The A Word review: unsentimental, drama-filled opening episode

The new BBC six-part series is determined to be a family drama featuring a family member with autism rather than a "disability drama"

Lee Ingleby, Max Vento,  Morven Christie and Molly Wright in The A Word: Photograph: Rory Mulvey/ BBC

Lee Ingleby, Max Vento, Morven Christie and Molly Wright in The A Word: Photograph: Rory Mulvey/ BBC

 

It takes until the end of the first episode of The A Word (BBC One, Tuesday) before the word is mentioned, but by then, us amateur medics have already made the diagnosis – non-communicative, in a world of his own, music obsessed five-year old Joe (Max Vento) has autism.

But before we can even focus on Joe’s complexities, we have to cut through a lot of family drama, the tense kind where adults seem determined not to understand each other, to rub each other up the wrong way, to slyly hint at hidden hurts and past transgressions the way only family can.

If the idea is to make us understand that communication is difficult for everyone, and people have different characters and we all just need to rub along, it’s done in spades.

The adults are to the forefront for much of the first foundation-laying episode of writer Peter Bowker’s drama. Joe’s parents mum Alison (Morven Christie) and dad Paul (Lee Ingleby) are busy pushing their fears about their son down so deep, they can’t bear to let it surface when given the diagnose. Bluff, plain-speaking granddad (Christopher Eccelston) – wait a minute, when did Dr Who start to play granddads? – who can’t fathom his grandson’s idiosyncratic ways. The child has headphones clamped to his ears at all times and knows every verse of an impressive amount of pops songs.

That’s one of Joe’s “things”. “If I had my way I’d flush those headphones down the toilet,” says granddad, pre-diagnosis, and he’s not any more sympathetic afterwards. And then there are other main characters, Alison’s brother, Eddie (Greg McHugh) and sister-in-law Nicola (Vinette Robinson) who come to live next door to them in the chocolate-box Lake District village.

Plugging into the mood
At times it’s slightly tricky to plug into the mood of The A Word, though – it’s so determined not to be cute or sentimental, it never stays on firm emotional footing for long, sometimes veering dangerously from superbly realised realistic domestic drama to corny comedy territory. Nicola and Eddie, dealing with their own relationship drama, appear to be there for light relief. Everyone in the village knows that Nicola had an affair and she’s reminded of it with every interaction – at the doctor’s surgery, buying a coffee – so that it becomes a sort-of running joke. And Joe has a teenage sister who doesn’t do much, so far, except stare at her mobile phone – which seems like more commentary about non-communication at the expense of character.

The A Word is a family drama where a member of that family has a disability rather than a “disability drama”, which is an intriguing enough proposition. It might just fill the Tuesday-night viewing gap left by Happy Valley.

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