic and funny and living in its own crazy world.

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