I’ve only seen the first two episodes of The A Word at the time of writing, but I’m not going to let that hold me back. It’s a six-part BBC drama series about a family wrestling with the A word in question: autism.
Disability, especially invisible disability, is a tricky subject. There are generally two approaches: it’s either a tragic, heart-breaking, emotional storm, or an inspirational story of an individual overcoming unspeakable odds that converts you into an avid viewer of the Paralympics. Both of these have their place, but The A Word does something that neither of them do: it shows normality. Joe isn’t the Holmes of BBC’s Sherlock, he isn’t Alan Turing, he isn’t even played by Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s just a normal kid called Joe who happens to be on the autistic spectrum.
There are many other things that The A Word does phenomenally well; dealing with denial, lack of understanding, intense frustration, the gut wrenching turmoil of parents discovering that their child isn’t like other children. It’s sickeningly accurate, which can make it difficult to watch at times. But still, it’s the normality that stands out for me, specifically in the humour. The A Word shows a family laughing together about autism and allows the audience to join in without it being cruel or uncomfortable. It may sound simple, but that is a feat of writing that I have never experienced before.
Joe, the little boy at the centre of the show, is obsessed with listening to music, as encouraged by his Dad. It’s difficult to get an audience to relate to a 5-year old lad who has autism, but the music acts as a bridge between the two, not to mention giving the show a fantastic soundtrack.
While Joe and his mother Alison are the centre of the story, they are far from the extent of it. The ensemble cast all have their own well-developed arcs. Rather than overcomplicating the plot or distracting from Joe’s story, it adds realism. While The A Word is the title, autism doesn’t occur in a vacuum.
The cast have all aged since I last saw them on my screen, because that’s biology. But I sometimes forget that biology applies to TV. Lee Ingleby has transformed from the mouthy Laandan teenager in one of my favourite ever sitcom episodes…
…into Paul, Joe’s impulsive, heart-in-the-right-place-but-sometimes-a-bit-of-a-twat father. Greg McHugh has graduated from the University of Fresh Meat to play Eddie, Joe’s uncle. The grumpiness of Fresh Meat’s Howard shines through and he does a good job of portraying Eddie’s constant swinging between lust, love, and paranoia. Finally, Christopher Ecclestone has regenerated into Joe’s Grandfather, Maurice. He manages to play a character who is both likeable and infuriating, making everyone else’s lives more difficult with a lack of social awareness which, as well as being enjoyably ironic, demonstrates that autism is a spectrum that we all feature on.
Episodes 1-3 are currently on BBC iPlayer here.
Recommendations in brief:
I saw half of the film X+Y, which also deals with autism, at a point in time when I did not have access to my glasses. Despite not finishing the film and it all being blurry globs of colour, I still recommend it. So imagine how good it must be.