Sean Bean, Helen Hunt and Lesley Manville head the cast of World on Fire, a seven-part series that follows ordinary people from across Europe as the continent becomes consumed by the Second World War.
In this DQ interview, writer Peter Bowker and executive producer Helen Ziegler reveal the origins of the series and explain how it follows the lives of multinational people on all sides of the global conflict.
They also discuss how they tried to distance the show from any elements of nostalgia, building the series around a love story between a British translator (Jonah Hauer-King) who falls in love with a Polish waitress (Zofia Wichłacz), despite his relationship with factory worker and singer Lois (Julia Brown) back home.
World on Fire is produced by Mammoth Screen for BBC1, and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Jonah Hauer-King and Zofia Wichłacz, two of the stars of Peter Bowker’s war drama World on Fire, talk about the tangled relationship between their characters and how the series balances epic action scenes with emotional storylines.
BBC series World on Fire, Peter Bowker’s ambitious attempt to dramatise the Second World War, zooms in on the ordinary people across Europe affected by the conflict.
Central to the story is a love triangle between translator Harry Chase, played by Jonah Hauer-King, who begins episode one declaring his love for factory worker and singer Lois (Julia Brown) in Manchester.
Fast-forward several months to the summer of 1939 and Harry is working at the British Embassy in the Polish capital, Warsaw, where he falls for waitress Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz).
As the Nazi threat spreads across Europe, Kasia must choose between love and fighting for her country, while Harry searches for his place in the world and Lois seizes new opportunities as the war unfolds. Harry’s mother Robina (Lesley Manville) and Lois’s pacifist father Douglas (Sean Bean) also find their lives upturned, while outspoken American journalist Nancy (Helen Hunt) finds herself in mortal danger.
Through these characters and their stories, Bowker’s seven-part, multilingual series puts a human face on the first year of the Second World War, capturing the lives of people across Europe and exploring how they are all connected, from Manchester to Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and the beaches of Dunkirk.
“What’s exciting about the show and what’s challenging is we don’t have a central protagonist. There are a lot of stories here and what’s cool is you’re being shown a world that tells you that a war connects everyone,” Hauer-King tells DQ at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. “You have Poles, people from England and people from Germany and France and they’re all connected. They’re all part of these massive, scary events that are unfolding. So we’re at the heart of it in a way, but you feel part of a sort of strange TV family because you’re telling the story together.”
Viewers first meet Harry and Lois in Manchester, where they interrupt a Blackshirts rally and suffer for their protests. His mother takes a dim view of his relationship with a lowly factory girl, while Robina also chastises Douglas, a man still bearing the scars of his experience in the First World War. Then when Harry reappears in Warsaw several months later on the eve of war, he is in a relationship with Kasia. When the first bombs drop, he offers to marry her in a bid to help her escape to England.
“When we meet him, you become aware that he has a girlfriend, a first love, back home. But pretty quickly, he’s in Poland and we see that he’s gone down the route of falling in love with two people, which is not something I would recommend,” Hauer-King (Little Women) explains. “So he finds himself in this not very good situation. But in terms of him and Kasia, they have a really passionate and strong connection. Sometimes you meet someone that just immediately feels very exciting and very vital. Then the war comes.”
Those first scenes run just long enough to establish the characters before the action begins, windows shattering and roofs collapsing as German planes bomb Warsaw. “It’s just beautiful that we had those few scenes before the war, so we could show the joy and the life of these young people. Because after that, there’s just war,” Wichłacz (Amok) adds.
One of the Polish actor’s first ever acting jobs was in Warsaw 44, a film that chartered love and friendship during an operation led by the Polish underground resistance to liberate the city from occupation. Five years later, she’s starring in a British series that reveals what ordinary Poles experienced during those first days of war.
“I knew this would be something completely different, so I was interested in doing it as well and telling a very interesting story,” she says. “The character, I fell in love with her.”
Similarly, Hauer-King has previously appeared in Ashes in the Snow, a movie about the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. “But when you read a script, often you’re really looking at the character and the journey they’re going on,” he explains. “I would do 10 Second World War movies if they all felt different, complex and unique in their own way. There are infinite stories within wars – and actually, that’s partly the point of this series. It’s trying to say there are different sides, different families, different nationalities and people are affected and changed in all kinds of ways. It’s not told as a binary, good-versus-bad story.”
Wichłacz describes Kasia as “a fighter” who loses everything and then battles to win it all back. “So this kind of journey is really exciting,” she says. “I get to play someone who seeks power that she’s lost before.”
In an ensemble drama without a leading protagonist, does Harry stand out as the hero? Hauer-King believes Bowker doesn’t write heroes, instead filling his dramas with a cast of complicated characters. “And that’s exciting because that’s real life,” he says. “The challenge for me was that Harry, despite putting himself in this difficult position, would be a hero in another series.
“There’s parts of him that relate to that, because he is compassionate, brave and has a lot of warmth in him, but he’s deeply flawed and has a lot to learn. He’s by no means a hero. That was exciting because it felt real and also gives your character somewhere to go. It’s fun looking at the journey and seeing the way a character changes over a period of time. That’s what Pete’s really good at – all of the characters go from one place to another. It’s a good acting challenge.”
The cast spent 10 days together in Prague before shooting began, with the Czech city doubling for some of the major locations portrayed in the series. Lead director Adam Smith would also find room in the schedule for as much rehearsal time as possible.
“TV schedules are crazy but he was very good and respectful that he wanted, even on the day [of filming], to try to have a bit of time to ourselves and with him before the 200 crew come in,” Hauer-King says.
Wichłacz continues: “Every day was different. But I always felt so secure and safe on set because, with each of the directors, I felt a great connection. We had four directors [Smith, Chanya Button, Andy Wilson and Thomas Napper]. Everyone was just amazing – amazing crew, amazing DOPs. And even if you’re shooting scenes with explosions but then the next scene is a very intimate emotional scene, I always felt like we had time or however long I needed to focus or to rehearse. It felt really special.”
Hauer-King says the show – produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment – features a “huge range of storytelling techniques,” from the epic set pieces that present a key moment from the war in each episode to the quieter, personal moments shared between characters, whether in England, Poland, France or Germany.
“That’s fun as an actor because you’re flexing different acting muscles,” he says. “It very much keeps you on your toes because, as we know, there’s often no kind of rhyme or reason to a TV filming schedule. One day you’re running through explosions and the next you’re in bed with someone and it’s a very different scenario.”
The actor describes it as a “genuine privilege” to work alongside such established and esteemed actors as Hunt, Bean and Manville.
“There was a scene with Lesley in episode seven where it was so exciting to watch someone like her,” he says. “I’m really young, I’m pretty inexperienced, so to watch someone like that who is such a master felt like a genuine privilege. You have to remember to act yourself sometimes.”
World on Fire aspires to be the definitive Second World War drama. DQ reveals how writer Peter Bowker has taken the global conflict and reduced it to a domestic level, weaving an emotionally tangled web of multi-national characters whose ordinary lives intersect through love, hope and tragedy.
“It sounds more complicated than it is,” explains writer Peter Bowker when he recalls the plot of his latest series, World on Fire. Described as an adrenaline-filled, emotionally gripping and resonant drama set during the first year of the Second World War, it follows the intertwining fates of ordinary people as they grapple with the effect of the war on their everyday lives.
But what makes the show stand out from other wartime dramas, such as HBO’s celebrated miniseries Band of Brothers, is the way it watches the conflict unfold from a multi-national perspective. Polish, French, German, American and British characters are at the heart of the seven-part series, as it charts the experiences of individuals and families facing the fall-out from war.
Bowker says it had never occurred to him to write a period piece about the consequences of military action, despite having penned Iraq War drama Occupation (2009). Yet when Mammoth Screen MD Damien Timmer asked him whether a Second World War drama could ever match the scale and emotional intensity of iconic documentary series World at War, an idea was planted that the writer couldn’t shake. “I turned him down a couple of times but the idea wouldn’t go away, and that’s usually a good clue that you should be writing it,” he says.
At the heart of the story is Harry (Jonah Hauer-King), a British translator who leaves home to work in Poland on the eve of the conflict. Back home in Manchester, he is romantically linked to Lois (Julia Brown) but then falls in love with Polish waitress Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz). Sean Bean plays Lois’s father Douglas, Lesley Manville is Harry’s mother Robina and Helen Hunt is American journalist Nancy Campbell.
When conceiving the idea for the show, Bowker says he was keen to avoid the ghosts of British comedies ’Allo ’Allo and Dad’s Army. One way around them was to employ a natural use of language, with characters largely speaking their native language, rather than have everyone talking English with accents. “It just looks silly now,” he says. “I don’t think you can get away with two Germans speaking English with a German accent anymore.”
The other issue he had writing the series was to avoid some of the language used by real people during the war. “I’ve read a lot of diaries in the Imperial War Museum [in London] and it’s amazing stuff, but of course the language of the 1940s is very much, ‘Gerry is on our tail again,’ which is a kind of comedy cliché now,” he continues. “It’s finding a way to make the language sufficiently of the time yet not fall into those types of clichéd tropes.”
Bowker also looked to introduce real events in a new way, such as following shell-shocked troops on the long road to the Dunkirk beaches, rather than simply meeting them on the sand. But above all, what surprised – and reassured – him the most after reading the accounts of young Polish waitresses living in Warsaw, on the cusp of the war, was learning that the hopes and dreams, fears and worries of people were just the same as they have today.
“They talk about boys, making a decent coffee, being annoyed with their parents,” he says. “Then they say, ‘Something interesting happened today. I joined the Resistance.’ It was so reassuring because nobody’s different in time. Historically, our concerns remain the same and that was exciting and felt new.”
Shepherding the project, which is produced by Mammoth for BBC1 and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, alongside Timmer has been Mammoth’s exec producer Helen Ziegler, who joined while the show was still in development.
“What grabbed me so utterly and completely is that Pete has this amazing way of making you feel like you’re absolutely there and making it incredibly immediate,” Ziegler says. “It just felt like I had honestly never seen that perspective on the war or felt like I was living and breathing it. I was with the characters and his aim of taking these ordinary lives absolutely sung off the page of the first script.”
For the most part, filming took place in the English city of Manchester and in Prague, with the Czech Republic capital doubling for Berlin, Paris and Warsaw. Then, to distinguish the various settings, production designer Paul Spriggs, lead director Adam Smith and series producer Chris Clough emphasised their architecture. Warsaw, says Ziegler, is a beautiful, glamorous city with an Art Deco style, while the show also embraces Berlin’s strong lines and Manchester’s industry and red bricks.
“It is an epic piece but we always want it to be intimate, we always want to see it through the eyes of the characters,” she says. “One of the rules of cinematic style is to be with the people whose story we’re following and see their worlds from their perspective.
“Paul, Adam and Chris found these incredible ruins and they built part of our Warsaw set within them so that we could show, as the bombing of Warsaw starts, how the city starts to crumble, and then go into the ruins and use them. It was such a clever idea, it’s such a feat. There have been lots of different creative ways to give this piece the scale it needs.”
Bold in scale, the series is also hugely ambitious. World on Fire is designed as a multi-season drama, with each season marking one year of the war. Each episode also includes a major sequence from the conflict, with season one featuring the fall of Paris in episode one, as well as the fall of Warsaw, the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain, among other events.
“We’re based in London but we had so many different units filming all over the place,” Timmer says. “There would be a unit filming scenes in Berlin and another in Warsaw and scenes in Manchester, and the rushes would be coming in. Sometimes you’d go from watching Lesley in Manchester to something happening in Warsaw. It did feel like the war was unfolding in real time. It was quite curious.
“There’s a lot of visual effects but we try to do as much in camera as possible. Dunkirk was at St Anne’s Beach in Blackpool. It was the end of May, beginning of June, and for complicated reasons we had no choice but to shoot it in February when we were blessed with the bluest skies, incredible sun and what could have been our Waterloo turned out to work really well. But it was massive in terms of the technical exercise.”
Confined to filming most of her scenes in Manchester and nearby Wigan, Manville plays Harry’s mother Robina, an upper-middle-class woman she describes as frosty, private and cold. Still angry at her husband’s suicide, she mellows as the drama moves forward, particularly when Harry returns with a young Polish boy who she takes into her home.
“What was really lovely to play about this character was that it’s not a complete metamorphosis, but in her own quiet way she goes on a little voyage of discovery,” the actor says. “She finds true feelings for this boy and comes to care for him deeply.
“She lives in this huge pile of a house, alone and doesn’t seem to have much of a life or friends. In some ways, cold as she is, deep down she’s had this desire for something to make her feel and be warm and understand things. That’s what happens. And she’s got some very dry, funny lines as well. Peter has written some choice bits of dialogue for her. It’s upmarket Hyacinth Bucket [the snobbish lead character in UK sitcom Keeping Up Appearances], in terms of the comedy. It’s not ‘ba-boom’ but it’s very dry and witty. It’s lovely. Some of the later scenes with her son are quite powerful and potent.”
Later in the series, Robina discovers Lois is pregnant with Harry’s child, while he ends up marrying Kasia to rescue her from the war. “There’s a great line from Robina,” Manville reveals. “‘If I’d know he was going to marry a Polish waitress I would have seen you [Lois] as more of a prospect.’ That’s her in a nutshell.”
Harry’s relationship with Lois also fosters a blossoming friendship with Robina and Bean’s Douglas, who Manville admits are an odd couple. “What is lovely about it is these two characters, were it not for the war and the situation of her son impregnating his daughter, they’re an unlikely match,” she says. “He’s a bus conductor and she’s a wealthy upper-middle-class woman who doesn’t work. But they certainly develop this friendship that’s really rather tender. She starts to see that underneath all the layers of class, there are people who are human beings who you can have the same conversation with. They just sound different.”
Like Robina, Douglas is a single parent, having been left along with children Lois and Tom after their mother left home. He’s also still struggling to come to terms with his experiences during the First World War. “He’s a beaten man in some ways,” says Bean. “You can still see the strong character that he once was, but he’s been battered down and demoralised by the bloodshed and the horror that he saw out there. He’s not on his own either. There were many who were seen in that way and were treated as if there was something wrong with them. They didn’t really recognise shell shock, which has such a devastating impact on so many men.”
This means that on the brink of the Second World War, working-class Douglas is a conscientious objector – a position that leaves him open to criticism from his friends and neighbours.
“He’s chosen a very hard war to be a conscientious objector in because on the surface it was quite cut and dried,” Bean explains. “He’s very brave to have done that. He gets a hard time from everyone really and when he would go out to get food, people would turn their back on him. It was a very lonely life for him and he’s just trying to do his best. He’s trying to bring his kids up the best he can and he’s still suffering, psychologically and mentally. Then he meets a woman who’s got quite a lot of money. That brings Douglas out of himself and it helps Robina as well because they’re totally different.”
During filming, many of his scenes were emotionally intense, and viewers will see Douglas fall apart when he’s left on his own. But Bean also got to spend a lot of time in a kitchen, next to a fire, having cups of tea and reading the paper, “which was great,” he jokes.
Bowker adds: “What I’m particularly interested in is informing the universal, not establishing the universal and coming down. Sean’s found me out really because all I’ve done is reduce the world to a kitchen.”
Howard Burch, creative director of scripted at prodco Keshet UK, looks at the challenge of repeating the success of hit drama The A Word with its forthcoming second season and discusses the development process behind the follow-up.
The first series of The A Word was a standout success, attracting a consolidated average audience of 5.5 million and a 22% share on BBC1 in 2016. It also aired on SundanceTV in the US, which is also the US broadcaster for season two.
What can one hope for with a second season of a successful show? That it expands on the original? That it whets the audience’s appetite for more? Maybe even that it is better than the first? Or simply that it doesn’t disappoint a loyal audience eager for more?
Produced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, and based on an original Israeli series by Keren Margalit called Yellow Peppers, The A Word is about a messy extended family living in the Lake District, whose youngest son, Joe, just happens to be on the autistic spectrum.
But in writer Peter Bowker’s assured hands, the drama is never issue-led or ‘about’ autism. Audiences flocked to it because it was warm, accessible and light-hearted – and with a great soundtrack to boot!
The second season, coming to BBC1 and SundanceTV this autumn, picks up on events two years on – and Joe, played by Max Vento, is changing. Now seven years old, he has begun to look at the world and finds that he doesn’t fit in. It revisits the funny, mixed-up lives of the Hughes and Scott families as they struggle to do their best as parents, carers and lovers… and to work out what’s really important in the face of nothing ever feeling normal.
Bowker explains: “‘Autistic’ is a word Joe has heard but can’t yet understand. ‘Different’ is what he feels, and fears it might be something bad. It’s up to the whole family to help Joe make sense of who he is and his place in the world. But to do that, they must first be honest about themselves.”
The team, including executive producers Patrick Spence, Marcus Wilson and producer Jenny Frayn, again consulted with various bodies such as the National Autism Society and Anna Kennedy Online to make sure the scripts feel authentic. But the series has never tried to be reflective of every experience of autism in the family. It tells the story of every family through the prism of one family struggling to come to terms with their son’s unexpected diagnosis.
“Peter Bowker has extensive experience of working with families with children with autism and was able to draw on this wealth of knowledge to create a detailed and truthful portrait of a family with a child with autism at its heart,” says producer Frayn. “As well as drawing on Peter’s experience, we also spoke to a number of organisations involved in autism, as well as parents of children with autism. We kept in touch with them after the first series aired and we were pleased by the support we received and the largely very positive feedback.”
For the first season, we filmed in Manchester and the Lake District, just as Storm Desmond brought record rainfall to the North West. For the second season, we were blessed with calmer conditions, partly because filming was pushed back to the spring and summer of 2017. “Although, the weather in the Lake District doesn’t follow the typical laws of the seasons,” notes Frayn. “We started filming in March with snow on the hilltops, and in June we faced torrential rain and high winds.
“We tried to film a fell-running festival with outdoor stalls, people in skimpy running gear and young children licking ice-creams as tents were being blown away and rain lashed the bouncy castle. The cast and crew were all real troopers about coping with the weather, but in the end we had to come back on a sunnier day and stage the fell-running festival all over again. It looked glorious.”
One of the ingredients new to this season is an even greater verisimilitude. “A brilliant illustration of this,” says Wilson, “was the sequence in the special school. We took Max and his on-screen parents Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby into a real special-school classroom to film Joe’s first day because we wanted to portray an authentic environment.
“Producer Jenny and location manager Gary Barnes liaised in detail to work out exactly how this could be achieved by integrating a small documentary-style crew into the classroom and letting real-life action unfold around our characters. We had to make sure we were incredibly sensitive to the needs of the class and teachers, making sure they were comfortable with the equipment and that lighting and sound and all the usual noises of a set were attuned to what the class could cope with.
“Director Sue Tully managed the set beautifully, whispering directions and capturing genuine moments. To ensure the families felt comfortable with what was shot, Jenny [showed footage] to parents and teachers and discussed what we were trying to achieve and whether they were confident about what was seen in each shot.”
The show has sold around the globe, via our distribution arm Keshet International, to countries including Canada, Australia, Finland, Iceland, Croatia, Slovenia, Sweden, Brazil and South Korea, as well as a second-window VoD rights deal to Amazon Prime Video in the US. The series is proving over and over again how relatable and important it is, perhaps because it just really resonates with people – we all have a family, and families all have challenges to overcome. So it’s with comfort and pride that we envisage more viewers around the world watching something so worthwhile.
Hopefully viewers will find this season an even deeper and more rewarding experience than the first. As with any returning series, the writers and creators know the actors they are writing for and can play to their strengths. But, crucially, both cast and crew have spent longer in each other’s company, and that feeling of being one big, unconventional and sometimes fractious but mostly harmonious family filters through in every scene.
In this golden age of TV, it’s easy to fixate on the high-end limited series that dominate cable and SVoD schedules. But spare a thought for the mainstream scripted series that deliver huge ratings and ad revenues week after week for networks.
A good example is CBS crime procedural Hawaii Five-0, which is currently dominating Friday nights at 21.00 in the US with an audience of approximately 10 million, compared with the meagre 1.7 million that Fox’s The Exorcist is currently attracting – and the 500,000 that prefer to watch The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
A reboot of the classic 1960s/1970s series, the new Hawaii Five-0 has performed consistently well for CBS since it launched in 2010, usually averaging around 11-12 million viewers a season. At time of writing it is up to 150 episodes, which just goes to show the immense commercial value of the franchise. Keep in mind that it has also been licensed around the world to the likes of AXN Asia, Cuatro in Spain and Rai Due in Italy. It also performs a key role in handing over a big audience to 22.00 drama Blue Bloods.
With around 25 episodes a year, the show sucks in a lot of writing talent. All told, more than 50 scribes have been involved in writing episodes since the start. One name, however, is ever-present – Peter Lenkov. Lenkov wrote the season one pilot and still writes the first and last episodes of every new season, usually in tandem with another writer such as Eric Guggenheim or Matt Wheeler.
Canadian Lenkov’s credits prior to Hawaii Five-0 included TV series 24 and CSI: NY, plus films RIPD and Demolition Man. He’s also played a central role in the reboot of MacGyver on CBS this year. Although the show hasn’t received a good response from critics, it has rated well enough to secure a full-season order of 22 episodes. If it can keep its ratings at the 7.5-8 million mark then it stands a good chance of getting a second season.
Another writer who has reason to feel pleased with himself this week is Stuart Urban, whose four-part drama The Secret for ITV has just been named best drama at the Royal Television Society NI Programme Awards. The show, which stars James Nesbitt, tells the story of a real-life murderous pact between a dentist and his mistress. Produced by Hat Trick, it is based on Deric Henderson’s non-fiction account of the story, Let This Be Our Secret.
Now 58, Urban’s career dates back to Bergerac in the 1980s. He subsequently won a Bafta for An Ungentlemanly Act, his dramatisation of the first 36 hours of The Falklands War. In 1993, Urban created his own production company, Cyclops Vision, under which he produced a range of feature films and documentaries including the black-comedy movie May I Kill U?.
Still on the awards front, it has also been a good week for Anna and Joerg Winger, whose German-language series Deutschland 83 has just been named best drama at the International Emmy Awards in New York. We featured the Wingers in our focus on German writers last week.
The winner of the TV movie/miniseries category was the Kudos/BBC1 production Capital. Based on John Lanchester’s novel Capital, this three-parter was written by Peter Bowker, who has since gone on to have a hit with The A Word, a BBC drama based on an Israeli show.
Best telenovela went to Globo’s Hidden Truths, written by Walcyr Carrasco and directed by Mauro Mendonça Filho. The show, which aired last year, explores the fashion underworld. Carrasco has been writing telenovelas since the late 1980s. Among his more recent titles was an adaptation of the Jorge Amado novel Gabriela and 2016’s popular Eta Mundo Bom!.
This week has also seen US pay TV channel BBC America greenlight a second season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a series based on the books by Douglas Adams. The show has been adapted for TV by Max Landis, an American multi-hyphenate who has written several movie screenplays including Chronicle, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. He is also an executive producer of SyFy’s horror anthology series Channel Zero.
Landis is currently writing Bright, a supernatural cop thriller starring Will Smith that has received US$90m backing from Netflix.
Elsewhere, cable network TNT is piloting Snowpiercer, a futuristic thriller based on the 2013 film about a huge train that travels around a post-apocalyptic frozen world with the remnants of humanity on board. The TV version will be written by Josh Friedman, whose credits include Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and War of the Worlds.
“Snowpiercer has one of the most original concepts to hit the screen in the last decade, and it’s one that offers numerous opportunities for deeper exploration in a series format,” explained Sarah Aubrey, exec VP of original programming at TNT.
At the other end of the budgetary scale, BBC4 in the UK has ordered a bittersweet comedy about a reserved schoolteacher who agrees to go on a road trip with her mother when she learns that the latter is dying. Entitled Bucket, the show is written by Frog Stone, who will also star alongside Miriam Margolyes. Stone began writing comedy with the Footlights at Cambridge University and has honed her craft writing comedy sketches for Radio 4.
The A Word is a six-part drama that tells the story of a family struggling to come to terms with their youngest son’s autism diagnosis. Based on Israeli drama Yellow Peppers, it is coproduced by Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK for BBC1, and has also been acquired by SundanceTV in the US. Both the original and the adaptation are distributed by Keshet International. Here, writer Peter Bowker and director Peter Cattaneo describe their favourite scenes from the opening episode.
A family struggles to cope when their youngest son is diagnosed with autism in BBC1 drama The A Word – the latest international drama to be inspired by a hit Israeli series.
Israeli dramas have inspired a host of successful international remakes, most notably In Treatment and Homeland – based on Be Tipul and Hatufim (Prisoners of War) respectively.
Now comes The A Word, a BBC1 series that finds its origins in Yellow Peppers and tells the story of a family that struggles to cope when their youngest son is diagnosed with autism.
The cast is led by Christopher Eccleston, Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby and also includes Greg McHugh and Vinette Robinson. The series also introduces six-year-old newcomer Max Vento as Joe, whose diagnosis with autism proves to be the catalyst for an emotional, thought-provoking and often funny family drama penned by Peter Bowker (Marvellous, Capital).
From Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK, The A Word is executive produced by Bowker, Patrick Spence, Jenny Frayn, Sara Johnson, Avi Nir, Lucy Richer and Yellow Peppers creator Keren Margalit. Keshet International distributes both the original series and the BBC version.
Having worked as a teacher of children with learning disabilities for 14 years and known for putting social issues at the heart of his writing, Bowker had been interested in writing about autism when Johnson approached him with a proposal to adapt Yellow Peppers.
“I went in to see Keshet worried they just wanted me to transcribe it (into English) and the first thing they said was they didn’t want a cover version, they wanted something brand new,” Bowker says.
“I always want to write about how families see themselves, how the myth of the perfect family pervades our culture and puts great pressure on people to appear that way. A lot of my writing is about people who are, for other reasons, unable to express the most profound emotions. That for me is what’s interesting in drama, when you are not articulate enough to express that.
“It’s already in the ballpark of what I like to write about, but what I wanted to do here was take a family that, on the surface, is aspirational, fairly comfortably well-off, smart, funny and articulate but that still can’t talk about this stuff.”
The series opens with young Joe, played by Vento, walking alone through the scenic Lake District carrying nothing but a pinwheel spinning in the wind (pictured top), his headphones blasting the Arctic Monkeys. Later it becomes clear there’s something more to his love of music than is first apparent, while he also becomes the subject of arguments between his family, leading to his diagnosis.
Bowker purposefully keeps Joe’s diagnosis hidden from viewers at the start, preferring instead to initially present him as a young boy who simply doesn’t quite fit in.
“I wanted to write about hidden disability, hidden difference,” the writer explains. “I felt if you had a child pretending to be a child with severe autism, it would be both unwatchable and exploitative. I wanted to get under the bells and whistles of visible disability and look at what happens when there are a number of behaviours that don’t quite fit.”
Another key character in the drama is the setting – the Lake District in North West England provides a picturesque backdrop to The A Word, which takes in a number of outside scenes and even sees some characters running through the hills.
“I chose the Lakes very early because in the original, they’re living on the edge of a desert,” Bowker says. “I chose somewhere where it looks like you’re raising a child in paradise until the problems for the child arise, in which case how do you access resources? And the Lake District is both pretty and threatening so suddenly you start to see the landscape in a completely different way.”
Behind the scenes, Bowker enjoyed collaborating with lead director Peter Cattaneo (Rev), who helms the first three episodes in the six-part series.
While he has no aspirations to get behind the camera – “People ask me if I want to direct and I don’t” – he says Cattaneo immediately understood the style and tone of The A Word that he had written into his scripts, all played out to a pulsating indie soundtrack.
“I loved Rev. It was brilliant in so many ways but, particularly, I’m an atheist and yet he made me care about faith – and I wanted a director who could make this special to someone who had had nothing like these kinds of experiences,” Bowker says. “It’s no use to me if just parents of children with autism watch it. It’s preaching to the converted anyway. It needs to be more universal than that.”
Working on The A Word, Cattaneo enjoyed finding a similar balance between comedy and pathos that he employs in Rev. Visually, he also makes the most of the sweeping vistas offered by the Lake District setting in which the action plays out.
“It’s like life,” he explains. “Life is about laughter and tears and it was about trying to not go too maudlin with the sad stuff but ensure it was poignant, and not to go too gaggy with the comedy but hopefully to make deft moves from one to the other. For this, authenticity felt key.
“Pete was brilliant. He let me get on with it but it was great to have someone to turn to as a collaborator. He let me direct and we’d talk about my notes here and there to open it out visually. He was very respectful.”
Bowker is already thinking of a second season of The A Word – and beyond: “My ambition for this is to ‘do a Boyhood’ (Richard Linklater’s acclaimed film tracking 12 years of a boy’s life) and watch him grow up, because the challenges change over time and I’d love to follow a family for that length of time.”
Until then, he’s concentrating on an epic Second World War drama called World on Fire, produced for the BBC by Mammoth Screen. He also has aspirations to work with producer Julian Farino on a “gritty but sweet” series based on the real-life story of a group of Syrian refugees who are rehomed on the Scottish island of Bute.
“Perhaps not for new writers, but for established writers, it feels like a great era of television,” he adds, citing Russell T Davies (Cucumber), Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) and Andrew Davies (War & Peace) as scribes at the top of their game. “The ambition and the understanding that an audience doesn’t have to be spoon-fed is incredibly encouraging.”