Christopher Eccleston: ‘TV is ignoring people with learning difficulties’

Christopher Eccleston, Leon Harrop and Pooky Quesnel from The A Word discuss Down’s Syndrome, disability on TV – and how the former is going to take over the world!

“Behave, Chris!”

Actor Leon Harrop is climbing on to the arm of a sofa for our photo shoot. The young up-and-comer from BBC One’s The A Word – and now poster boy for actors with Down’s Syndrome – gives co-star Christopher Eccleston a telling off for clowning around.

Meanwhile, Pooky Quesnel, who as music teacher Louise is Harrop’s mother and Eccleston’s on-off partner in the show – looks on and laughs.

Though it tackles the serious issues of a child’s autism diagnosis, as well as Harrop’s character Ralph defying expectations by getting a job, The A Word is full of humour and heart. Our interview goes down similar lines, but behind the jokes the actors talk seriously.

They’ve clearly thought about the inclusion and visibility of people with learning disabilities and for Harrop, 25, it’s obviously personal. Now that he’s broken through though, he has his eye on other primetime TV shows like any ambitious young actor.

Diversity and inclusivity and visibility – some people get tense about those words. I don’t

Watching them is like glimpsing a real family. And for the actors it has begun to feel like that. Eccleston and Quesnel have known each other since being cast together in a sixth-form play. “Without sounding like Disney bollocks, we both had the same dream, which was to be actors,” Eccleston says.

They bonded during series one and share more screen time this time around. While The A Word continues to centre on the Hughes family and their son Joe’s autism, Ralph’s dream of being independent and getting a job is another important driver of the drama this time around.

Big issues

CE: It doesn’t feel like work to me when I’m with these two. We are being paid to act the goat and pretend to be other people, but we are also making television that we think has got some value. Diversity and inclusivity and visibility – some people get tense about those words. I don’t.

PQ: And without being worthy about those terms – I don’t think it is worthy, this series.

CE: The A Word does not lecture anyone. It is not a soapbox. The bond between us is that when we work, all three of us are very, very focused. Pooky and Leon are all about concentration. We don’t just think about what we are trying to achieve. We are aware it is an ensemble.

PQ: There are big issues covered in our storyline, so it did require concentration. If it was all happy-go-lucky scenes, that might be different.

CE: But we work like that even on the happy-go-lucky scenes! We prep and work hard. And Leon is a proper, technically brilliant actor, who happens to have Down’s Syndrome.

Leon is a proper, technically brilliant actor, who happens to have Down’s Syndrome

PQ: He’s a craftsman. Leon, you learn it all with your dad, don’t you?

LH: I highlight what I say in the script. And we read it over and over. Sometimes I struggle with it. Sometimes I don’t. But I repeat it every day until it gets into my head, then we film it.

PQ: Is that the hardest bit for you? Because once he is on  set, he is amazing, completely natural.

LH: It is a bit hard when I have to learn it. But you have to break it down, every word, to get it in.

CE: I have not done a great deal of comedy in my career. I have done a lot of tortured, angry, miserable men. So I have learned working with Leon, who has a natural gift for comedy – which is not to say he doesn’t work hard at it. I have learnt from him in terms of timing. And relaxation. He is very relaxed in front of the camera.

LH: I look at Chris or Pooky and don’t think about the camera. I just think about the characters. I act naturally.

A new world view

CE: I’d like to say that filming The A Word has completely changed my world view about learning disabilities, but my mum and dad taught me to see the person first. I also did another series by [The A Word writer] Peter Bowker called Flesh and Blood in 2001, and the two lead actors in that had learning disabilities. Also, at the beginning of my career I played Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It, who had a learning disability. So that took me into that world when I was researching it. I naturally gravitated to this show because of the issues that were in it.

PQ: It is a real privilege to have been part of it and present these stories.

CE: One of the most powerful things for me is seeing Leon and his dad, Dave, together. The love between these two and the mutual support is fantastic. He’s your rock, isn’t he?

LH: My dad is, yeah.

CE: I remember when Leon did one scene and Dave went up to him afterwards. He was very proud.

Dave: I really like watching him. And it is great when I talk to the director and they say how quickly he picks this up, or how he is so good at doing that. I’m very proud.

Christopher Eccleston, Leon Harrop and Pooky Quesnel
Christopher Eccleston, Leon Harrop and Pooky Quesnel

PQ: One of the appeals of the show is that whether you’ve got an autistic child or a child with a learning disability, families are incredibly complicated. It reflects that really well, doesn’t it?

CE: Perhaps Dave could tell us more, but a family that has somebody with special needs or autism or Down’s – obviously at first it is difficult, but it seems to me that the majority of families are improved by it, rather than damaged. Because you have to find different ways. My life has been entirely enriched by becoming a friend of Leon’s. Entirely. So what Leon must do to his own family is only imaginable. And the show is definitely saying that.

“Is it because I’ve got Down’s?”

CE: There was one day I remember where Leon had to improvise. I was sat at my desk as Maurice and they were shooting Leon talking to the two Polish guys in the brewery. And Leon’s improvisation was all about Doctor Who! Do you remember, Leon?

LH: Yeah! That was funny.

CE: And of course, afterwards the director was going, ‘We can’t use that’ because I used to be Doctor Who. But I thought it was good and meta. I hope it is staying in.

LH: My favourite scene is when I get a job in the brewery and come in and ask Chris if the job is still going. It was funny as well, because Greg [McHugh], who plays Eddie, had to sing a Take That song and was taking the mick out of Chris.

CE: [sings] I want you back for good. He loved doing that, Greg, didn’t he?

LH: Yeah, he did.

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PQ: In the series, my character doesn’t know anything about Ralph going for the job until she sees the application form on the table. Ralph wants to be independent, doesn’t he?

CE: That is a great storyline between you two.

PQ: She doesn’t realise what an adult he is. And she conceals stuff from him and underestimates him. So I am trying to protect him and he is busy protecting himself.

Leon has a speech when he talks about his Down’s Syndrome. That’s very powerful

CE: There is an assumption made, even by his mother. And my character, Maurice, makes an assumption and then has to apologise for it. That’s when Leon has a speech when he talks about his Down’s Syndrome. And that was very powerful. What was it like to film that bit, Leon? Can you remember that bit, where you say: “Is it because I’ve got Down’s?”

LH: I remember that. It is when I’m walking and you were driving.

CE: That’s right. And you get very angry with me for patronising you. The phrase wasn’t used in the first series, quite rightly. It is just their everyday life. But Leon as Ralph meets the subject head on.

No excuses

CE: Because of my background there was something that felt quite self-indulgent about becoming an actor. There was part of me that wanted to feel that I wasn’t just showing off – although I love showing off. So with shows like Hillsborough, Our Friends In The North, Flesh and Blood, I got that opportunity. And this is very much part of that because of the inclusion of people like Leon. The challenges we have faced are nothing like the challenges Leon has faced in his life. And he brings that to the screen in the role of Ralph. Peter Bowker brings that to the audience with his writing, and it is clear they want to watch it.

PQ: It normalises it on screen.

Christopher Eccleston and Leon Harrop

CE: I am very emotionally invested in this show because of the experience we had working together. This is not a one-off for Pete. He did Flesh and Blood, Marvellous. He is really campaigning here, but he is doing it with a smile on his face. It is very, very clever – he is not lecturing, he is not oppressing people, he is doing it with self-deprecating wit, which is how families work. But actually it is a hugely important issue he is pushing forward. We are all very much behind him. The A Word is saying, there are no excuses any more. I’ve had as strong a reaction to this as anything I’ve ever done.

CE: There is a problem in this country with visibility for people with learning difficulties and special issues. The execs make assumptions but they have no idea what audiences want because they are not as intelligent as the audience. Fair play to the BBC, they have put us on, 9pm, Tuesday, BBC One – and three of our main characters are either played by people with special needs or are playing special needs, learning disabilities, or in Leon’s case Down’s Syndrome. So it is massively important. We are hoping that now all the channels will look at this and central characters will appear regularly in big primetime dramas.

LH: I’d like to be in Corrie. I said that in the local paper, but nothing came of it.

The [TV] execs make assumptions but they have no idea what audiences want

CE: And you’d be great. What we are talking about here is political. Because what is clear to me having worked with Leon is that he could carry his own series. If he goes into Coronation Street or Emmerdale, which would be a great job, he would be one of many. But Leon has the ability and ambition to carry a series. You could have a spin-off from The A Word called Ralph. We could follow his life in the brewery, follow his emotional life, because he has the ability to do it.

LH: Thank you Chris! I like acting because it is working with different people, like Chris and Pooky. I want to act for a long time. I want to be an actor who is good, and I want to carry on with the acting because it is my favourite job ever.

CE: The idea of The A Word is to push the door open more and more. It is about visibility and inclusiveness. And then, right, I’m going to become Leon’s agent and take over the world and make a lot of money.

The A Word is on at 9pm, Tuesdays, BBC One

Screen presence disability in TV and film

  • One in five people have some form of disability but the BBC found they account for just 1.2 per cent of those appearing on TV.
  • The broadcaster set a target to quadruple on-air representation to five per cent by 2017, bumping this up again to eight per cent by 2020 earlier this year.
  • In the US, research from Ruderman Family Foundation found that 95 per cent of TV characters with disabilities were played by non-disabled actors.
  • In film, a study from the BFI (2007) found disabled representation is now at its lowest since 1998.
  • The highest representation of disabled people in film was 1.8 per cent, but the only UK production to appear in the sample was Live and Let Die (1973).
  • Another study found 16 per cent of best actor Oscar awards were for portrayals of disability or mental illness (awarded to actors without disabilities).