New BBC1 Drama The A Word, starring former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston, got off to a blistering start in the first of six episodes with a fully rounded portrayal of modern family life.
The serene, idyllic Lake District setting of The A Word is in sharp contrast to the family drama played out with the troubled Hughes family in Peter Bowker’s adaptation of Keren Margalit’s award-winning Israeli drama.
Paul and Alison Hughes are building a life for themselves and their children; Rebecca (Alison’s teenage daughter) and five-year-old Joe. Joining the family are Paul’s brother Eddie and his wife Nicola, who have moved from London to save their troubled marriage. At at the head of the family is grandad Maurice, played by Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston.
While it’s painfully clear to the everyone outside the family unit that Joe’s behaviour is odd – obsessively listening to music to the exclusion of almost everything else – the adult contingent in the Hughes family has so much angst, anger and awkwardness to deal with that they almost miss the elephant in the room; a little boy who is separate from the world around him in almost every respect.
Dad Paul thinks Joe is a genius because of his uncanny ability to memorise song lyrics, yet he seems strangely unconcerned when 5-year-old Joe is dropped off at home by workmen in a van who find him wandering in the road immersed in an Arctic Monkeys tune. Paul and wife Alison as so desperate for Joe to be “normal” and so entrenched in their denial of what’s right before their eyes that the process of them going through Joe’s journey to diagnosis is particularly heart-wrenching – almost painful – to watch. Meanwhile Joe himself is, by the nature of his condition, oblivious to the heartbreak it causes.
Returning home to The Lakes from London, Alison’s brother Eddie and his wife Nicola are trying to give their marriage a new start. Nicola (an astounding turn by Vinette Robinson) is an unfaithful wife with a habit of offering advice to a family that’s intolerant of her. Having previously told Maurice he may have prostate cancer – “Thanks to your advice, a strange man stuck his finger up my arse!” – she and Eddie are the first to voice their concern that there may be more to Joe than a slightly eccentric love of music. It’s a testament to Robinson’s acting and Bowker’s script that Nicola is, perhaps oddly, one of the most sympathetic characters in The A Word. Always seemingly hanging out of a window to smoke or standing on a chair to get a phone signal, you can’t help but feel for her as the past she longs to leave behind has followed her to a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
But this is certainly not all angsty, hand-wringing drama. In among scenes that are genuinely heart-wrenching, there is enough light-heartedness – and a couple of laugh out loud moments – in Bowker’s script to make it a fully rounded view of a family dealing with a fair share of troubles. Christopher Eccleston’s straight-talking Maurice is an unreconstructed Northern bloke and for our money, gets the best lines, which he delivers with brilliant deadpan. The best among more than a few much-welcome scenes of light relief shows Maurice (a widower, but far from past it) being propositioned by his singing teacher. “I miss sex,” Louise announces, only for Maurice to reply with “I’m sorry to hear that. Have you thought about the internet?”
Peter Bowker is a superlative chronicler of modern family life and the human condition – his CV includes Eric & Ernie, the marvellous Marvellous,and Capital – and he brings the same strength of storytelling to The A Word. A story and characters that could seem hackneyed or two-dimensional in less adept hands are brought fully to life here.
If there are any concerns about portraying a child on the Autistic spectrum, these are quashed by Bowker’s script and Peter Cattaneo’s sensitive and gentle direction of his cast as Joe and his family go through the process of referral and diagnosis and the impact of that on everyone.
There’s not a bad (or even an average) performance in sight, but the standout performances are from Eccleston, Robinson and six-year-old newcomer, Max Vento. Pencil out your Tuesday evenings from 9-10pm for the next five weeks, because this first episode has set the bar for top quality TV drama.
Written by Peter Bowker, Director Peter Cattaneo, Producer Marcus Wilson