On set with the stars of BBC TV's hit drama The A Word

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25 June 2017 2:21PM

A sun-soaked fellside a stone's throw from Keswick was my office on Tuesday afternoon.

After arriving at the Pencil Museum, just before lunch, I was immediately whisked off to "set" to mingle with the cast and crew of The A Word.

Phil, my minibus driver, took me down a familiar road - the A591 - heading to Grasmere before taking a right turn towards Bridge End Farm at Thirlmere.

On my left a few hundred yards along was a field splattered with colourful gazebos, bunting, bouncy castles, a bar with (fake) beer pumps, stalls, hay bales, portable toilets and scores of people.

A summer fete? No, this was the carefully crafted set of the fictional 25km High Tarn Fell Race.

It features in episode four of the six-part second series of the highly-acclaimed The A Word. Six scenes were being filmed on Tuesday.

There was also "The Fellside", the stone barn which Paul - Joe's father in the show - was seen converting into a gastropub in the first series.

I walked inside and was introduced to executive producer Marcus Wilson and actor Christopher Eccleston.

Sitting on a chair finishing off an interview with local radio, Christopher is wearing shorts and a running vest with the number 102 pinned on.

He's taking a break from playing widower Maurice Scott, who is often seen running the fells on the show and has decided to enter the High Tarn race.

Christopher is no stranger himself to fell running.

He "ran 10 miles to work" and he loves running the high passes in and around Keswick.

He's also been a regular visitor to the Lake District since childhood and returning as an adult to work, filming dramas such as BBC1's The A Word and ITV's Safe House.

Christopher said: "When it comes to Maurice, if he's into religion it is running. If it is faith then it is fell running.

"We're re-staging the fell race because a couple of weeks ago it was the first time during this second series that the weather turned against us.

"So at great expense and planning it has been re-arranged for us to come back to finish off.

"We're about three-quarters of the way through the series now. We started filming on March 27 and we end our shooting in July.

"We've been filming in three-week blocks and had almost finished a few weeks ago."

He added: "I tend to run everyday myself and I've done a lot of running in the Borrowdale Valley and around Derwentwater."

Marcus Wilson was overseeing Tuesday's shoot.

Dr Who, Whitechapel and Luther are other prime-time production credits he has to his name.

Marcus said: "This is the biggest day of shooting. When it got rained off a few weeks ago I was absolutely gutted but it is great that we've been able to come back so soon."

He also revealed that walkers and cyclists have regularly wandered unannounced on set whilst the crew has been working in Cumbria.

"We get a lot of walkers dropping in asking if they can join us for a drink," he said.

"There's been a lot of disappointment for them when they've discovered we're actually filming and we don't have a real pub."

The two men also pay tribute to Peter Bowker, the writer behind The A Word.

Peter was also the man behind the 2014 television movie Marvellous, which portrayed the true story of Neil Baldwin who refused to accept learning difficulties as a label and led an extraordinary life.

"When Peter is writing Maurice and his passion for running, his passion is like mine," said Christopher.

Executive producer Marcus added: "I remember being sent the script for the first episode of The A Word by the production company Fifty Fathoms and the writing blew me away. Peter makes you laugh and cry at the same moment.

"We also knew that it had to be in the Lakes because of the way that Peter used the landscape as a character right from the off. It was incredible."

The A Word's second series is set two years on from the first.

Christopher said: "The decision is made to take Joe out of a local, standard school and take him into a special school environment.

"It creates tensions between his parents Paul and Alison and the wider family and there's a series of new challenges for Joe. Also in that two years there has been a relationship diminish between Eddie and Nicola, they're now living separate lives."

The team called the Lake District home this month when they spent three weeks filming.

Actors and crew have taken the area to their hearts, often enjoying sight-seeing and visiting restaurants and pubs.

The Dog and Gun in the centre of Keswick has been a favourite among them, Christopher tells me.

He adds: "We've had a fantastic welcome from people. Some come up and tell you they love the show and love the fact the show is set here.

"You don't get that everywhere as an actor. We're embraced here."

Stars of the show chat fondly and with a strong affection for The A Word.

Greg McHugh, who plays Maurice's son Eddie, reverts back to his native Edinburgh lilt to chat with me.

"We love the humanity of the story and the journey Joe is on," he said. "It is a subject matter that people have not explored like this before. Peter's writing and humour has made it brilliant."

Greg suffered a broken ankle and regular walks around Derwentwater have provided some welcome, yet unexpected, recovery.

"I broke my ankle after the first series and it was still hurting but the amount of walking I've been doing in the Lake District has been the best physio I could hope for," he said.

When it comes to the local landscape, there has been a marked difference this time round compared to the show's first outing.

Storm Desmond wreaked havoc and devastation on the countryside while filming for series one was taking place.

Christopher said: "It was very, very tough on the crew to shoot and was very hard for them. Us actors get a break and we're wrapped in cotton wool, the crew aren't.

"This time round we've been filming from March until July and so it is very different."

The first person on set on Tuesday was the second assistant director, who arrived at 6.45am.

Shortly afterwards they were joined by about 80 cast members, about a dozen actors and about 100 supporting extras.

Some work as extras full time, others were local runners who responded to a call for help.

They included Keswick AC members Mike Mallen, a retired surveyor from Eleventrees, and friend Alan Davidson, 64.

Mike, 60, said: "The club and members got an email saying the show was looking for runners so there's about 20 of us taking part.

"There are some from other clubs like Cumberland and others from around the country too.

"We've been doing some warming up, stretching for filming, that kind of thing. No running as such yet."

Alan added: "It has been interesting to do something different."

Everything comes to a halt for an hour on set when catering staff in chef whites appear.

They open up several large black insulated boxes and everyone lines up, ready to be served. Inside is a variety of lunch choices including hot options chilli con carne and pulled pork.

Chilled cheesecakes and trifles are also offered around.

Tuesday marked the end of The A Word's time in Cumbria for now.

More filming will take place in studios in Manchester before producers spend the summer editing.

Marcus says the six-part series will be ready to include in the BBC's autumn schedules, although a date for broadcast has yet to be confirmed.

And cast and crew are tight lipped on whether a third series is in the offing, with a win in the ratings likely to help shape any final decision.

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