Actor Christopher Eccleston on his latest role and the lockdown

Salford-born Christopher takes a break from filming - (C) Fifty Fathoms - Photographer: Rachel Josep

Salford-born Christopher takes a break from filming - (C) Fifty Fathoms - Photographer: Rachel Joseph - Credit: BBC/Fifty Fathoms/Rachel Joseph

The pandemic might have closed theatres and film sets but actor Christopher Eccleston from Salford still won applause for his performance in praise of the NHS.

The lockdown has brought the nation to a grinding halt across many industries, including TV, film and theatre but Christopher Eccleston got rave reviews for a performance from his back garden.

His reading of a poem called Our Heroes, first on Radio 5Live and then on The One Show prompted an emotional response from across the country.

It was written by Matthew Kelly from Salford whose partner is a district nurse and is dedicated to the bravery of the NHS and frontline workers who’ve been tackling the coronavirus crisis.

‘I’m very fortunate and humbled and grateful for the NHS,’ says Eccleston. ‘It was an honour to be asked, and very moving to witness the response to the NHS. All credit to the poet. My hope is the next time the NHS is abused and mistreated by Boris Johnson and his Cabinet, the whole nation holds them to account.’

Alison Hughes (Morven Christie), Joe Hughes (Max Vento), Maurice Scott (Christopher Eccleston) in th

Alison Hughes (Morven Christie), Joe Hughes (Max Vento), Maurice Scott (Christopher Eccleston) in the The A Word - (C) Fifty Fathoms - Photographer: Rachel Joseph - Credit: BBC/Fifty Fathoms/Rachel Joseph

Salford-born Eccleston, who spent the lockdown at his home in London, adds: ‘I’m in a very privileged position as I live alone and have a back garden. I’ve so far avoided contracting the virus, as have my mother and children.

‘It’s had and will have a devastating impact on my industry and all industries. Theatre relies on large gatherings of people and I can’t see that happening for a long time. Many theatres and theatre companies will not survive.’

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Eccleston is currently on our screens in The A Word but recalls that he was a little perturbed when Peter Bowker, his friend and collaborator of almost 20 years, asked him to play a grandfather in the programme. ‘It’s very bad for my image,’ he jokes.

In the BBC drama, Eccleston, 56, plays Maurice, the straight-talking grandad of Joe, a young boy with autism. The first series aired to great acclaim in 2016 and was followed by a second series a year later, but the drama only recently returned for a third run.

In the intervening period, Eccleston published his memoir I Love the Bones of You in which he revealed his battles with mental health issues and wrote extensively about his father, Ronnie, a man not so dissimilar to Maurice in their no-nonsense approach to life.

Maurice represents the type of men ‘trying to understand modern life and modern afflictions. They’re trying to keep up but also applying the damp flannel of common sense,’ says Eccleston who grew up in Salford with Ronnie, mum Elsie and his older twin brothers.

Maurice might be ‘massively inappropriate’, as Eccleston puts it, but his candour forces the audience to confront their own prejudice.

For instance, the show’s been applauded for its diversity, but as Eccleston noted during an event at The Lowry Theatre shortly before lockdown, this itself is troubling. ‘Diversity is reality, not some distortion as it’s often portrayed,’ he told the audience.

He was quoting Bowker, but his own experiences have opened his eyes to the veracity of the statement.

‘I famously played Doctor Who and I get stopped a lot for it, but I genuinely get stopped as much for Maurice and it’s precisely because Down’s Syndrome and autism do touch everybody’s life,’ says Eccleston, who studied drama at Salford Tech and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama before starring in the likes of Cracker and Our Friends in the North during the 90s.

And he adds: ‘At this time, families are being forced together or forced apart and many are being devastated by grief, so I hope our portrayal of an essentially loving and strong family resonates. I also hope it makes them laugh.’

Looking to the future, there’s already talk of a fourth series of The A Word but only after another extended hiatus. No doubt Eccleston will return as he couldn’t be prouder to be part of the prime time drama.

‘What’s really important about The A Word, for us and the whole subject, is we’re on BBC One,’ he says. ‘Usually at 9pm on BBC One or ITV, it tends to be crime dramas or super posh soaps, but what we’ve got is this story and that’s significant politically. It kicks the door open.’

The series in brief

In the current series of The A Word, Joe’s parents Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby) are carving out new lives following their divorce, helping Joe adjust to living in Manchester and the Lake District and tackling the challenges this creates.

It’s the typically tactless Maurice who’s trying to keep the peace, helping his granddaughter Rebecca (Molly Wright) tell Alison and Paul she’s pregnant, and acting as mediator between his partner Louise (Pooky Quesnel) and her Down’s Syndrome son Ralph (Leon Harrop) who’s getting married and moving out.

The show’s appeal has always been its honest depiction of a family trying to do their best by one another, ‘and their failure and success at communication and life,’ notes Eccleston.

This no doubt has greater resonance given recent circumstances prompted by the global pandemic.

The A Word continues on Tuesday nights on BBC One.

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