A-GRADE DRAMA

The A Word, about a fam­ily’s strug­gle with autism, touched such a nerve its stars were ac­costed in the street. Now it’s back for a sec­ond pow­er­ful se­ries

Daily Mail Weekend Magazine - - NEWS - Lisa Se­wards The A Word is back on BBC1 in Novem­ber.

Be­tween them they’ve ap­peared in some of Bri­tain’s most wildly pop­u­lar pro­grammes, from Doc­tor Who to Line Of Duty and Grantch­ester. But none of those hits, with their devoted fan bases, pre­pared the three stars of The A Word for the re­ac­tion they re­ceived when it aired last year.

The sear­ing BBC1 drama about a fam­ily com­ing to terms with its youngest mem­ber Joe’s autism di­ag­no­sis struck a huge chord with viewers, say Christopher Ec­cle­ston, Mor­ven Christie and Lee In­gleby – and the re­sults weren’t al­ways pleas­ant. Now, the pro­gramme is re­turn­ing for a sec­ond sea­son, and it’s guar­an­teed to make emo­tions run high again.

This time around, Joe, played by Max Vento – who isn’t autis­tic – has be­gun to look at the world and find he doesn’t fit in. Autis­tic is a word he’s heard but can’t yet un­der­stand. He now feels dif­fer­ent and fears this might be some­thing bad. So it’s up to the whole fam­ily to help Joe, now aged seven, make sense of who he is and his place in the world. And that’s eas­ier said than done in the messy, mixed-up lives of his fam­ily, who all suf­fer from what the show calls ‘com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems’.

For­mer Doc­tor Who star Ec­cle­ston, who plays Joe’s grand­fa­ther Mau­rice, says he was shocked at how this very per­sonal story of fam­ily cri­sis was re­ceived. ‘The re­ac­tion to, and suc­cess of, The A Word has been enor­mous,’ he says. ‘Peo­ple stop me to talk about The A Word more than any­thing I’ve ever done. More than Hills­bor­ough, Cracker or Our Friends In The North.’

Luck­ily, he re­ceived only praise. ‘Peo­ple say, “Thank you for mak­ing it, be­cause my son, my daugh­ter, my grand­son, a friend of a friend has some­one on the spec­trum.” They say thank you for mak­ing it pos­i­tive and funny. Be­cause we all get on with our lives, don’t we, what­ever a fam­ily has to deal with. So it’s not a soap­box piece; it’s ac­tu­ally about the pos­i­tiv­ity that Joe’s con­di­tion brings and how fam­i­lies rally round and have to look at their own be­hav­iour.’

Although he’s only 53, Ec­cle­ston is de­lighted to be play­ing a grand­fa­ther. It helps, of course, that Mau­rice is an ath­letic, sex­u­ally ac­tive 58-year-old gran­dad who en­joys a re­la­tion­ship with the woman teach­ing him mu­sic, Louise, played by Pooky Ques­nel. ‘I’m happy to be the gran­dad,’ laughs Ec­cle­ston. ‘As long as he can run up fells – I’m not ready for the mo­bil­ity scooter yet!’

It helps that Ec­cle­ston and Ques­nel are great mates. ‘We played child­hood sweet­hearts in a play at sixth-form col­lege. We’ve been friends for well over 30 years now, so it’s strong.’

Two key fac­tors have helped Ec­cle­ston in his work – cop­ing with his fa­ther Ron­nie’s de­men­tia, from his di­ag­no­sis in 2000 un­til his death in 2012, and be­com­ing a dad him­self. ‘My ex­pe­ri­ences with my fa­ther deep­ened my hu­man­ity. To see some­one who’d been strong and able be­come so vul­ner­a­ble, and also to see what is a men­tal-health is­sue, right in front of you, changed every­thing. Men­tal health in this coun- try is still stig­ma­tised. It’s like stig­ma­tis­ing can­cer. It makes no sense.’

Ec­cle­ston has two chil­dren, Al­bert, five, and Esme, four, with his ex-wife Mis­chka. ‘Be­ing a fa­ther has helped my work hugely,’ he says. ‘I’m much more re­laxed now in front of a cam­era be­cause there are two things I care far more about. Work was my life, my world, but now Al­bert and Esme are.’

Mor­ven Christie, Joe’s feisty mother Ali­son in the se­ries, makes some com­pli­cated de­ci­sions about her autis­tic son’s care. She was as sur­prised as Ec­cle­ston by the re­ac­tion to The A Word, and at times fright­ened. ‘Ali­son was re­ally judged as a char­ac­ter in the way she re­sponded to autism, which was down to de­nial and fear,’ says Christie, 36, best known as the vicar’s great love Amanda in ITV’s Grantch­ester.

‘I’d be out walk­ing my dog and they’d say, “I hate you!” I’d think, “Whoah!” I was re­ally rat­tled and found it so up­set­ting, though I talked to peo­ple who said it means they’re re­ally in­vest­ing in the drama. But peo­ple’s neg­a­tiv­ity to­wards Ali­son took me by sur­prise.

‘The ex­pe­ri­ence of play­ing her for three and a half months, where I was fight­ing off tears and emo­tions and lash­ing out against stuff, made me feel what it was like to be in her shoes, so when peo­ple were like that about her I thought, “Oh my God, have some em­pa­thy.” Peo­ple han­dle things clum­sily – we’re all hu­man.

‘But Ali­son is in such a dif­fer­ent place in this se­ries. She’s still a bull in a china shop but she’s not afraid any more. It’s im­por­tant that in telling sto­ries like this you don’t shy away from things that are ugly or clumsy.’

Se­ries two of The A Word starts two years af­ter Joe’s di­ag­no­sis and since his autism ‘went pub­lic’. Ali­son is find­ing it eas­ier to em­brace hav­ing a son who’s dif­fer­ent but a rift be­gins in her mar­riage to Paul, played by Line Of Duty’s Lee In­gleby. ‘I think it’s a com­mon story with fam­i­lies with autis­tic chil­dren. It’s a very dif­fi­cult thing and peo­ple han­dle it in very dif­fer­ent ways. That causes con­flicts.’

In­gleby, 41, agrees. ‘There’s a line in it where Paul says, “I feel like I’m los­ing my boy.” He used to be the brave face but now he’s say­ing, “I don’t know what to do.” He’s a spi­der in a frag­ile web.’

In­gleby has re­ceived a lot of pub­lic re­ac­tion to his role, although it hasn’t been as vi­o­lent as Christie’s. ‘There was a woman who con­tacted us af­ter see­ing the first episode, where Ali­son and Paul dis­cuss the fact that Joe had never been in­vited to a birth­day party. This woman said that as a re­sult, some­one in­vited their autis­tic son to his very first birth­day party.

‘My role as Nick Hunt­ley in Line Of Duty was high-oc­tane but The A Word feels like com­ing home be­cause it’s not a who­dun­nit – there’s no car chase, no mur­der, no blood. It’s just about a fam­ily – about love, loss and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I can cer­tainly see my fam­ily in it, with its foibles and strug­gles – I think that’s what makes The A Word ap­peal to ev­ery­one.’

‘Peo­ple would say, “I hate you!” I was re­ally rat­tled’ MOR­VEN CHRISTIE

Max Vento as Joe, with par­ents Ali­son and Paul (Mor­ven Christie and Lee In­gleby) and sis­ter Re­becca (Molly Wright). Be­low: Christopher Ec­cle­ston as Mau­rice

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