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Show of the Week: The A Word

The reason The A Word, a drama ostensibly about autism, has been successful in the UK is, according to Keshet International head of sales Keren Shahar, that is not a drama about autism.

“This is a humorous family drama,” she says. “Autism plays a central role in the storyline, but it is not a drama about autism. Some might say it is actually a drama about miscommunication within a family, and that is something everyone can relate to.”

The A Word follows parents living in the UK’s picturesque Lake District, who discover their five-year-old, rock music-obsessed Joe suffers from autism. How the dysfunctional family, which includes a tactless granddad, deal with the news and other family issues provides the jeopardy for the resulting series.

Based on Keshet drama Yellow Peppers, six-episode The A Word was been picking up good consolidated ratings of nearly six million in the UK, where public broadcaster the BBC commissioned it after a deal with distributor Keshet International. Views on the BBC iPlayer have been strong, and social media reaction has been largely positive in terms of the portrayal of autism.

Blackpool writer Peter Bowker adapted the scripts, which popular Israeli writer Keren Margalit first penned, and reviews have been largely positive.

“It is very sentimental, sensitive writing, and that’s why people can relate to the series,” says Shahar.

Keshet International has been pitching the show as finished tape and a format this year, with Shahar keen to dispel one notion. “It is not niche at all,” she says. “Keshet is a commercial broadcaster, the Israeli equivalent of ITV, and it aired in primetime.

“One might not think it’s a commercial broadcaster series, but I can tell you it performed exceptionally well in Israel. It was talked about and created big impact on our audiences. It’s had the same impact in the UK.”

Shahar says offers to buy the show are “coming in”, as it has “had the same resonance internationally as it has had in the UK and Israel”. SundanceTV came on-board as a coproducer in January, with Endemol Shine Group-owned Fifty Fathoms and Keshet UK already coproducing and Margalit and Bowker among the executive producers.

Casting for a formatted version has been very important in both the UK and Israeli versions. Keshet casted comic actors for many of the parts and the BBC did the same, with the likes of Christopher Ecclestone (Doctor Who) and Greg McHugh (Fresh Meat).

“Peter added those necessary nuances for the UK series – the UK cast all have form in comedy,” says Shahar. “That’s part of the ingredients when talking about adapting it. It’s almost the bible.”

The A Word was one of three British-produced dramas featured at the MIPDrama Screenings at MIPTV earlier this month.

The show: The A Word
The producer: Fifty Fathoms, Keshet UK
The distributor: Keshet International
The broadcaster: BBC One, SundanceTV
The concept: Contemporary drama about family dealing with a young boy’s autism diagnosis