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Tuesday, 7 November 2017

A Welcome return for The A Word

Families can stifle and frustrate as well as unconditionally love and support each other. Despite the fights and differing attitudes to parenting/what constitutes 'music', you’re stuck with them. The Hughes family at the centre of The A Word – a drama about dealing with a child’s autism – shows us all of this and more.



Series 2 picks up two years after the last one and the family have developed coping strategies – such as the music trivia game which allows some interaction with Joe (the brilliant Max Vento) as they each reel off song titles, dates and author credits – but there are still challenges and frustrations as they try to do what’s best for him.



Everybody loves Joe but as he grows up his behaviour is causing concern for some at school. When we meet Joe again he's on the roof of his primary school as worried staff members and curious onlookers gather below. Granddad Maurice, (the ever tactful Christopher Eccleston) has a ‘pull yourself together’ approach which demonstrates his lack of understanding of Joe’s autism. Joe’s parents Alison and Paul (the wonderfully believable pairing of (Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby) use bargaining techniques to get Joe down. The other parents raise concerns as they feel Joe is putting their own children at risk and there is debate over sending him into a new special school.

Although the story is focused around Joe, Alison feels like the central character with everything resting on her shoulders. Her reactions are believable to the extent that I feel as if I’ve met this character in real life which is why I found the criticism leveled at Alison last year completely uncalled for . She is brilliantly recognisable as a mum fighting for her family but the other parents in the schoolyard are equally feral and each has a different perspective on the impact of Joe on the rest of class.


Alison and Paul are each trying to be the one to have a solution and to be able to ‘fix’ Joe, hoping that if they find that one magic thing it will make everything OK.  Alison describes it as a puzzle she is trying to solve but Paul seems to struggle more with the frustration of not being able to help. The scene with him trying to teach Joe to memorise football cards is heartbreaking. Paul primes him with a favourite player in an effort to give him something in common with rest of the boys his age. Break time comes; his classmates ask Joe who his favourite player is…but he comes out with something unconnected.

Similarly the scene with Alison and Paul trying to role play talking to Joe looked genuinely emotional for the actors. They suddenly seemed like children themselves and overwhelmed.

You may remember that last year's series saw Joe’s protective sister Rebecca (Molly Wright) lurched between feeling ignored and feeling guilty as the focus of the whole family was on her younger brother. She is now growing more independent and returns from travelling with a new boyfriend, an intense relationship her parents are keen cool down. A normal rite of passage perhaps but with additional anguish as she feels the need to defend Joe against any slight – real or imagined.

The family are close, but how much does extended family help or hinder in this situation? Alison’s brother, Eddie (Greg McHugh) and his wife Nicola (Vinette Robinson) now have a baby and are separated but are still keeping up appearances to Nicola’s parents. Although I’ll never be able to look at Greg McHugh and not think of (the brilliant) Gary: Tank Commander he plays an interesting character here. Having real clashes with his father he has felt the need to break free from the family business and move to the city however his wife and now child keep bringing him back. As Joe is getting older he is more noticeably different, even to him, and now that there is another baby on the scene (THE most adorable smiley baby) the contrast in their development is highlighted further.

Writer Peter Bowker is skilful in creating a group of interesting characters that you want to find out more about and each character could carry an episode on their own. I would watch anything written by him whether about surgeons, Pre-Raphaelites or arcade managers (my personal favourite is still Blackpool) as no matter what the topic there is always warmth and humour and music.

Although the A Word covers serious and important issues it also full of incredible warmth and humour. There is plenty of humour to be had from the extended family dynamics and Christopher Eccleston provides a lot of the laughs. No, really. It’s wonderful to see him in a comedy role, probably because it’s so rare. Almost as rare as him doing a second series of anything. If he starts performing a soliloquy from Macbeth (he is due to take on the role at the RSC in 2018) we’ll know some kind of deal has been struck.

Most of the characters have a quirk that could be – to the layperson – OCD or on the spectrum; lining up shoes, over zealous labelling of food, inability to communicate or show emotion. With the popularity of geek culture this is often used as comedic short hand but at what point does it go from being a bit quirky to being on the spectrum? I imagine that this will be explored in episodes to come.
Shot in the Lake District, the scenic location is a beautiful additional character but also reflects the isolation of the family. New to this environment, Rebecca’s boyfriend feels oppressed by it. With the discussion to send Joe to a special school comes the realisation that the support Joe will need as he grows up is most likely going to be available in bigger towns and cities and will likely cause further anguish for his parents.

The point is made by Joe’s parents that autism is more common now, or at least more often diagnosed, so awareness of dealing with it should be more widespread. The fact that a prime time drama on autism has been so successful shows how much it has resonated with audiences. This is down to making the subject accessible for those who have not yet encountered anyone with autism or, perhaps more fruitfully, to help raise awareness and recognition for those who have but didn’t realise.
The beauty of the show is that it is more than just about boy with autism. We see how it affects the whole family. How autism draws a family together, pulls it apart or how it is often just a part of their life and that life goes on regardless. While there are important things to say and issues that resonate with families in similar situations, this is an entertaining drama with a brilliant ensemble cast about family life with all that entails.

Contributed by Cecilia

The Last Post Continues Tuesday at 9.00pm on BBC One.

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