“World shut your mouth, shut your mouth. Put your head back in the clouds and shut your mouth.” That’s the sound of Joe (Max Vento) walking by the side of the road, as he sings along to Julian Cope on his blue headphones. It’s a charming, cute opening to this six-part drama, until you realise that Joe is only five years old, and that he’s all on his own. Picked up by a group of adults in a van, he’s driven back to his home, which is when we realise that this happens all the time, because Joe has autism.
Except this BBC One drama is too good to jump straight to that conclusion: it’s not until the end of the first episode that the “a” word is even mentioned. These nuanced, underplayed hours chart the gradual realisation of Joe’s condition by his parents, Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby), and the slow knock-on impact that this knowledge has upon the lives of everyone around him.
Autism is an oft-misunderstood condition that can easily be reduced to stereotypical generalisations, but writer Peter Bowker, who bases his show on Israeli programme Yellow Peppers, crafts a compassionate, considered portrayal of what it’s like to live with it. The A Word is a mature, layered family drama that finds strength in the way that it really does focus on the “f” word: it’s not just Joe’s character that is developed, but almost every member of the Hughes clan.
Venko is superb as the young Joe, who is more at home with his headphones on than connecting with other people. He’s not a maths savant, but he loves music, memorising artists, albums, tracks and dates with ease – a trait that seeps beautifully into the whole show, as the soundtrack is dictated by whatever’s on Joe’s playlist. When a child specialist comes to visit, and teases out a ping-pong exchange of acts and statements, Venko lights up with the happiness of connecting with someone else, and it’s his more inhibited presence in other scenes that informs the rest of the cast: it soon becomes clear that he isn’t the only with communication issues.
His overbearing mother is the main culprit, played with a superb complexity by Morven Christie. Christie sinks her teeth into the role of Alison, who is fiercely protective of her son, always sticking up for him in the face of what she worries will be fear, judgement and rejection from the local community. But we already know that the town can be a friendly place, where strangers drop Joe back to his house as a matter of routine at the start of every episode: Alison’s concerns are as much about their perception of her, and Christie brings out that selfish streak with an agonising believability, as she twists conversations and situations to revolve around her. She smothers, bullies and denies anything is wrong, traits made even more devastating because they’re fuelled by such a devoted love.
Lee Ingleby’s Paul is a perfect foil for her, proving a quieter, calmer figure in the household. He’s needy and attention-seeking too, keen to have a “normal” child as well as Joe, but he’s mostly happy to defuse Alison’s angst with a well-placed joke. That humour, though, becomes a defence mechanism to deflect awkward confrontations and home truths: he’s an ideal partner for his wife, but his behaviour is just as unhealthy.
It’s exacerbated by the looming shadow of Maurice (Christopher Eccleston, in between seasons of his astounding work on The Leftovers in the US), the controlling patriarch of the family, whose loud quips and put-downs are exactly where Paul gets his attitude from: the pair butt heads constantly, as well as with Eddie (Greg McHugh), the well-meaning husband of Nicola (Vinette Robinson) and Alison’s brother.
The latter subplot, which involves infidelity and trying to manage a brewery-cum-gastropub, becomes a little too cluttered to take full flight, but it’s typical of Bowker’s screenplay, which is unapologetically generous in its scope and sympathies: anyone who spends more than a few minutes on screen is given a moving, rounded arc that jostles for space with all the other narratives contained in this tightly written entourage. The actors are uniformly excellent, with Christopher Ecclestone managing the mean feat of stealing the show from the rest repeatedly with his embarrassing, rude, well-meaning grandpa act, which may hide more than a little in common with Joe’s condition.
All of which makes it all the more heartbreaking to see Rebecca (a brilliantly heartfelt Molly Wright), Joe’s 16-year-old sister, forgotten in the mix of family arguments and unspoken anger. Her story emerges slowly throughout the six hours, made all the more moving by the fact that she’s Alison’s daughter from a previous marriage – something that doesn’t stop her bonding with both Joe and the caring Paul.
Together, the family do their best to adjust to Joe’s behaviour and come up with the right response, but fail repeatedly with all manner of questionable solutions, from football cards to home schooling. Do they push Joe to communicate in the way they think he should? Do they move him away from peers to a specialist school? The non-judgemental script doesn’t have the answers, just like its characters.
The result is a tour de force of British drama, climaxing with a darker episode that, tellingly, doesn’t open with Joe strolling along, pop song in hand. If the build-up to that finale occasionally becomes too crowded, it’s only testament to the open-hearted tone of the show, which tries to make room to listen to everyone’s story. Compared to Netflix’s sitcom about a teenager with autism, Atypical, the consistency of The A Word’s balancing act is really quite remarkable, dodging cliches and still managing to find belly laughs among the more tender moments. The prospect of a second season promises more chance for Joe himself to stand out from the pack; we’ve seen his family start coming to terms with his diagnosis, but he will soon have to as well. In the meantime, this is a deeply moving drama about a family where talking and listening can often be so elusive – and tells nobody to shut their mouth.
The A Word Season 1 is available on BBC iPlayer until Sunday 3rd December.