What is normal? How do we define it? What are its components? I kept asking myself these questions after I finished watching BBC drama “The A Word”.
Auntie’s been throwing up some good programmes recently. Actually, make that, outstanding programmes. There was “Happy Valley” last year (I only saw the first series. I know the second one was on recently and it was just as good). Police drama, Undercover, (which I have not seen, I hasten to add, but I have heard it is excellent) has had rave reviews. All these BBC shows have similar traits: solid writing, ace performances and believable stories. “The A Word” has picked up where “Happy Valley” and other shows have left off.
The “A” in the title is for “autism” or “autistic spectrum” (as it is known these days). The series deals with two parents, Alison and Paul, who are in denial about their five-year-old’s condition. Set against the breath-taking mountainous background of the Lake District, “The A Word” is not just a series about an autistic child, but about a family that is coming to terms with issues ranging from marital infidelity to online bullying.
The programme centres on Joe, the five-year-old. At the same time the director is careful enough to explore the world surrounding him. That is one of the strengths of the script. By giving almost equal time to each main character we get a better picture of how Joe’s autistic spectrum diagnosis changes their lives. We also get an in-depth look into these very complex and intermingled lives. This is another strength “The A Word” displays; it explores different dimensions of the human persona. For instance, Alison’s brother is still haunted by a recent affair his wife had with a colleague and finds it hard to cope. Paul’s relationship with his father-in-law is strained because of the latter’s strong opinions on Joe’s wellbeing. There is not one single scene – until the final episode, perhaps – where there isn’t an argument going on. Little by little, the layers are peeled off and we see a family at loggerheads with each other with issues from the past refusing to be buried and left alone. It takes a speech and language therapist, Maggie, to act as a tough-as-nails neutral advisor and force them all to confront their fears and self-doubts. But even this is a clever sleight of hand. Maggie is not just any therapist. She used to go to the same school as Joe’s mother, Alison, and was bullied by her during her time there leaving many wounds behind. Wounds which, it is fair to say, have not healed.
There are two very important non-human characters in the series. Non-human only in concept. They are as active as any of the Homo sapiens belting out speeches to the camera: the mountains and the soundtrack. The former is almost a tourist board’s ad for Cumbria, in North West England. The latter features indie music from the 80s and 90s which I am sure goes down very well with 40- and 50-somethings. The music is also indispensable in order to understand Joe’s condition. At the beginning of each episode we see Joe walking down a country lane, blue headphones stuck to his little head, singing his heart out to a melody by Pulp or The Libertines. It is hard not to look at the surrounding landscape, the monumental mountains closing in around him, and not think that here is a metaphor for Joe’s future life, one in which he will be reminded of how different he is.
This is perhaps the key element in the success “The A Word” has had. It has managed to address a very difficult issue without patronising its subject. In doing so, it has also turned the camera on the viewer. Some of the more cathartic and yet, equally beautiful, moments are when Alison and Paul speak frankly and honestly about Joe, about their frustrations and hopes. As a spectator, I disliked Alison a lot for her bullying behaviour but I also sympathised with her as a fellow parent, even if I have never gone through a similar dilemma myself. Paul conveys a fragility that is welcomed in a world where masculinity is still valued by the size of one’s schlong. In fact, one of the unintended masterstrokes is how the three main male characters, Maurice (Joe’s grandpa), Eddie (uncle) and Paul see their man ego diminished. Maurice, a widower, starts an affair with a music teacher, a widow herself, only to be confronted by his own body’s denial to perform when asked to do so. Eddie cannot get his wife’s affair out of his head. In the middle of a heated argument, Paul confesses to Alison that he would like to have a “normal” child. Reader, I felt as if I was in in the dock myself.
Because, what is normal? How do we define it? And in defining it, are we not excluding children like Joe? This music-obsessed, five-year-old lives in a world of his own and has a language of his own. He is as human as we are. But he won’t come to us. Whilst talking to Paul and Alison, the speech and language therapist, Maggie, is very clear about one of the courses of action they should follow: reach out to your child. Joe’s withdrawal, lack of social skills and verbal awkwardness are ways he has developed to protect himself.
If there is one gripe I have with the series is with the fact that the school staff working with Joe should have been given more screen time. I happen to have worked and still work now with excellent teachers and teaching assistants of children on the autistic spectrum. It is hard to quantify the hard work, the care and the love these professionals put in. I also happen to be married to someone who worked with an autistic child some years ago. I still remember seeing my wife night after night getting her resources ready for the next day in order to give this child the best possible start in life.
Reaching out to a child who does not respond in the same way we do is hard to do. I will not lie about that. But I think that we owe it to children like Joe to change the definition of “normal”. Even if it takes singing the whole repertoire of Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp.
Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 4th May at 6pm (GMT)