Autism Drama Writer Talks BBC, Sundance's 'The A Word'

'The A Word'

Peter Bowker discusses his experiences as a former teacher of children with learning disabilities, making the Keshet U.K. show his own and casting Doctor Who.

Among the new dramas jostling for attention at this year’s MIPTV in Cannes next month is The A Word from the U.K. arm of Israel-based Homeland creator Keshet, co-produced alongside Fifty Fathoms and Tiger Aspect.

Centered around a dysfunctional British family learning to deal with autism, and starring former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston, the show is based on an original Israeli show Yellow Peppers, which aired on Keshet's network in Israel in 2010.

SundanceTV picked up U.S. rights to the show earlier this year, while the BBC’s flagship channel BBC One will air the first episode Tuesday night.

At a special screening in London, British writer Peter Bowker (Occupation, Capital) spoke about making the Israeli drama his own.

How did The A Word come to you?

It was brought to my attention by Keshet — I loved the original series and I had wanted to write something around the world of autism for some time. I remember thinking: "Do I say I don’t want to do that, or do I say this provides me with a wonderful foundation to do that, why would I not?" And so I went in to see Keshet, worried that they’d just want me to transcribe it and the first thing they said is what they didn’t want me to do is a cover version. They want something that is brand-new. And then it was a case of cherry picking what I liked from the original.

How did your own experiences help writing the drama?

I was a teacher for 14 years of children with learning disabilities, so I encountered a number of children and adults at various stages of the the autism spectrum. I’ve remained in contact with teachers who still have proper jobs and there’s a friend who has a child who is very seriously along the spectrum. So it’s been around. I poured that experience into it. Ad then it was just coming and living and forming my own f—ed up family, drawing on that experience. My daughter said she’d seen an email from a journalist who said he wanted to get to the man behind the work, and she said: "Well he won’t have to look very far."

Was it more about the family?

I always want to write about that — it always comes back to that. How families see themselves, how the myth of the perfect family pervades our culture and how it’s all a lie, but it puts great pressure on people to appear whatever that ideal is, to buy into that. And a lot of my writing is about people who are, for other reasons, unable to express their most profound emotions. So it’s kind of already in the ball park for me as what I’m interested in writing about. But what I wanted to do here was have a family that on the surface, for want of a better word, are aspirational, they’re fairly comfortably off, they’re building a business, they’re smart, they’re funny, but they still can’t talk about this [autism] stuff…that’s interesting. Now autism has become a byword for a lack of social skills, not in a great way. You’ve got men saying, "I didn’t ring her back because I’m a bit on the spectrum." No you’re not, mate, you just didn’t want to ring her back. Grow up. There’s a bit of misuse of it.

And you’ve got Christopher Eccleston playing his first grandfather...

I think it was left to me to tell him. It started with: "You might want to tell me to f— off." I’m 57 now and he’s early 50s. All the lads in my town that failed their school exams are now grandparents, so it’s not implausible. But most of all, what I wanted was a patriarch and I thought, wouldn’t it be great if not only was he domineering, not only is he annoying…it’s Christopher Eccleston. You’ve got this physical vitality. It’s even worse. You want your dad to be on the sofa watching the wrestling, you don’t want him to be running up hills.