5 Questions with “THE A WORD” Executive Producer Patrick Spence
Executive producer Patrick Spence discusses how he and co-executive producer/writer Peter Bowker got THE A WORD off the ground, what the setting’s beautiful but rugged landscape of the Lake District means to the story, and why communication is at the center of everything in THE A WORD.
Q: How did THE A WORD get off the ground?
A: It started as it always starts, with scripts. Pete Bowker was inspired – very inspired – by an Israeli show called Yellow Peppers that dealt with a family living with a child with autism, and he wanted to reimagine that in a way that only Pete can – and I go where Pete goes. I just find his voice extraordinary. So we developed the scripts together, took them to the BBC, and they said yes. We were also lucky to have SundanceTV come on as a co-producer.
Q: What is it about Peter’s writing that you particularly enjoy?
A: What Pete does so well is to make the very specific universal. So he can talk about things that are utterly unique to characters that are both very funny and very moving, often all at the same time, and often within the same scene. And yet you can watch that scene and think, “My God, that is me, that’s how I feel, that’s what I see, that’s what I experience.” So whether he’s writing about troops in Iraq, or a family living in the Lake District, I feel connected to it and I think most people do. It’s about making the specific universal and allowing us all to share in an emotion or a moment as if it’s an expression of our own lives. It’s very hard to do, and he makes it look very easy.
Q: How important is the Lake District setting to the story?
A: It’s very important in the story that the family doesn’t have access to the everyday support and advice and help that you get when your child is diagnosed as being on the spectrum, and that’s why they choose to take on so much of that responsibility themselves. They live in the middle of nowhere. And I think what’s great about the Lake District is that, partly, it’s a world that Pete knows and it allows him to write with great authority, but also it is both beautiful and slightly frightening. The Lake District is not a picture postcard if you actually live there. It’s as tough as it is beautiful, and I think as the story rolls on you’ll understand why we made that decision.
Q: Why is the project so special to you?
A: Because Pete wrote it. Because as a producer it’s my job to serve a writer’s vision, to help bring to life someone’s expression, and I find his writing captivating. So I follow that voice. I serve that voice, if you will. So it’s a very personal response to the question, but I’m all about the writer. And when Pete decided he wanted to write something that was very personal because of his background as a teacher and his knowledge and what he had to say about that world, it was a gift to me. Why I think the project is so special to other people would be a different answer, and I think that ties into what we were talking about before – Pete’s ability to make something so specific, like dealing with autism, so universal. Really, it’s about communication as much as it is about autism. We all come from or feel like we come from families where communication is an issue, communication’s a problem. We all think we communicate well, but we don’t. We’re terrible at it. And I think Pete finds humor and poignancy and profound emotion in that continual battle to connect, to communicate, to express our feelings, to help somebody express theirs. So the idea of a family that can’t communicate teaching a five-year-old boy how to communicate is funny and quite moving, I think, and that’s a unique experience to watch and a lovely story to tell.
Q: Why do you think viewers will respond to THE A WORD?
A: The appeal of the show, I think, lies in Pete’s ability to pinpoint what goes on within a family as we struggle to communicate, as we struggle to connect, as we struggle to fall in love and help people grow, and he’s used a family’s attempts to teach a child to communicate as a perfect vehicle for that. It’s like a pebble thrown into a pond. Everything ripples out, and everyone is affected by one diagnosis of one child. And all of the concerns and conversations about autism only serve to magnify all the fissures and all the problems and all the joys that we have in any family. It just makes everything feel bigger, but it’s all the same. Every relationship within THE A WORD is similar, I would argue, to most relationships that we have within our own families. So I think it’s very specific and very universal all at the same time, which is the key quality, I’d say, for a great drama. So I’m hoping that people in Australia and America and Germany and Russia will all find the same truth – the same essential truth – about life that Pete has to offer, which is that we all want to connect. We all want to communicate, and we don’t really know how.