Farther and Sun: A Dyslexic Road Trip was both charming and absorbing

Film-maker Richard Macer’s son Arthur was an amazingly confident boy, at ease whether in front of the camera or quizzing Richard Branson.

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In Farther and Sun: A Dyslexic Road Trip – do you see what he did, there? – the filmmaker Richard Macer and his 11-year-old son, Arthur, set out to discover whether it might be outdated to think of dyslexia only as a disability (9pm, 30 September). Could the condition, in fact, be a strength? As Macer noted, if 50 per cent of British prisoners have it, then so do half of those who work at Nasa. Dyslexics can be highly creative: Richard Rogers, Eddie Izzard, Picasso. Many more develop such effective compensatory coping techniques these may eventually pretty much cancel out their problems with reading, writing and sequencing. Dyslexics often think in pictures, for which reason their metaphors are more lively, their imaginations more vividly 3D.

“I have too many ideas,” said Arthur excitedly at one point, a statement that made you wonder why his parents were so incredibly anxious about him. On screen, his brain popped and fizzed in such a way that it seemed to me not really to matter whether he could spell the word “disappearance” (in any case, it turned out that he could; the film ended with him passing all his Sats).

He was an amazingly confident boy, at ease whether in front of the camera, or quizzing Richard Branson (though one hopes his father will take him aside and explain to him that, no, the man is not even remotely “like Father Christmas”). Attempting to describe the strange ladder-chair hybrid he was shown in the studio of Rogers’s son, Ab – a dyslexic who left school with two O-levels, now a successful designer – his grasp and concision were awesome (as he put it, while most ladders deliver you to your destination, this one was a destination in itself).

But if all this made Macer’s film seem self-indulgent at times – many parents will watch Arthur’s mother weeping, and think: I’ll take your kid’s problems over mine any day – it was in every other way charming and absorbing. How interesting it is that dyslexia, too, has been touched by identity politics, those who have it determined to be out and proud. How predictable that those experts in the field who only want to help must deal with quasi-scientists who insist on selling the special qualities of the dyslexic child back to his parents. (Doesn’t every child have special qualities? Shouldn’t they know this without having to be told?)

I was intrigued, too, by the tests Macer took, eager to know if he’d passed on the condition to Arthur (there is a genetic component). Dyslexia is also in my family – as a boy my poor brother once looked up eagerly from his Biggles book and announced that his favourite character was “Agly”; my sister the patent lawyer is also dyslexic – and like Macer, I’ve always had a sense of my own slowness in certain areas, for all that I could read before I went to school.

Given a series of spoonerism tasks by Maggie Snowling, the president of St John’s College, Oxford, and a leading authority in the study of dyslexia, I took just as long as Macer did to deliver my answers (dyslexics have phonological difficulties such tests are able to detect). “Charlie Tonk,” said Snowling. “Tarlie Conk,” I said, eventually – and wrongly. All the different ways in which human beings are wired grow ever more fascinating to me the older I get, and this film captured, with great gentleness, some aspects of these contrasts and incongruities.

I loathe the BBC’s big, new, endlessly trailed Sunday night drama, The Cry (9pm, 30 September), a tiresomely constructed series in which every other scene is a flashback. It’s about a woman who, in the
throes of post-natal depression, has (possibly) murdered her baby son after a long flight to Australia during which he cried all the time while her Neanderthal Aussie boyfriend caught up on some shut-eye.

It’s horribly manipulative and stagey, and Jenna Coleman is woefully miscast as Joanna, the accused mother. What weird vanity is here, too. Even when she’s supposed to be knackered, she looks immaculate. If these are the cheekbones and eyebrows of an ill and exhausted woman with sore breasts and murderous inclinations, I am Joan Collins and I claim my five pounds. 

Farther and Sun: A Dyslexic Road Trip (BBC Four)
The Cry (BBC One)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right