Five-year-old Joe Hughes (Max Vento) is rarely without his headphones. To the soundtrack of punk, new wave and indie classics, he traverses his own world peacefully in England’s idyllic Lake District. He can be anti-social and has difficulty processing and expressing emotion and understanding language, but teenage sister Rebecca (Molly Wright), parents Paul and Alison (Lee Ingleby and Morven Christie) and grandad Maurice (Christopher Eccelston) dote on him, if considering him a bit eccentric.
Into his world come his uncle Eddie (Greg McHugh) returned to the family hearth from his failed business venture to a job Maurice has vacated for him, and Eddie’s wife Nicola (Vinette Robinson), who’s working as a nurse while training as a GP. When the family gathers at Joe’s birthday party, it’s Nicola who voices her opinion that there may be a deeper issue underlying Joe’s ability to express himself, throwing Alison completely offside.
Now that Joe’s starting school, Alison and Paul have to face the fact Nicola may be right. Following a diagnosis of autism, they disagree over the best approach. Meanwhile, Rebecca’s opinion that there’s nothing about Joe that needs to be ‘fixed’ is drowned out. Left feeling excluded and unimportant, she retreats to her boyfriend’s place and confides in her aunt and uncle about her new sexual life with him.
From creator Peter Bowker (World On Fire, Eric & Ernie), this drama is about a whole family’s communication challenges. It’s not only Joe who has trouble expressing his feelings articulately.
Maurice is embroiled in a fledgling romance while still feeling grief over his wife’s death. And Eddie and Nicola are attempting to rebuild their relationship after Nicola’s infidelity – is Eddie’s small hometown the right place to do it? She’s already on the outs after her comments about Joe, but digs her heels in. And Maurice also pipes up about his misgivings about his grandson, meaning it’s not quite happy families.
The A Word is carried along by the authenticity of a family struggling to adapt to major change. Joe’s autism serves to magnify and exaggerate the pre-existing tensions that run throughout this multigenerational family. It’s funny, audacious, raw and innovative. If you’ve ever been driven round the bend by your family, you’ll love it.
Seasons 1 and 2 of The A Word are now streaming at SBS On Demand