Whenever a new drama set in a school is announced, several generations will immediately compare it to Grange Hill; a show that was an integral part of many an adolescence. There’s another generation whose only exposure to school-based drama is Waterloo Road; a programme that started strong before losing its steam when the writers made the decision to move the entire school to Scotland. Tonight, Channel 4 present the latest school-based drama Ackley Bridge which I found hard not to compare to Waterloo Road as it shares numerous traits with the now-cancelled BBC programme.
Like it’s BBC predecessor Ackley Bridge is set in Yorkshire. It primarily centres around a group of students from a deprived estate. The main premise of the Channel 4 drama is the merging of two local schools into the new, modern Ackley Bridge College where headteacher Mandy Carter (Jo Joyner) is hoping to make an impact. The two schools that have been merged represented the divided white and Asian populations of the area with the kids now forced to mingle for the first time.
This is a particular issue for long-time friends Missy (Poppy Lee Friar) and Nasreen (Amy-Leigh Hickman) as they attempt to maintain their relationship in a new setting. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Missy has to repeat Year Eleven due to a prior tragedy whilst Nasreen and her snooty friends can relax in the college’s sixth form hub. Things come to a head when Nasreen’s friends disparage Missy’s mother with the two former friends scrapping on the playground and essentially ruining their relationship there and then.
I thought this storyline was one of the more engaging in this opener thanks to the performances of the two young actresses who shared a believable chemistry throughout which made me sympathise with the growing problems in their relationship. Great support was provided in this storyline by Sunetra Sarker as Nasreen’s forceful dinnerlady mum who was supportive of those around her and was willing to stand up for herself in the face of derision. Nasreen and Missy’s continually fracturing relationship represented the problems that the merger of the two local schools had caused and I feel that should’ve been the central story of the piece. Although this divide was highlighted briefly during the picking of teams during a P.E. lesson it’s something I hope the writers explore more going forward.
This wouldn’t be a school drama if the teachers didn’t behave as badly as the students and that’s certainly true of most of the college staff. Owing to several serious issues, the first couple of days of the new term don’t run smoothly for Mandy and her P.E. teacher husband Steve (Paul Nicholls) doesn’t help matters. Steve is increasingly jealous of Mandy’s relationship with school sponsor Sadiq (Adil Ray) especially when we learn that they spent some time in Pakistan together during the holidays. Steve lets his frustration build-up whilst trying to help out troublesome student Cory (Sam Retford) which leads to him punching the pupil in the face; which was one of the more unbelievable moments in what was already was turning quickly into a patchy first episode. In fact I found all the characters involved in this subplot to be one-dimensional whilst Nicholls and Joyner didn’t make for a believable couple which made it hard to care about their marriage. Whilst Cory’s early speech about the hopeless future of the college’s pupils was well-written, I found the character to be nothing more than the stereotypical ‘troubled teen’ with a bullying father who cares little for his son.
In my opinion, Ackley Bridge’s best element is Liz White as English teacher Emma Keene who provides some much-needed energy in the staff room. From the opening shot where we see her getting changed in a taxi having just arrived back in the country from a backpacking excursion; we’re given the impression that Emma is a colourful character. She certainly lives up to expectations when her estranged daughter Chloe (Fern Deacon) arrives and causes trouble for her mother by throwing up in a dustbin during the middle of one of her classes. Chloe continues to cause issues with her mother by uploading a topless holiday selfie of the teacher to Twitter which inevitably gets shared around the entire school population before the next school day. White gives the most balanced performance of the entire cast and makes Emma more than just the stereotypical party girl. She portrays both her Emma’s passion for teaching and her desire to be closer to her daughter excellently making her the only character I truly cared about after tonight’s opener.
The one question I asked myself whilst watching Ackley Bridge was is this for me? Being a bit of a TV insider, I already know that the main audience Channel 4 is attempting to attract is that of 10-to-14-year-olds who are ill-served by the rest of the network’s programming. Whilst I feel the soapier aspects of the plot are aimed at older teens and parents, there are certain themes that will appeal to the intended demographic. Problems with both friends and parents are elements of the plot that most young viewers will be able to relate to and I’m sure they won’t be bothered by the stereotypical nature of the characters in the same way I was. The frantic pacing and editing was another aspect that I feel will capture younger viewers as no scene is focused on for too long. It’ll be interesting to see how these youngsters react to the drama and whether they’ll be the primary audience that’ll stay hooked for all six episodes.
I personally feel that Channel 4 themselves have created the main issue with Ackley Bridge themselves namely through their production of the Educating strand of documentary series. Since Educating Essex aired in 2011, we’ve seen what life is really like in secondary schools in this country are really like and how teachers and students really behave. All four Educating series contained sympathetic characters, intriguing stories and more importantly were completely realistic; aspects that I felt that were lacking in their new drama. I felt one of the contributing factors for Waterloo Road’s dwindling ratings was the Educating documentaries as they painted a much clearer picture of what school-life was like in modern Britain. Furthermore, I feel that if Channel 4 really wanted to appeal to a certain demographic during the 8pm timeslot then why not just edit out some of the fruitier language from the new Educating series to make it acceptable to air in a pre-watershed slot.
Overall, Ackley Bridge is a drama that shows promise but lacks originality for those who grew up with other, superior school-based dramas. The most compelling elements of the drama are the divisive nature of the school and how it impacts on the relationship between Missy and Nasreen. Additionally, I found the strong performances from Liz White and the majority of the young actresses to be another positive element and am intrigued to see where it goes. I genuinely would like a new generation to have their own Grange Hill or Waterloo Road going forward and given a few tweaks I feel that this could indeed be that drama.
Ackley Bridge Continues Wednesday’s at 8.00pm on Channel 4