Last Tuesday, The A Word started at 9pm on Tuesday, the slot that had been occupied by the second series of Happy Valley, the Yorkshire-based six-part police drama starring Sarah Lancashire as a police sergeant in Hebden Bridge. The A Word, which a number of my friends with children on the autism spectrum said they couldn’t watch for fear of it being too upsetting, is about a young autistic boy (or perhaps a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, although that distinction is no longer made) in a family full of squabbling adults, or maybe it’s about a family of squabbling adults who have an autistic son; that will presumably be revealed later in the series. I found that Happy Valley was nowhere near as dramatic as the original series, with neither of the murderers involved being apprehended, and in some important aspects unconvincing; The A Word’s depiction of autism itself has been described elsewhere as uncharacteristic and the diagnostic process ludicrously optimistic.
Happy Valley originally showed in 2014 and featured Sarah Lancashire as Sergeant Catherine Cawood investigating the disappearance of a local businessman’s daughter, who was kidnapped and her father blackmailed. One of the captors turned out to be Tommy Lee Royce (played by James Norton) who had raped the sergeant’s daughter eight years earlier and thereby fathered her son, who was presenting with behavioural problems and although Cawood was bringing her grandson up, she clearly had trouble forming an attachment with him. It ended with the businessman’s daughter being freed from a cellar where she had been raped and Royce being arrested after trying to murder his son. In this series, Royce grooms a middle-aged woman to influence Cawood’s grandson; a local misfit who lives with his mother and may have learning difficulties supposedly murders five women who are in prostitution, while a male colleague of Cawood’s, John Wadsworth (played by Kevin Doyle), murders a woman who has been blackmailing him. The misfit is shot dead by his mother when he confesses to her (it’s later revealed that she had been raped by her father and he was the result), while Wadsworth is found out when other victims of the same blackmailer come forward; he jumps from a railway bridge.
I was unconvinced by some aspects of the plot this time. To begin with, Karen Ingala-Smith on Twitter pointed out these dubious plot elements:
Really not finding myself impressed by this series of Happy Valley, 2 dodgy women, a woman killer who wasn't previously violent to women AND— Karen Ingala Smith (@K_IngalaSmith) February 16, 2016
spaces for 10 trafficked women found in a refuge in Huddersfield just like that. Maybe things have changed since I managed a refuge in Hudds— Karen Ingala Smith (@K_IngalaSmith) February 16, 2016
but I somehow doubt it. I very much doubt whether there are 10 available refuge spaces in the whole of Yorkshire tonight.— Karen Ingala Smith (@K_IngalaSmith) February 16, 2016
I pointed out that Wadsworth could have simply brought up the matter with his superiors if he was being blackmailed; the fact that she had the incriminating matter on her mobile phone is something they could easily have ascertained after arresting her. For whatever reason, the two other male victims of this blackmailer only came forward towards the end, around the same time as the other murderer was himself murdered and the crime was revealed as being unconnected to the others. I found it disappointing that the murderer of the prostitutes was revealed as the local misfit; men with learning disabilities are often falsely accused of crimes including rape, and such accusations have been factors in disability hate crimes. If he really had been guilty, surely his DNA would have been taken after he was arrested for attacking with a hammer some local youths who had been harassing him, and matched with DNA found at the crime scenes. It was also odd that the police readily believed his mother’s story about his confession after she was arrested for killing him, and declared the cases of the five women solved. Finally, Wadsworth jumped from a bridge onto a car which was emerging from underneath; the cops had failed to block off the bridge, and this oversight was never remarked on.
The last episode ends with Cawood bemoaning the “shit week” she’d had, and it had the feel of an episode of The Bill ending, ready for a new one to begin, rather than the conclusion of a dramatic murder plot. Of course, the series cannot go on like the Midsomer Murders with improbably large numbers of murders happening in small communities, but it can’t turn into a soap opera either. The scriptwriter, Sally Wainwright, has said she would like to write a third series but that it would take time as she would hate to make a series which people said wasn’t as good — which would be very easy to do. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t hear some of the dialogue properly, although the criticism of “mumbling” was said to have mystified the production team as a programme has to be perfect when it leaves the editing suite, and they said it was, or so they thought.
The A Word had its first episode last week. It featured a middle-class family in Cumbria whose five-year-old son Joe was obviously autistic (some characteristic features, such as being unable to make friends and never being invited to anyone else’s party, while others not so characteristic — the scene where he silently drops to the floor during a meltdown at a party struck one mother as very unlike her experience). He has taken on his father’s love of 80s rock and pop lock, stock and barrel, and can recite lyrics to songs most kids his age have never heard of (e.g. “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League, which I thought a bit disturbing until I realised that this song was a hit when I was about his age). He is also surrounded by adults who argue an awful lot, particularly as his uncle is recently reconciled with his wife, who is a doctor, and they are shown noisily making love and then noisily arguing; his grandfather aggressively interferes and finds fault with both his father and his uncle. He wears headphones and listens to music most of the time, and is seen putting them on when his parents start arguing in his presence. The idea that his behaviour might be influenced by that of the adults around him is never mentioned.
The process of diagnosing him was condensed into the last 20 minutes of the programme, but even so, it was improbably quick and easy. Through the aforementioned doctor, the family get him seen by an autism specialist of some sort in a very short time, and despite the fact that his parents present incomplete documentation (no school reports, which they “don’t bother” with) and play down his difficulties, she diagnoses him with ASD in one sitting. This is, of course, extremely unlikely. It took about five sittings to get my diagnosis, but even so, it takes years for many families (even if they get a diagnosis in childhood at all) to even get seen by the right type of professional, and an uphill battle to get the accommodations they need for their child at school, for example. Of course, not all families are as wealthy as those in this series and don’t have the sort of family connections available to these people, and the fact that they got such easy access to specialists living in Cumbria makes it all the more unrealistic. (See a critique of this aspect from a mother who’s been there here.)
So, even for a middle-class family (and trust the BBC not to complicate a middle-of-the-road drama by setting this on a council estate somewhere), this is a really unrealistic portrayal of both autism and the process of getting a diagnosis. The acting of the other characters can’t be faulted, but Joe is a humourless cardboard cut-out displaying all the stereotypes in the book. I hope this drama doesn’t repeat the awful ending of a serial about a boy with ADHD a few years ago, which ended with him being sent to boarding school as if that was a happy ending. (Simon Hattenstone and his daughter Maya review it for the Guardian here.)
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