mon 24/06/2024

The A Word, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

The A Word, BBC One

The A Word, BBC One

Important drama about a family living with autism clutters the view with family baggage

Another planet? Max Vento as Joe in 'The A Word'

It’s surprising how few dramas there are about the autistic spectrum. Dustin Hoffman’s turn in Rain Man (1988) misleadingly suggested that all sufferers are also geniuses. On British television Kid in the Corner (2001) was inspired by Tony Marchant’s experience as the parent of a child with Asperger’s (although the boy in the drama had ADHD).

There hasn’t been much since then that specifically alludes to the A word, despite the rise in diagnoses and the word’s slide into general – often ignorant and pejorative – usage. Writing on theartsdesk, Saskia Baron was by no means the only arts journalist to tell of her own experience of autism in the family. So there’s a lot of responsibility resting on The A Word, the first major drama in years to show the rest of us what it’s like to have your child diagnosed with the eponymous condition. It’s a measure of how nervously the subject is broached that, rather than follow Marchant’s lead, Peter Bowker’s script is a free adaptation of a syndicated Israeli drama.

We first meet Joe (a lovely natural performance from Max Vento) wandering through a barren valley in the Lake District, contentedly singing along to pop music he knows by heart. He’s gone walkabout, and is evidently known for it: two blokes in a van drop him off home. It struck an odd note that his parents Paul and Alison (Lee Ingleby and Morven Christie, pictured below) seemed entirely unanxious about his disappearance, but then The A Word is set in an empty corner of England where everything else feels safe – perhaps too safe. The A WordJoe’s behaviour is obsessive – he needs to open doors twice – and he does a lot of staring into space and not responding to questions. His favourite songs seem hand-picked to offer a running commentary on his alienation – “Another Planet”, “Don’t You Want Me?”, “World Shut Your Mouth”. His parents, loving and optimistic, put it down to harmless individualism, but questions start to be asked by other members of the family after Joe fails to participate in his own fifth birthday party. But they shut their ears. The opinion of sister-in-law Nicola (Vinette Robinson), who is a nurse, is vengefully overlooked because she has recently committed adultery; Joe’s plain-speaking grandfather Maurice (Christopher Eccleston) is angrily dismissed as a meddler. In a beautifully crafted sequence, Paul and Alison find the scales falling from their eyes and their denial deconstructed when Joe goes for an assessment with a psychologist. 

The A Word is by no means all about Joe. Because autism happens to ordinary families, this is in every other respect a regular drama, with all the usual fixtures and fittings – squabbles, sex talk and much explanatory banter. The background feels a little too hecticly overegged: Alison's brother Eddie (Greg McHugh) and his wife Nicola moving back north with all their dramatically useful baggage; the widowed grandfather propositioned by his sex-starved singing teacher (Pooky Quesnel); the community where everyone knows everyone else’s business, even the subtitled comedy Poles.

As an important and well-acted drama about an intensely serious subject, The A Word works much better in honest, sorrowful mode than when clowning about as a routine drama. The laughs are there for a reason – to make the point that it’s not all doom and gloom, and to keep the viewer from running away – but feel like clutter obstructing a moving view. 

In a beautifully crafted sequence, Paul and Alison find the scales falling from their eyes and their denial deconstructed


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article


It would be a better show if the two female lead characters weren't so thoroughly unlikeable!  I'm finding it impossible to warm to either of them.  Very unfortunate, as it would likely be a really good series with characters you could feel some empathy for!

Have you watched more than the first episode? The two female leads have unlikeable characters for a reason. Don't let that put you off the whole series. These girls have had to work hard to portray such difficult personalities. 


It's a shame the two lead female characters are so unlikeable.  Quite annoying as it might end up putting me off watching the rest of the series.

I have a son, 5 years old, who has been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. Actually he looks much like Joe ! Much of the show was quite painful to watch as it stabbed at many of the difficult points and doubts that we have had to traverse as a family. The tantrums, repetitive behaviour, the lack of communication, lack of party invitations, worries about schooling etc. The football scene could absolutely have been written by my family as could the scene with the psychologist. As I say, I found the show quite hard to watch as it was rather too close to home, but I found it harder to stop watching. As others have said, some of the other story lines rather detract at times, but they do demonstrate that life has to go on in all areas. I do hope that the show helps to promote understanding of the autistic condition, and supports parents of autistic kids. It certainly isn't all doom and gloom and could be so much better with a little more comprehension.

Interesting, thought-provoking and realistic.  I have a brother on the spectrum.  Although I'm now an adult The A Word is bringing back the intense feelings of isolation I went through as a teenager.  My brother's needs dominated family, and my parents bent over backwards in an attempt to meet those needs - while being oblivious to mine.  I'm hoping that the daughter's story is brought to the forefront in the next few episodes.  After all there is more than one child in the family - and the siblings of people with autism deserve a childhood too.  

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters