With the BBC’s Lake District-set drama The A Word about to start its third series, writer Peter Bowker explains how the show is able to keep reinventing itself.
Given it’s not, as he points out, a crime show – where a new case can sustain each week’s episode – he says the challenge is to “not degenerate into an ‘issue of the week’” programme.
“I always wanted to create a family comedy drama which had at its centre a young boy with autism driving the story initially,” says Bowker.
“But as it moves on, always having a larger sense of stories driven by people who were differently-abled.”
“With series three, I'd already established the character, Mark, and the character of Ralph, it made the task a bit simpler” continues Bowker, pointing to how the third series of The A Word has a wider scope than in previous years.
Read more: Christopher Eccleston talks The A Word
Each episode of third series of The A Word is going be available on iPlayer at once – perfect for lockdown viewing, according to Bowker.
“I didn't know until last week that that's what we're doing! [laughs] I think […] box set viewing during lockdown is more likely.”
Even in more normal circumstances, though, he’s fond of binge watching.
“For a series like this, I'm all for that. I think with a series that hasn't got a driving crime at the heart of it, it's becoming harder and harder to hook people back.”
“But because it's asking you to invest in character, then I think in a strange way, it's easier to watch in one go. You don't lose it. It's easy for this kind of show to get lost a little bit, I think.”
Read the full interview with Peter Bowker about his creative influences, the one television project he wishes he could return to, and more…
Yahoo Movies UK: The A Word is on its third series now, making it one of your longest running projects?
Peter Bowker: I think it is the longest running project, yeah.
I was wondering what kind of challenges that presented, moving into the third year?
Well, obviously, with a show like this – it isn't a crime show or anything – the challenge is to keep telling stories with a family that can't communicate at the centre, but not degenerate into a kind of ‘issue of the week’, where something goes wrong for Joe, and we all have to solve it. So, it was always the intention to broaden the show out: I always wanted to create a family comedy drama which had at its centre a young boy with autism driving the story initially, but as it moves on, always having the larger sense of the stories driven by people who were differently-abled. It was always the intention that I would look at the challenges faced by someone with autism who was older than Joe, for instance, the figure of Mark.
It wasn't like I was box-ticking, and saying, “Oh, we need someone with Down syndrome,” but once we have an actor as good as good as Leon [Harrop] playing Ralph, when you have a certain member of the cast who you suddenly see working so well, you start writing up that character. So I started thinking of stories for Ralph. I think he’s got an interesting rite of passage, in terms of his growing independence. And it was important to me that I wrote about it from his perspective, that it wasn't purely from the perspective of his mum, and the worries she had, but him worrying on his mum's behalf, and him taking that responsibility. With series three, in a way, I always knew that's where I was heading, and because I'd already established the character, Mark, and the character of Ralph, it made the task a bit simpler. It wasn't like I was stuck at the end of series two thinking, “Christ, I've got to think of six more things about this particular child.”
The other big, huge advantage is, with a cast as strong as this, the characters have kind of grown up with me, and how they behave in certain situations becomes interesting. So obviously, Paul and Alison are separated, so from a fictional point of view, I'm already thinking, “Right, what situations can they find themselves in as newly single parents that aren't just about looking after the shared care of the child, but are about how they move on with their lives?” So it kind of opened a whole new range of possibilities for the series.
And then you've got the sheer commitment and energy of Chris Eccleston at the centre of all this. Maurice is a joy to write for, a) because of Chris' performance, and b) because there you have a character who is the perfect combination of somebody who thinks he's trying to help, and does not know how to go about doing that. Maurice's unreconstructed nature needs that. He's a great source of unintentional comedy, which is a gift in that regard.
In an interview you gave for the first season (2016) you mentioned that a lot of the parents of the children with autism that you taught eventually split up – which is something that the third series is now addressing. Is that something you had planned in advance?
That's an interesting one. I could say yes! But I don't think I had. I think what became clear in the writing of it, to me, was that dramatically, I was putting this couple under such strain. It seemed to push itself to the top of the plotting queue, if you like. I knew that we would look at Joe at various life stages, if you like, so if it's not going to be a birth or a marriage, or a death, then...?
On a pragmatic level – and I mean this is mundane as – to some extent, because Morven [Christie, who plays Alison] took off on The Bay, it's about who's available in terms of trying to structure a schedule. By the time you're onto the third series, all these wonderful actors have other projects. So in a way, I think the two things fed into one another. I don't think Morven said, "Oh, I'm not available, therefore we can't,” you know? But I think it became clear with the schedule that having them living in separate places was something that would be a good thing to do, and I was already thinking that Joe in an urban environment might be interesting as well.
So, it was partly an accident, but it was partly to do with where the story went. As I was absorbing the series, as a viewer and as a writer, I know where this is going, and probably should go, dramatically. And then by the time we came back to it, it made sense just in terms of production, that Joe would be split between two homes. So as with most of these decisions, it's part artistic inspiration, and part it's just the sheer pragmatics of filming.
The third series is all going to be available on iPlayer at once: Did that change how you wrote it, whether the story is going to be watched weekly, or binge-watched?
No, it didn't, because I didn't know until last week that that's what we're doing! [laughs] I just think it’s something that they've started doing more, and that box set viewing during lockdown is just more likely.
Would it have made a difference had you known, do you think?
For a series like this, to be honest, I'm all for that. I think with a series that hasn't got a driving crime at the heart of it, it's becoming harder and harder to hook people back, whereas if you're watching this in a box set way, the way I watch… Better Things, for instance. I watch that that way. I watch Modern Family that way. Because it's asking you to invest in character, then I think in a strange way, it's easier to watch in one go. You don't lose it. It's easy for this kind of show to get lost a little bit, I think.
On another note, given that Joe – or rather Max, maybe – is quite a young child, is it difficult to centre that character in the drama?
Yeah. I mean, there's all sorts of considerations there. Max was a very young child in the first series, so Pete Cattaneo, the first director, came up with three key phrases for Max: angry Joe, sad Joe, and neutral or dreamy Joe. And Max, he'd do those three things. He was very instinctive, so there wasn't a lot of... It was directing, but not ‘directing’ directing.
Now, Max has now been around filming a lot. He's a bright kid. He's grown up a bit, he's that much older, so he responds to direction brilliantly, and he also is more engaged with the process – so in some ways that makes the job harder, but in other ways, it makes the whole process a bit richer. In the first series, I was very much writing blind, thinking, “My god, I hope we can get a kid to do this, who understands the difference between himself and Joe, for instance.” Even that is a big concept for a five-year-old.
But then by this series, I was very confident in Max. I wanted him to be more verbal in this series, I wanted things to have changed for Joe. I wanted his behaviours to have changed, while nevertheless remaining behaviours of somebody who was on the autism spectrum. So Lee and Molly, who plays Rebecca [Joe’s older sister], came in and worked with him for a couple of days, and with the director Fergus [surname], just to really make sure that what I was writing was achievable, because I'm asking so much more of him in the third series. So we did that quite early, so I was reassured.
I would talk to Max on set, and he would ask me, he said, “Is Joe in a kind of sing-song way, or is this something he means, or is he saying this because it's comforting?” Because Max's understanding of Joe and autism has grown in that time. He will ask those sort of technical questions. The only line he just couldn't deliver, because I don’t think he knew the kids story, was when he says “Is there room on the broom for a frog like me?” Quoting from the Julia Donaldson book. And I don't think Max knew the story! And I'm on set, and he just kept saying it in such a way that it was like it was a genuine question. You know? In the end, I said, "Look," I said, "No, it's this. Is there room on the broom?" And that's what he did. He's a good mimic.
I think Max's main concern over the three series is how appalling he finds my musical taste! [laughs] He goes, “Oh god, this is terrible, what is it?” The only song I've ever given him that he liked was when he sang Paloma Faith, I think, in series one. That's the only thing he's ever liked. So that's always good.
Music in The A Word is really key to this show, is it something that plays a big part in your writing?
Oh, definitely. Definitely, yeah. I'm quite surprised when I look back as to how much there is, and how often, because in World on Fire, one of the characters is a singer, so we've got the music through the thing. And obviously Blackpool.
Oh, of course.
Yeah. I'm actually in the beginning stages of writing another musical drama at the moment. But yes, music is an obsession. It fuels the writing. It comes from... I enjoyed watching dramas that used music in a certain way. Now, it can become quite... the cliché is to stick a bit of Coldplay, or stick a bit of Athlete's Wires over it, you know? So now it’s just trying to always fight that really. The joy of this series – Pete Cattaneo got it straight away – the trick is to use something a bit angular and unlikely, say something guitar driven over a poignant moment. It's far more effective than trying to milk it emotionally by telling the audience what they should be feeling in that moment. That's what we're trying to resist.
In The A Word, there’s a lot of punk and indie, this sort of golden period of punk and indie, very short-lived period, so by this series, I started to find more and more obscure tracks. I'm in contact with Vic Godard of the Subway Sect, who provides a track called Ambition in the first episode of series three. And Vic, he's lovely. He had his moment in the sun when they released one album, two singles, and then he's been a postman for the rest of his life. He's retired, ex-punk. These guys just get in touch and say, “I can't believe my song is finally on telly.” What was really funny was when we used a Mekons track, and I saw somebody had tweeted, "Quick, quick that band your dad used to be in, they're using their song on the soundtrack… It comes in at 12 minutes 12, so you don't have to watch the whole thing.” [laughs]
So yeah, I like that. I like the juxtaposition, I like unlikely music. Do you know The Sopranos? They always had a great outro track. I remember sitting, my mouth dropping open when they used John Cooper Clarke at the end of an episode, because it's such a mix of worlds, and that's kind of what I like to do. I think I write to the rhythms of music. Everybody wants to be something else, so you talk to Shakespearean actors, they all want to be comedians, you talk to comedians, they all want to be rock stars. It's that really. I just like to embed it in the drama. This time, we've been incredibly lucky, because Pete Jobson, from I Am Kloot, has composed the music, so the composed music picks up on the kind of musicality around the tracks I use. It's not like traditional telly music, he's done a beautiful job.
On another note, have you thought much about how The A Word compares to other depictions of autism on television?
Yes and no. What’s interesting about The A Word is it grew out of an Israeli series.
Yeah. That family dynamic, I thought was a brilliant set-up. Obviously it's grown away from that as the series has gone on, but I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Yellow Peppers. But the other thing Yellow Peppers did was I felt it gave me permission to be a little less literal in the way I might depict autism, so there's whole idyll that Joe has built for himself, around the headphones, and the morning walk. And obviously it drove people f***ing mad, imagine Twitter saying, “Why'd they let that child walk down the middle of the road?” You know? But it's kind of symbolic as much as anything. So, I think it allowed me that, it gave me permission to do that. The other thing was that, because I'd written Marvellous before this, I'd already seen that you can be playful with the form while still being true to the emotions of this. I think those two things helped.
The other things I've watched...? I can never remember the names of any of them, but there was one, it was Minnie Driver playing the mother of somebody with cerebral palsy?
Speechless I was really hopeful for, and it didn't really do it for me, I have to say. I've tended on the whole, because I've been writing The A Word, I’ve tended to steer away from things dealing with the same or similar subject matters, because you either don't want to absorb something subconsciously, or you don't want to be f***ed off because they're really, really good! [laughs] So, I've tended not to. Where it's been interesting to me is how the character... Is it in The Bridge, where the lead female detective was almost on spectrum, but they didn’t name it until after the show had ended? That was interesting, seeing certain intentions.
There’s one with a teenaged boy with autism, isn't there, I think? That's come out of America. That’s one I’ll watch after.
The Netflix one, Atypical?
Yes. I've kind of steered clear of that, just because I didn't want to start absorbing other things. I will definitely go to that and have a look. What was the history on Speechless, is that still going? Or are you about to go “it won fourteen Emmys and you’re saying it’s s***!”
No, it was cancelled about a year ago, I don’t think enough people were watching it.
Was it one series or two?
They did three in the end.
Oh, fair enough! I think it was because I loved the trailer. I watched the trailer and thought, “That's exactly the tone. That's brilliant. That's brilliant.” But I just couldn't quite get on with it. I don't know if that makes it a good or a bad show, it's just I couldn't get on with it.
I don't know which comes first, telly reflecting society, or society telly. There are stories to be told, and there are stories to be told that haven't been shown before. Clearly, this is an area that hasn't been portrayed on telly, or it's been portrayed in a certain way, as some irretrievable tragedy, or genius, or a bit of both. I think that's what's sort of moved on and quite interesting.
Is that something you’re conscious of, writing The A Word? Do you ever try strike back against or maybe resist those stereotypes?
I remember at the start, I'd always say at the screening – because I knew there'd be a lot of people with a connection to autism who would be there, because you'd be drawn to it. I'd always start by saying, “My intention was not to portray the kind of mathematical genius that's become something of a cliché, and nor was it to portray children with severe autism who are in distress a lot of the time, and in emotional pain.” And I have a reason, I said, “I know there'll be parents of children in that place who will feel that this is a bit of betrayal, because life is so much easier for Joe's parents than it is for them, but nobody will watch it. Only people interested in autism would watch that, because it would be uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable. There are ways of doing it, and it should be done, but I don't think a mainstream drama is where it should be done.”
Most people on the autism spectrum are actually in the middle. In fact, Joe is probably more typical of autism than either of those two extremes. I was absolutely clear it was a mainstream show. Dramatically, I always thought it was interesting if you have this very photogenic lovely kid, because already people are reading that family from outside as the perfect family, so then you've got something to pick away at. You want him to draw you in. And that's how dealing with unusual issues on mainstream TV works. It just is. When I wrote Flesh and Blood, I knew it was for BBC Two, I knew it's for a specific slot. The disability themed weeks of Flesh and Blood was a very different drama, and Marvellous was different in a different way. But it was just being up front and saying this is my intention.
In this series in particular, one of the things I wanted to honour was the teachers who I used to work with. When I went back to the specialist school, I just felt so at home, so I want to honour those teachers, mainly women, working in special ed, who are walking the walk, who are doing this stuff. And that's why the casting of Julie Hesmondlalgh was so crucially important, because I needed somebody who felt like those teachers. On telly, we often forget teachers... I think actors with the best intentions often play teachers in dramas a little bit pious. Julie couldn't be that if she tried. The head of the specialist unit where we filmed, who I've got to know over the years, said, “I'd give Julie a job here tomorrow. She's just like a teacher. She's fabulous.” She has that ability, that authenticity, because Julie's such an open person. Her and Morven and Molly went in there and improvised, working with kids from a specialist unit, and they were all brilliant.
You often collaborate with the same actors over and over. I was wondering why that is, and what specifically you like about Christopher’s acting?
I think most writers would tell you that once an actor gets your rhythm, and channels the emotional truth of what you're writing, you will keep hanging onto them. There's plenty of actors I'd love to work with, and I've been fortunate enough to work with a whole range. Morven and I first worked together in a thing called From There To Here. Toby Jones and me worked on a couple of things [2014’s Marvellous and 2015’s Capital]. The thing with Chris is he is quite interesting to me. He gets the vernacular. He gets the rhythm of the speech. He gets that. I think Chris understands what I'm driving at when I'm writing scenes of flawed masculinity. I can't think why either Chris or I know about this! [laughs]
You tend to hang onto those actors, because then a bond of trust builds, and it becomes easier to work with those actors, because you both trust each other. With Maurice, I'm asking Chris to play somebody older than he is. I'm asking him to play a grandad for f***'s sake, and it's Chris Eccleston! You know? But he trusted me with that, and he trusted me with the sort of man Maurice was. So, I think you build up trust. Somebody gets it, then you kind of want to go back to them. But there are plenty of people out there who I would love to work with, but I've been lucky. I've worked with Imelda Staunton! On The A Word, it’s been nice with some of the younger cast, you just think, “Oh, right, there's somebody there that gets that.” But I think most writers would do that if they could.
The real problem, and obviously right now it isn't a problem, but the real problem has been, and will be again, is availability. It's availability for actors. It's a feeding frenzy at the moment, with Amazon emerging, and Netflix emerging. Everybody's filming all the time. The straightforward thing is do they get the rhythm of the dialogue? And so Chris and I, from the same part of the world and all the rest of it – but Jimmy Nesbitt and I aren't from the same part of the world, and he gets it too. It's more to do with you notice something that they're able to channel. Stephen Graham is the other great example of that, for me. He just gets it. They're also all very f***ing good, aren't they?
No two ways about it. They're all good. Sarah Parish, I've worked with a lot, same thing. She's from West Country, but it’s same thing, she kind of knows how to channel it. Julie Hess I've been chasing forever. Julie, I just knew she's got it. There's an authenticity, I think. Probably a longer answer than you were expecting!
What would you say your chief creative influences were?
Ooh, that is interesting. It changes day-to-day, I think. In terms of invention and daring, and obviously because I'm the age I am, then Dennis Potter is a huge influence. Not necessarily because he did musical and I did a musical, but in terms of saying, you don't have to be locked into realism all the time, on telly. I also think one of the great underrated writers of the Bleasdale generation is Alan Plater. Alan Plater wrote dramas that were every bit as subversive as Bleasdale's, but they didn't shout it quite as loudly; he pulled off that trick with the Beiderbecke Affair, in writing a mainstream hit at ITV that was also very subversive, and it celebrated ordinary people. And then I always go back to Jack Rosenthal and the whole Coronation Street team, those early Coronation Streets.
I'd like to think that Sally Wainwright is an influence, because just what she does and how she does it. Jack Thorne. Contemporaries are always on that list as well, I think. But I think in growing up, it would probably be Dennis Potter in terms of adventurousness, and Alan Plater in terms of the way to put out a mainstream drama that is still saying something about the world. In a weird way, saying it just as powerfully by not stating its aims.
Picking up on what you were saying about contemporaries, I was wondering if there was anything you’ve been watching lately that you’ve enjoyed?
I've really enjoyed Feel Good. Bit of a cliché, but f***ing hell, Succession? It's extraordinary, isn't it?
Just out of this world. I loved Pure last year, I really liked that. I’m watching a lot at the moment –
Can’t think why...
I've been getting up at 6:00 and watching the two episodes of Cheers they show every morning. Just because it's Cheers! I'm always fascinated with the evolution and the history of television. One of the show runners on Modern Family was son of one of the show runners on Cheers, which is really interesting. I've been watching Modern Family again from the start. I'm just interested in those American comedies where characters are incredibly articulate about their own state, but blind to their own emotional state. The history is quite interesting. The End of the F***ing World, I loved that last series of that. I thought Quiz the other night was just brilliant. I've been watching Line of Duty from the start, too. And Inside No. 9 as well, the last series I thought was particularly good.
I'm interested in things that have been around a while and manage to retain their original spirit whilst moving on. Obviously, it's a challenge. You look to America, and you see those long-run shows, what's going on there? Before I was even writing for telly, I was always quite interested in the mechanics of telly, and the history of it, and how one thing influences another, and how influences permeate. That strange thing where some idea is in the air – I don't mean something as crude as everybody's now writing a coronavirus drama!
I think when I was writing Blackpool, suddenly two other writers told me they’d been working on something similar, musicals with a gambling theme. It's good to have been around long enough to see how cyclical everything is, and how everybody's always predicting the end of drama, and it never dies. For instance, watching Quiz the other night, I was trying to explain the context of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to my daughter, who's 22.
I was saying, “Honestly, Connie, when Who Wants to be a Millionaire was playing each evening over a week, I was in the BBC, and they were just saying, 'Well, we might as well give up trying to put anything out at eight o'clock, this will run forever and ever, and it will be a huge ratings juggernaut forever, because it's got everything.” When you're in the moment, it’s “Oh, that's it. There'll be no drama. It's so cheap. Reality TV. There'll be no drama. Reality is so cheap and so interesting.” Now it’s the documentaries on Netflix. But just storytelling, and our wish to hear stories doesn't go away. They may be in different forms, and different platforms, but that remains.
You’ve said before that you’d like to do a new series of The A Word every couple of years, checking in on the characters as they age – would you be interesting in doing something, not necessarily The A Word, but something that runs for a similar length of time as those American programmes?
Yes, I would, and not least to unearth some new writing talent as well. I'd still like to do it with The A Word, as far as I'm concerned. In the last couple of weeks of filming The A Word, I thought, “I don't know if I've got anymore…” and then suddenly ideas started popping. What's been good about the series is we have been off the screen for a couple of years, so it's a less gruelling rhythm, in a way. With World on Fire, I have no choice but to keep going year by year of the war. It was inconvenient because it lasted so long, for me! Far more inconvenient for the people involved. [laughs]
But yeah, I would like to do that. Though I don't know that I would ever want to plan it that way. Just as The A Word feels to me to have evolved, and has a potential to carry on evolving, I'm not sure I would be bold enough to do say, “Right, this is the plan”. But I would like to be in a situation where, as we're finding new writing talent and so on, to run with something that would run long like that.
I think I'm probably a little too fond of the kind of finding a way to do a single play like Marvellous, or Eric and Ernie, to commit my life to one show… but let's say, if somebody's going to offer me five seasons to do something…!
You’d take it, yeah.
I don't think I've ever finished a series where I've thought, “I've got more to do with it. There's more to say.” The series have always finished me. I suppose I always feel Monroe was the one that got away, that show was growing into something, and it's ratings were decent. I think that had the potential to become that kind of show. Because it's a hospital, you've already got an in-built fluidity of cast, you're not anchored to any one character, and it is already broadened. That that feels like the one that got away, really.
That was the intention with Monroe, wasn’t it? To be a long-runner, a replacement for The Bill.
Yeah. Two seasons, twelve episodes – The Bill did a thousand, four hundred!
Would you have stayed with Monroe for that long do you think? Not a thousand four hundred episodes necessarily, but…?
Yeah, but at that point, we already had two new writers on the second series, and my intention was to move to more of a show runner role. It's kind of happening by default on World on Fire, because I'm writing the second series, but I won't be writing all of them. We've already got two, and soon to be three, new writers working on their own episodes. Something like World on Fire could become that, to cover the entire war, but I don't think it was as thought out as “I would start to move into more of a show runner position”.
You’re still writing every episode of The A Word, aren’t you?
Is there a particular reason for that, or…?
No, and funnily enough, I'm thinking, if we do a fourth series, I would probably bring in somebody new. It was just the way it fell in terms of my availability to write it – plus it felt, because of my experience with the teaching, a very authored piece in that regard. World on Fire lends itself more easily to other writers with other interests, because obviously, by its nature, World on Fire is a character piece, but it's very researched. You do your own research, and in a way, a writer can be the detective on their own show, uncovering something in the research they want to write about. There's more freedom, I suppose. I want the others to do well, but not be quite as good as mine!
Well, that’d just be impolite of them really.
Just to wrap everything up then, one final question. What’s the most important thing you’d like someone to take away from your work?
Wow. I think, in a strange way, it's a more general thing, which is that the best way to understand the world is through story, and telling stories. That's the way we survive this. I don't mean telling stories about drinking f***ing bleach, by the way!
It's where does satire go? I don't know where the rule is. Telling stories is the best way to understand the world, I think. The thing that drama does is invite you into sharing a range of experiences that are beyond your own. Walk a mile in my shoes – although the punchline for that from Billy Connolly's gag was, “And by that time, he'll be miles away, and you'll have a new pair of shoes.”
So, that’s what I think. If that doesn't sound too grand to you...! It's a good question.
It’s a good answer!
And if your headline is “pretentious writer says…”, I’ll send Chris for you!
The A Word returns to BBC One on 5th May at 9pm. It transmits weekly and all six episodes will also be available immediately on iPlayer.