Two things I can talk a lot about today....disability and television. For the last six weeks I have been spending part of my Tuesday nights watching the BBC's six-part autism-based drama 'The A Word'. This may have something to do with the fact that I don't have BT Sport and therefore consider the Champions League dead to me until such time as Liverpool qualify for it again or it returns to Sky Sports. Whichever happens first.
Regardless, 'The A Word', though not perfect by any means, was at least if not more diverting than Arsenal's annual hobble through the group stage and inevitable exit in the Round Of Arsenal. It is meant to centre around Joe, a 5 year-old boy with autism. Or, as every character in the story annoyingly insists on saying, a 5 year-old boy on the autism spectrum. That's our first problem. Here's a drama that hopes to tackle autism by populating its narrative with people who can't bring themselves to refer to Joe as 'autistic'. Chief among the culprits here is Joe's mum Alison played by Morven Christie. She's in denial about Joe's autism to the point of self-defeating mania. The ugliest character traits that one can possess all come frothing out of Alison as she harasses and bullies everyone around her in her wild and misguided attempts to stop people she doesn't know and shouldn't care about from noticing that Joe is a little different. I'm not a parent, let alone a parent of an autistic child (sorry, one on the spectrum, I mean), but I would doubt whether those that are carry on in quite the hysterical manner of Alison. By the end of episode six you'll find yourself wanting to donk her over the head with something heavy. If not before.
It's not all about Alison, but it's more about Alison than it is about Joe, unfortunately. He's only 5 years old, but as a central character his own thoughts and feelings are criminally under-explored. This is basically a family drama about the people around Joe, from his overbearing bully mother Alison to doormat dad Paul (Lee Ingleby) and comedy granddad Morris (Christopher Eccleston). Alison has a daughter Rebecca (Molly Wright) from a previous relationship which apart from leaving me wondering how Alison got two men to put up with her in her lifetime also inspires Paul to scandalously attempt to emotionally blackmail Alison into having another baby. He wants a 'normal' child of his own he admits in one moment of spectacularly insensitive but very possibly realistic drama. Publicly most people mock use of the word 'normal' in the context of anyone not disabled. 'The A Word' appears to contend that it's still in common usage behind closed doors, which is as depressing a thought as one can muster.
Along with Joe's immediate family there's his uncle Eddie (Greg McHugh) and his recently unfaithful wife Nicola (Vinette Robinson) who along with Eccleston do a fine job of taking the attention away from Joe with their own, arguably bigger personal problems. Eccleston's Morris provides the comedy highlight when he's offered a no strings sexual relationship with his singing teacher. Recently widowed he spends much of his time after this unusual proposal comically displaying the awkwardness of a 13 year-old who is being romantically pursued by the kid nobody else at school talks to. But Morris is in his 50s, and so eventually does what men do and sleeps with her anyway. He's clearly there for comic effect which the excellent Eccleston pulls off easily. The point of Eddie and Nicola is less clear, although the latter has a medical background and so occasionally offers some vague insight into autism. Beyond that she seems only to be there to offer sage advice to Rebecca when she runs into boyfriend trouble. As for what Eddie gives the story, I'll maybe get back to you on that.
The last word should be about Joe, wonderfully portrayed by Max Vento. He may not get to see much of the action and drama as everyone else goes to bits around him, but there's something undeniably endearing about a boy who communicates with his fussing mother only by belting out the opening line to The Human League's 'Don't You Want Me'. His odd musical taste (everything he listens to appears to have been made about 25 years before his birth which is a bit like me filling up the mp3 player with Drifters numbers) and his quirk of opening a door and closing it before opening it again to walk through it seemed much more like the sort of thing that should have been focused on. As good as he is Vento is always on the periphery. The only one who ever seems to get through to him is Rebecca, and that's almost certainly because she's the only one who doesn't waste time trying to bend him to her will. Come and do a puzzle. Come and read this book. Come and look at the animals. Joe's life with anyone other than Rebecca consists of a series of commands which he clearly struggles to see a reason for. It's probably not a coincidence that Rebecca is also the only one who feels no shame in using 'The A Word' and has no desire to cover up Joe's differences.
Rebecca's only 16 so perhaps the message is that it's an age thing. I've always felt that people younger than me or my peers have a greater capacity to deem disability irrelevant. They have had the benefit of a greater education on the subject than people my age. It's like language. If you teach a child early enough they'll find it easier to understand. I'm not sure the writers of 'The A Word' quite mastered that concept.