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The A Word: Season 3 - First episode review

The A Word

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

AS heart-warming as it is, at times, heart-breaking, The A Word returned to BBC1 in triumphant fashion with another brilliantly observed opening episode.

Pioneering for the way in which it placed an autistic child at the heart of its premise, the series takes a light-hearted but dramatically unflinching look at the effect that living with a spectrum-related condition, or disability of any kind, can have on family relationships.

Yet while some critics have been quick to draw comparisons for this third series with the anxiety felt by a nation in lockdown, that kind of feels like it is piggy-backing on what made the show so pioneering and unique in the first place.

As the parent of an autistic child, The A Word has long brought about a sense of comfort – that the feelings, emotions and challenges faced by the family at the heart of the story are shared.

One of the most common forms of frustration as a parent is that when attempting to relay a feeling of anxiety or frustration about just how difficult a change, or transition, can be involving autism, a common response is that “it’s the same for every child”. In reality, the challenges faced by parents dealing with autism can be 10 times as heightened. The difficult can sometimes seem impossible.

And it’s the feeling it leaves you with as a parent that resonates so strongly in the actions and emotions of the central players in The A Word.

One of the most beautiful moments in this opening episode, for example, came when Alison Hughes (Morven Christie), the mother of Joe (Max Vento) confessed to her father, Maurice (Christopher Eccleston), that she often feels like a failure as a parent.

It’s a relatable sentiment and one that you encounter more times, probably, than is deemed ‘normal’.

So, while certainly resonant for every parent, such a scene struck a particular chord. The A Word is a gift to people living with autism in those moments.

Likewise, moments such as Alison’s confession that “I’ve spent the last 10 years fighting my son’s corner. Maybe it got to be a habit and now I’m just always looking for a fight? I don’t want to be like that!” In such a simple, but brilliantly written quote from Peter Bowker, it displays the fight that parents living with disability continually have to go through. A fight for understanding, of acceptance, of support.

And then there’s the really small moments: the looks of anguish and torment that are conveyed silently. Both Lee Ingleby (as Joe’s father, Paul) and Christie are superb at combining the affection they feel for Joe with the silent hurt they experience at sometimes having their feelings ‘ignored’ or forgotten. A simple coping mechanism, such as giving Joe the choice between a farewell hug or handshake, can be another daily heart-break as Joe frequently opts for the latter over the hug they so desperately crave.

That’s not to diminish the broader brilliance of this drama. For while it does deal with autism and disability, it is about people in general as well… and the complexity of relationships. And it does play really well to a broad audience.

The A Word

The characters are so well drawn and so well acted. Eccleston gains many of the plaudits for his larger than life grandfather, Maurice. And he shoulders a lot of the comic relief, not least in this opening episode where his socially awkward character somehow found himself trying to solve the ‘new’ problems of just about every character.

Maurice was the bridge for the stories. But he did it brilliantly. Another of the show’s triumphs lies in the way it has crafted a beautiful relationship between Maurice and his ‘girlfriend’ Louise (Pooky Quesnel), as well as her son Ralph (Leon Harrop), who has Down’s syndrome. It’s long been a charming dynamic – but in this opener, it afforded Maurice the ‘opportunity’ to try and find out what Ralph was up to in regards to his own relationship with a fellow Down’s girlfriend.

The scene between Maurice and Ralph in the pub was another gem… a fine example of how the show marries warm character drama with deft comic touches.

There are new characters to welcome, too, in the form of David Gyasi’s potential new love interest (another father struggling to cope), and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Joe’s latest teacher: two fine actors who look set to contribute to the scope of the show’s complex emotional tapestry.

The A Word is therefore that rare television diamond: a show that can be enjoyed by the masses for the way in which it delivers such rich characters; but one that truly hits the target for parents [and children] who can directly identify with its core themes, offering them genuine emotional support, relief and the comfort of being understood across the highs and lows of their everyday lives.

Read our earlier interview with Lee Ingleby