Saturday 30 April 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

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.

© 2016

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 4th May at 6pm (GMT)


  1. I have a fridge magnet which says 'The only normal people are those we don't know very well.'
    Which rings true for me.
    And this program sounds like a winner. Complex, nuanced and gripping. Like the very best lives...

  2. Ah, to walk in somebody else's shoes...
    Challenges, yes, and opportunities for a richer life for all those involved. We all imagine our life as in a Disney World, while real life is much more complex, demanding and rewarding as well. In these days, we are talking and viewing on television such challenging situations, hopefully being educated and tempered to support and invent solutions to anything we face in life.

  3. Hey Cubano, that sounds like a very moving show and I enjoyed your commentary on it. Thank you. It is very hard to be a human. (I'm okay though--just a bit stressed by job work and life.) k.

  4. I wish I could get this programme, it sounds eminently worthwhile.

  5. Sounds like a good one indeed. Very true, not easy to communicate with such kids many times. But if life were easy, we'd all be crapping rainbows.

  6. I think this program is coming up on our Public Broadcasting station here in Portland. I'm familiar with some of the scenes you describe, so I must have seen them in a preview. Yes, I want to watch this, it looks really good and I like very much the acting of Morven Christie the female lead. I've also really enjoyed Scott and Bailey, the interpersonal relationships are really well written. We don't often get television or even movies of the caliber that you get over there. We have a lot to learn and we are so $$ motivated by the mass need for speed, explosions and sex. Ho hum.

    I have a little bit of firsthand knowledge about the normal thing. Having a mental illness (bipolar 1) I often feel discriminated against because I don't "play by the rules". We see life in a different way and act accordingly. We, I, am frequently judged as being too forthright and much too sensitive for general acceptance, I cry even when I am happy, when I am sad and if anyone does anything kind for me, that and various other things make people very uncomfortable but I can't help it. (of course if people get to know me, they find that I am a perfectly lovable and intelligent person) So because of these things I hold my self back a bit from society. I'm often called aloof but it is actually a self protective mechanism that I have learned from constantly being seen as "different" with the result of being shunned, generally out of other's fear or simply being confused about something that is not familiar to them, but it hurts. -- Don't worry, things are getting better - the proper medication will do that for you:) -- but it's been a lifetime trying to find that and the pain of being treated as not so normal for so many years has left it's scars.
    Sorry for such a long comment, but I just wanted to make it clear that a lot of "handicaps", difference-nesses, are not immediately visible. I have a great sympathy and empathy for those whose are, they have a much more difficult time than I do with acceptance and understanding.
    I think everyone, including those of us who are different, should try the others shoes.

  7. What an interesting overview of the film. Thank you. I have cared for a couple of kids with autism, as well as being acquainted with some adults with the condition. I havent seen the film, but from the sound of things, that is a very complicated and stressful situation for a child with autism, who needs order and calm. He already has difficulties encountering the world. I can see why he might retreat into music as an escape from heavy dynamics. It is good the filmmakers examined each of the people in the family, as there is never just one person with a problem, each person carries his own (and contributes his own) "stuff" to the family dynamic. A film I found very interesting, about a boy with autism is called Horse Boy....his parents took their son on a pony back ride into Mongolia to find a shaman to treat their son....but what they found was the boy's bonding with the pony he rode across the country did more for him than anything. I loved it.

  8. British programs are so mature. They draw one in deeply. Thanks

  9. Interesting program that deals with a tough issue. Have a good evening.

  10. This sounds like an informative and compelling show. I haven't heard of it before this.

  11. It seems to me, if I read this piece correctly, autism is one element in an extended family unit which may or may not be "normal" in a number of other ways and, I suppose, its relationship with dysfunctional aspects of the family. In this sense, I really do not dare offer much thought or opinion other than to say Joe might be the closest to normality of any in the group.

    So you are aware, CiL, the video was not available to me.

    If this program should appear through the Public Broadcasting Service here in the USA, CiL, I will watch it.

  12. The A word sounds very much worth watching - hope it comes out soon on Netflix so I can watch it. I recently saw Happy Valley there and was wondering whether to put that on my list. After your recommendation, I will!

  13. Oh, this has been informative for me. Glad to know about this program.

  14. I have also been glued to it - the BBC at its very best. Flawed and utterly believable characters. And I want to add a shout-out for the teenage daughter, who had more insight than many of the adults, and accepted her brother without judging him. She showed the others how it could be done.

  15. I didn't watch this programme because I thought it would be too upsetting. Now I wish I had. I did watch Undercover and agree that it was very good. I'm new to television... or rather watching it. I preferred to do things that didn't require vegetating in front of a big box, but now I'm on my own I have the television on for company, plus seeing the occasional good show.

  16. I have been watching this series too...and I find it utterly addictive viewing!
    These characters are flawed, and therefore incredibly "real"...I can totally identify with their sufferings and insecurities...there before the grace of God etc....!
    Yes, BBC at it's very best.

    Have a great Bank Holiday! :))

  17. Many thanks for your comments. For those in the UK, "The A Word" is usually available on Catch-up for up to 21 days after first broadcast. I'm not sure if those outside the UK can access BBC iPlayer easily. Give it a go.

    Thanks for your testimonials, too. I really appreciate them. I think language, as in the language we use when communicating to and about children in the autistic spectrum, matters a lot. I don't think I have cracked that one yet, but I keep trying.

    Greetings from London.

  18. I haven't been watching the programme. I have seen a couple of excellent films with autistic characters though and years ago I worked in a field studies centre which was used by people with a whole range of disabilities, including many people on the autistic spectrum. It was an amazing place.

    You ask a very good question too - 'what is normal?'

  19. Excellent post! I am a huge fan of Happy Valley, so I will be sure to keep an eye out for this series. You raise some important questions about what we consider normal. I think a lot of people hurt themselves by trying to fit into some perception of what they should be like or how they should be behaving.

  20. Sounds like a very intriguing television show...I shall have to check it out!

  21. We haven't yet heard of this series. Thanks for sharing, I added it to my list :)

  22. Intriguing, especially for someone who has a young relative (nephew) who is on the higher end of the scale (aka, bright and normal). Definitely something worth looking into.



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