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
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