On World Down Syndrome Day, read our interview with The A Word’s Leon Harrop

Last November Harrop and his co-star Christopher Eccleston were on our cover. Here’s the story behind the interview

In November 2017, our magazine cover stars were two actors from hit BBC1 drama The A Word. This feature and cover shoot was a labour of love. Here’s how it came about.

We made a video in 2016 featuring acting giant Christopher Eccleston among many other big name supporters of The Big Issue to celebrate our 25th birthday. He invited us to his house, made us tea, we chatted and then he filmed something really heartfelt and brilliant.

We stayed in touch. I suggested a profile interview. He came back with a better idea. Why not interview Eccleston and young Leon Harrop together? The former Doctor Who star suggested it would be powerful to put them on the cover. So we did. And it felt like a political act.

As well as reminding readers of the return of writer Peter Bowker’s brilliant TV series, we put our money and our magazine where our mouth is – not just talking about visibility and inclusivity for people with learning disabilities, but actively trying to change and promote and represent and diversify and include.

Harrop became the first person with Down’s syndrome to grace the cover of The Big Issue.

We had about ten minutes to shoot the cover in a small screening room at the Covent Garden Hotel before the cleaner needed to get in to vacuum. We used a little charm, relying on The Big Issue’s good name, and they let us in. Photographer Louise Haywood-Schiefer, as always, did a fine job – capturing the warmth of their personalities and relationship, to produce a striking cover image.

Harrop became the first person with Down’s syndrome to grace the cover of The Big Issue.

We wouldn’t mind betting he was the only Down’s syndrome cover star of a national magazine in 2017. And he was there on merit. As Eccleston told us: “Leon is a proper, technically brilliant actor, who happens to have Down’s syndrome.”

Following the cover shoot, we met up with the duo’s co-star Pooky Quesnel, who as music teacher Louise, is Harrop’s on-screen mother and Eccleston’s on-off partner. As we celebrate World Down’s syndrome Day 2018, here are a few edited highlights from our discussion with Harrop, Eccleston and Quesnel.

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

“Leon is a brilliant actor”

Christopher Eccleston: 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.

Pooky Quesnel: 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.

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

Leon Harrop: 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.

“My life has been entirely enriched by becoming a friend of Leon’s”

CE: I’d like to say filming The A Word this has completely changed my worldview about learning disabilities, but my mum and dad taught me to see the person first. I also did another series by Peter Bowker called Flesh and Blood in 2001, and the two lead actors 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.

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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. I’m not just saying it because they are in the room, but the love between these two and the mutual support is fantastic. He is your rock isn’t he?

LH: My dad is, yeah.

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.

PQ: One of the appeals of the show is that whether you have 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 syndrome – 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.

“Leon could carry his own series”

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, BBC1 – 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 prime time dramas.

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

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 Big Issue no 1281