BBC One’s new Tuesday night drama focuses on communication, as it tells the tale of a family who learn their youngest member, five year old Joe, is on the autistic spectrum.
Through this first episode, we meet the combined Scott and Hughes clan. Its patriarch Maurice (Christopher Eccleston) is a sprightly, newly retired widower. As well as taking singing lessons and fell running, he seems well involved in family life although his direct manner takes no prisoners.
Morven Christie (Twenty Twelve, Doctor Who’s ‘Under the Lake’) and Lee Ingleby (White Heat, Our Zoo) play Maurice’s daughter Alison and her husband Paul. Clearly adoring their son, they have naturally developed strategies to cope with his more troubled and uncooperative moments.
As well as demonstrating some compulsive behaviour with doors, Joe is obsessed with music and perpetually found wearing headphones; from the Arctic Monkeys to The Human League, the lad seeks comfort in the familiarity of song lyrics, and this has become both a way to connect with him and to soothe him.
Arriving in time for his nephew’s fifth birthday party, Alison’s brother Eddie (Greg McHugh of Fresh Meat) has returned home to the village.
After the failure of his London business, and taking back his wife Nicola (Sherlock actress Vinette Robinson) after an infidelity that the whole of the village seems to know about, they are trying to make a fresh start in the Lakes. It is their outsider’s perspective of Joe that triggers his diagnosis, with Nicola’s background as a doctor coming in to play, and this provides further strain to an already fraught family reunion.
Having warmed to the characters, the sequence with Joe’s diagnosis was genuinely heart-rending. Morven and Ingleby are compelling in their shock and confusion, with unspoken fears confirmed. For his part, young Max Vento who plays Joe gives a terrifically believable performance.
Balancing out the emotional turmoil, The A Word is also laugh-out-loud funny in places. A particular highlight was the sequence with Maurice’s singing teacher; while we were already surprised at his unlikely choice of hobby, her rather forthright sexual proposal left us gobsmacked!
Ample foundations were laid throughout for the rest of the series, from Nicola’s job search (and unceasing hunt for a decent mobile connection) to Paul’s plans to build a gastropub and Eddie’s management of the family’s brewery business, including his two Polish employees.
Joe’s step-sister Rebecca had only a background role in this episode, but the impact on her life feels like fertile storytelling territory too as the whole family adapts to better meet her brother’s needs. Maurice’s running hobby also makes good use of the location, and we hope for more scenes set in the dramatic beauty of that countryside.
As the episode ended an interesting dilemma was raised; should the family use the word autism to explain Joe’s behaviour to others, or is it reductive to label him with that word when autism is a wide spectrum of behaviours rather than a specific condition?
While there is no instant answer forthcoming, we look forward to exploring the question and its implications though these engaging characters in whom we already have so much invested.
Aired at 9pm on Tuesday 22 March 2016 on BBC One.
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