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The A Word review: The pioneering if understated drama returns at just the right time

This series’ great beauty is that it’s about relationships in all their unpredictability – perfect for locked-down viewers who are seeking out human interaction vicariously

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 05 May 2020 15:12 BST
The A Word series 3 trailer

Filmed in the lovely Lake District before it was turned into a forbidden zone, The A Word (BBC1) might actually, if accidentally, be the perfect TV in the age of Covid-19.

Much has been made of the character at the heart of the drama, Joe Hughes (Max Vento), a 10-year-old boy with autism (hence the series’ title). Yet it’s quite wrong to see The A Word as being “about” autism or disability. Its great beauty, apart from the landscapes, is that it’s actually about relationships in all their unpredictability. In that respect, by the way, it has something in common with the much-talked-about Normal People, the BBC3 hit. It seems that starved of real human contact, locked-down viewers are seeking out human interaction vicariously.

Not that much happens in The A Word, now embarking on its third series. There are no car chases, no murders, no devil worship, indeed no pandemics – just very complicated family relationships with all the quiet traumas that entails.

The other figure at the centre of things is Joe’s grandad, Maurice Scott. Played as a stereotypically blunt northerner by Christopher Eccleston, retired Maurice has time on his hands, and interferes freely in Joe’s upbringing, to the irritation of the lad’s dad Paul Hughes (Lee Ingleby). Paul is divorced from Maurice’s daughter Alison (Morven Christie), and they live 100 miles apart, which creates the space for Maurice to be a third parent.

The focus of this week’s action, such as it is, is a minor fire at Paul’s new rural cottage and the distress that causes little Joe. The incident prompts restrained arguments about whether Maurice was right to take Joe to view his charred new home before the rather wimpy Paul had a chance to redecorate it. Joe’s reactions are muted and he chucks the headphones he always has to wear into Windermere – but that’s about it. No sooner has that settled down than we are confronted with a fresh revelation: Joe’s older half-sister Rebecca is back from university, and pregnant. Shocking, but again all navigated the family without a raised voice, let alone an EastEnders-style brawl in the boozer. There are no great dramas in this drama.

In this series, we meet Ralph (Leon Harrop), the son (from a previous relationship) of Maurice’s “girlfriend”, a teacher named Louise Wilson (Pooky Quesnel). Ralph happens to have Down’s syndrome, in the same way he happens to have brown hair and wear glasses. He is different to most other people, but then we all are, aren’t we?

If the BBC and writer Peter Bowker had it in mind to create a soft-soapy drama with lots of nice loving folk, some with disabilities, then they’ve succeeded magnificently – a pioneering if understated achievement. The untidy web of relationships is tricky to keep up with, but the first two series of The A Word are on BBC iPlayer so you can explore their back stories at leisure; and we all need some emotional analgesic.

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