Contributed by Katy Brent
Last night saw the start of a new BBC drama from acclaimed writer Peter Bowker. New six-parter The A-Word is based on an Israeli series that focuses on how a diagnosis of autism affects a close knit family. Our Katy Brent was given the chance to speak to Peter about tackling the drama.
I know you worked as a special needs teacher for quite some time, did that inspire you to write this?
Yes, it was two things coming together really. I had always stayed in touch with the teachers I’d known so I always felt like I had a foot in that world and then somebody approached me about adapting the original Israeli series. Obviously from my teaching I saw the day to day impact of a diagnosis on couples and families around the child, selfishly as a dramatist it felt to me like something worth exploring. It was appealing that I could write this as a series and tell the story over a longer period.
This isn’t the first time you’ve used your like in school as inspiration is it?
I think I’ve drawn from my experiences quite a lot. I wrote a piece called Flesh & Blood a few years ago about a man who is adopted and finds out his birth parents both have severe learning difficulties. When I did Marvelous I wanted to a write a positive story about somebody who had made a life for themselves, not despite their learning difficulties but almost because of their learning difficulties. All of these things have sort of fed into my work one way or another.
How difficult was it creating the character of Joe?
I wanted to write about a child who was on the spectrum but didn’t correspond with the prominent images of autism. We might be used to seeing children or adults in documentaries with severe autism. I wanted to find a way to look at the condition without the audience being too distressed. The other stereotype is that people with autism have compensatory gift. Joe is mid-range on the spectrum, he has a vast knowledge of song titles and loves the repetition of music. I wanted to write about autism and shine a light on the fact that the majority of people on the spectrum aren’t either of the two extremes. When I was creating him I wrote a fictional report like the ones I would’ve written so that I knew what other problems he might have. Joe clearly has a learning disability which isn’t necessarily the case with autism and I’d use that as a frame reference.
How hard was it to find a young actor to play Joe?
We did open castings. Although I’d written a boy we didn’t even specify gender. When we found Max (newcomer Max Vento) he had a quality about him that I felt made him slightly different. I’d written a character and I wanted the audience to believe it was perfectly plausible that his parents didn’t see the diagnosis coming When we see him with his peers he appears slightly different. The difficultly was getting him not to act. It was explained to him that were certain things that he would find easy that Joe would not. He knew of autism through someone within his family I believe.
Are you hoping that a drama like this can help to normalise spectrum conditions?
Yes. Whenever you right something like this you have a responsibility. With all my drama I hope I’m opening up questions for people. With this I’m hoping to be part of a widening debate about how we as a society address, celebrate and support children and adults with the condition.
I have a five year old son and we’re going through the process now so it really rang true with me. I’ve also spoken to some parents that I know through going through the system and they’re really impressed that there’s going to be a prime time drama about it. Sometimes the way it’s portrayed in the media isn’t always positive but we have a character in Holby. we’ve had the Autistic Gardener. Do you think it’s more positively portrayed now than ten years ago?
It feels that way to me. There seems to be an increasing diversity in its portrayal. There was a series a few years ago called Autism and Me which I thought was pretty groundbreaking in allowing people with the condition to talk about it. The risk with anything on the subject as that people will view it as a sole interruption. Visibility on screen is great but it needs to be backed up by political support and resources. It’s great there’s positive representation, but at the same time we need to provide proper support.
You mentioned Joe’s love of music, is the soundtrack all down to you?
Yes. I’ve been bumping into a lot of people in their mid-thirties who seem to have the same musical taste and me and love indie from the early eighties. In the original series he listens to a lot of what sound like quite jaunty Israeli folk songs, but I liked the idea that Joe thinks his dad is cool and so loves the music he likes. I said to Max who plays Joe I’ll burn you a CD with all these songs on it and he said, “you can, but I’ll never listen to it!” (Laughs)
Where do you ultimately hope the story goes?
If we get the audience I’d love to a Boyhood style show where we’d pick up the family every two years and see how the family is progressing.
What do you love on TV?
Happy Valley! I think Sally Wainwright is an extraordinary writer. I was watching a scene in episode five a man confesses to his mum that he’s murdered these prostitutes. What Sally does brilliantly is she doesn’t show every level of the thought process so what you see is this mother turning this over and asking ‘did somebody tell you to do it?’ What a great piece of writing not to say ‘you’ve done what!?’ because you want to protect your own child. War and Peace was amazing. Nobody does it quite like Andrew Davies, he broke my heart every week. Deutschland ’83 I loved. The one thing has stayed with me from last year was that stunning episode of Cucumber. I’m a huge television drama. I grew up watching it and I remain a fan.
The A-Word Continues Tuesday at 9.00pm on BBC One.
A Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK Production for BBC One