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The A Word: Season 2 - First episode review

The A Word

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

I HAVE to confess to missing the first season of critically-acclaimed drama The A Word. But in spite of this, the opening episode of this sophomore run proved to be an immensely moving, often humorous affair that is fully deserving of the praise being heaped upon it.

The A word in question stands for autism and the story, penned by Peter Bowker, revolves around a family, whose youngest son Joe (played brilliantly by Max Vento) is diagnosed with the condition.

Season one apparently dealt with arriving at the diagnosis. Season two, on the evidence of the first episode, is more concerned with how they deal with it, particularly as Joe becomes more aware of it himself.

Yet while some series [and films] that deal with disability and/or mental health issues have a tendency to become either hopelessly mawkish or overly preachy, The A Word gets the balance just right.

Bowker’s writing manages to be both heartbreaking and astute. It also deftly mixes drama with comedy. And by doing so, it helps draw some tremendously involving performances from all of its ensemble players.

Predominant among these are Lee Ingleby and Morven Christie, as Joe’s parents. The former is becoming increasingly frustrated by his own limitations in both dealing with the autism itself and confronting the reality of what it means going forward. He is undoubtedly a doting dad. But his inability to wave some kind of magic wand and help was plain for all to see.

It’s a richly nuanced performance by Ingleby, that’s more than matched by Christie’s mum. And while temporarily the more assertive and positive of the two, there were still glimpses behind the curtain at the pain she obviously feels at having to deal with something as sensitive and complex as autism.

A scene in which she took the lead in addressing the concerned parents at Joe’s school was expertly handled in the way that it showed her both as a protective mother, mindful not to apologise for her son’s differences, with someone who was equally concerned for the well-being of others – both the mums and their concerns, as well as any future parents who may have to face similarly complex choices.

Another scene, in which both Ingleby and Christie finally attempt to talk to Joe about the meaning of autism, was heart-breaking in its content, yet sensitive in tone. And while the use of the word ‘broken’ certainly struck an awkward chord with my wife, who was also riveted, there was ultimately no doubting the authenticity of the scene as a whole.

Here was a family faced with a life-altering situation, struggling to cope in many ways, yet making the best of it in spite of the various strains it was starting to place upon them.

And therein lies the brilliance, thus far, of The A Word and Bowker’s writing. It feels real. Bowker has meticulously researched autism, having spoken to parents and Autism groups. He intends his drama to educate and illuminate… and to be compassionate, respectful yet also genuine.

At the same time, there is the need to entertain. And thanks to the warmth of the performances, there is much to endear The A Word as a both a touching and amusing family drama to boot.

The supporting cast contributes to this too – and none more so than Christopher Eccleston’s old-fashioned grandpa (beautifully realised).

The A Word is, from start to finish, a programme that’s filled with the type of characters it’s easy to enjoy spending time with. You’ll laugh at their triumphs and mishaps as much as you’ll cry at their shortcomings and tragedies.

Coming at a time when issues of mental health and disability are never far from the headlines, the show couldn’t be more helpful and resonant on so many levels. And for this, Bowker and company deserve the utmost credit.

Read our Season 1 interview with Lee Ingleby

The A Word is on BBC1 on Tuesday nights at 9pm.