The A Word centres on Joe Hughes, a five-year-old boy who, with the assistance from specialists, we can see will be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and this drama shows that for his parents, Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby), the situation is starting to dawn on them, although there’s an element of denial in there too. The drama’s lush setting is the lush Lake District where they all live, which adds to their isolation as any form of neighbours seem to be miles and miles away.
It begins with his birthday party, when they play a game of statues, the aim being – if you’ve forgotten since being that age – is to stop the music and see who’s moving. Joe is, but another girl is forced by Alison to take the fall to let Joe stay in the game so he’s not the first one out. Soon after, instead of blowing his candles out, Joe’s more distracted by running the iPod controlling the party music and then falling to the ground and staying down until his Dad sings a particular song, since he’s fallen in love with plenty of great ’70s and ’80s music that his Dad’s got him into, such as Julian Cope, Elvis Costello and The Buzzcocks.
Alison and Paul can’t see that Joe has the condition and their backs have been got up by the suggestion from Alison’s brother Eddie (Greg McHugh) and his wife Nicola (Vinette Robinson) that the lad has a “communication disorder”, although his mother just down the fact Joe can’t sleep at night and that he needs to be driven around outside for a while first down to “too many Haribos”. Similarly, it’s not long before the party invitations are not being reciprocated and Joe is not being invited back.
There are occasional flashes of genius with this drama as it deals with the topic of autism, such as when Joe’s love for music is shown extending to him not only plucking the song “Don’t You Want Me” out of thin air, but also immediately stating the name of the band and the year of release, and it teaches me more than I know, given that my only experience of the condition is watching Rainman, 28 years ago.
The highlight of The A Word is in Max Vento, brilliantly portraying the role of Joe, a lad who sometimes can only find a friend on his level in his sister Rebecca (Molly Wright).
Alas, it frequently gear-changes between this and a bog-standard, clichéd family drama which we’ve seen too many times, with most of the family coming across as cardboard cut-out characters.
Eddie and Nicola have moved up to the Lake District to try and make a go of things after she had an affair before the series began, but it wasn’t the greatest thing to do since they just get drawn into more and more family arguments. In Nicola’s career, she previously did a paedatric rotation on child development, so that’s her character’s contribution to Joe’s story. Maurice (Christopher Eccleston) is always saying the wrong thing; Eccleston playing the grandad figure, yet he’s only 16-17 years older than his screen children, Morven Christie and Greg McHugh, so in reality he’s too young to be playing their father, which makes him less convincing in that role.
Nicola is also slammed for the fact that, a year earlier, and being in the medical profession, she misdiagnosed bowel cancer in Maurice, despite him showing symptoms at the time, and he moaned about having to have a doctor put their finger up his bottom. Personally, I’ve been prodded and poked all my life by doctors, as I was born with a co-arctation of the aorta and later had an aortic valve replacement operation. So I say that you can never be prodded and poked enough, and if the docs want to stick their finger up your posterior then let them – it’s better to know than not know, if you have something.
Elsewhere, we had Eccleston and Pooky Quesnel in a scene, the latter being Louise, his singing teacher, as she’s teaching him Gordon Lightfoot‘s If You Could Read My Mind. There was 100 times more chemistry in that scene than any of the rest of the adults put together.
So, The A Word is certainly worth a watch, but it’s just frustrating that it feels the need to fall back into tired old tropes from time to time. I could also argue that the drama’s location frequently changes between the Lake District and Manchester, around 80 miles away, as that appears to be the closest town for them.
I’ve also seen the second episode and it doesn’t really advance the story on a great deal. This could have been told in four episodes quite easily, not extended out to six. However, it has brought an important topic into the mainstream which can only be a good thing.
This first episode was directed by Peter Cattaneo, best known for the movie The Full Monty, although other episodes have been directed by Dominic Leclerc (From Darkness) and Susan Tully, an established director of many TV comedies and dramas including Getting On and episodes of Lark Rise To Candelford, The Musketeers and the international hit, Crossing Lines.
The A Word is not yet available to pre-order on Blu-ray or DVD, and the drama continues next Tuesday on BBC1 at 9pm. If you missed it, you can watch the first episode on BBC iPlayer, up until April 21st, and click on the top image for the full-size version.
Episode 1 Score: 6/10
Director: Peter Cattaneo
Producer: Marcus Wilson
Screenplay: Peter Bowker
Alison Hughes: Morven Christie
Paul Hughes: Lee Ingleby
Joe Hughes: Max Vento
Rebecca Hughes: Molly Wright
Maurice Scott: Christopher Eccleston
Eddie Scott: Greg McHugh
Nicola Daniels: Vinette Robinson
Sally: Abby Ford
Pavel Kaminski: Tommie Grabiec
David: Adam Wittek
Maya: Julia Krynke
Jane Merrick: Joanna Bond
Ralph Wilson: Leon Harrop
Louise Wilson: Pooky Quesnel
Dr Esbell: Siri Ellis
Dr Waite: Nina Anwar
Dr Graves: Daniel Cerqueira
Terry: George Bukhari
Linda: Michelle Tate
Sea Lily: Verity-May Henry
Receptionist: Denice Hope
Martha: Catherine Kinsella
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.