If you’re over the age of twenty, you probably remember Waterloo Road. A gritty and soapy, Manchester-based series that told the complex stories of troubled teens and their struggling teachers. The show tackled a huge variety of issues that occur in and around secondary schools such as bullying, disability, teen pregnancy, drugs, sexuality, and much, much more. Back in my own school days, the show was the talk of the playground and had a devoted group of fans across the UK. However, I think it’s fair to say that when the show made the bizarre decision to move from Manchester to Scotland and subsequently ended in 2015, it left a lackluster audience in its wake.
One of the strangest phenomena of the lockdowns in 2020 was that it gave people the chance to catch up on television they missed. Some went back and did ‘The BIG Ones’ The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, etc whilst others opted for comfort viewing, revisiting shows they loved. The BBC, which had made all of the original series available on BBC iPlayer, saw a huge rise in people devouring Waterloo Road. It was particularly popular in the ever-elusive 16-34 demographic that broadcasters are always keen to attract. The news of a reboot was perhaps inevitable, nevertheless, as a fan, I was nervous.
I wondered whether the show – which I’d loved for years in its Manchester days but grown bored with towards its conclusion – could come back better than ever. I also dared to hope we would see the return of some familiar faces, as many fans pointed out that some of the original characters were now old enough to have secondary school-aged children of their own. As news continued to trickle out regarding the comeback series, I was more than happy with what I heard. It was announced that Kim Campbell (Angela Griffin) – previously the Head of Pastoral Care in the original series – would return as Headteacher, along with two fan favourites viewers have loved since their debut in 2006: Chlo (Katie Griffiths) and Donte Charles (Adam Thomas), previously students at the school and teen parents of their baby Izzy. Over the coming months, Waterloo Road was marketed with the returning trio at the forefront, obviously drawing in viewers of the original series who were eager to see their favourite characters once again. Griffiths and Thomas appeared together on social media apps such as Instagram and TikTok to promote the show, and it was revealed that Chlo and Donte would return as parents to their own two children: now 13-year-old Izzy (portrayed by Scarlett Thomas, Adam’s real-life niece) and six-year-old Tommy (Teddy Thomas, Adam’s real-life son). As the new series came ever closer, fans were eager to see the next chapter of Chlo and Donte’s story.
The opening episode begins with a chaotically brilliant protest regarding the removal of a racist statue at William Beswick High School. It seems the school was named in Beswick’s honour, and a stone likeness of the racist historical figure is displayed front and centre in the school playground. After months of campaigning to get the statue removed and the school’s name changed to no effect, the students rightfully take a stand. It doesn’t take long, however, before the initially peaceful protest is crashed by some troublemakers (who believe the statue should remain on school grounds) and events escalate into a full-blown riot with paint bombs flying around the playground and the surrounding street. During this, Chlo and her daughter Izzy are making their way to the school, but the chaos leads to Chlo being clipped by a car. Luckily, Chlo’s injuries are minor, and as she gets her sprained wrist patched up in the school’s first aid office, Kim gets her students in order with a mixture of tough love and compassion. The first day of term at Waterloo Road – the students succeeded in getting the name changed – is full of character introductions, heartbreaking issues, and some light-hearted humour for good measure. As the episode drew to a close, I felt that the reboot had a lot of potential in regard to the new characters and our familiar favourites. However, in the final few minutes of the episode, my opinion drastically changed. Chlo and Donte, finally alone together after an eventful day, are looking forward to enjoying their evening together when Chlo suddenly collapses to the floor, clutching her head in pain. Quickly, in a devastating scene in which we see a sobbing Donte holding his two distraught children, it is revealed that Chlo has tragically passed away. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this plot point unfolded in a matter of minutes, and I watched the credits roll in a state of shock. Quite honestly, it felt like a kick in the teeth. After the ”Chlo and Donte are back” promotional strategy geared toward the original viewers, I felt almost as if I’d been cheated into watching the new series. I was looking forward to seeing how Chlo and Donte would become involved in the school community, eager to watch Chlo begin her journey as a trainee teacher, but it soon became clear I would instead be watching Donte struggling with grief after unwillingly becoming a single parent. If the new characters hadn’t been as strong and as interesting as they are, I would’ve considered switching off for good.
The next section of this review contains spoilers for the entirety of the series which is all available on BBC iPlayer.
Despite Chlo’s sudden and untimely death, the reboot exceeded my expectations in regard to the mental health issues represented on screen. Two characters were a clear standout to me personally. Kelly-Jo (Alicia Forde), a loud, bubbly girl with a quick temper. Her behaviour often leads to the people around her becoming annoyed, and even when she means well it seems she can’t do right for doing wrong. As the series unfolds, we learn the true extent of just how much Kelly-Jo struggles to thrive in the school environment. When Kelly-Jo struggles to find “the right socks” one morning before school, and has to settle for “the scratchy ones” instead, a lightbulb went on in my head. Sure enough, later that day in the classroom, Kelly-Jo has a violent, emotional meltdown, leading the teachers to finally realise something more is going on. In a poignant scene that takes place in the empty school car park, and is a brilliant performance from Forde, Kelly-Jo’s raw emotion reaches boiling point, as she sobs uncontrollably about how she “doesn’t know what to do” and how no one seems to understand her. It is subsequently revealed that Kelly-Jo has ADD, and if you’re wondering how someone can live through sixteen years of life without an adult picking up on the signs, it’s actually all too common – especially for girls and women, who are often diagnosed late or even remain undiagnosed for life with conditions such as ADD and ASD. I believe Kelly-Jo’s story will resonate with many girls and women who struggled throughout school and didn’t know the reason for those struggles.
The second standout character in my opinion is Preston (Noah Valentine). On paper, Preston has it all: he’s captain of the basketball team, has a beautiful girlfriend, and a large group of supportive friends. However, as Preston finds it increasingly difficult to juggle schoolwork, sports, and a social life, it’s clear the pressure of being Waterloo Road’s star athlete is too much. Preston tries to bottle up his emotions with an extremely unhealthy “coping strategy” but on one occasion it proves to be too hard to ignore. In possibly the most realistic portrayal of a panic attack I’ve seen on television to date, Preston bolts from his classroom believing he’s about to die. He makes his way to a quiet space, where he begins gasping for breath, pulling his clothes away from his neck and clawing at his throat as he struggles to get any amount of air into his lungs. This, of course, is revealed to be a panic attack and he’s eventually calmed down, but anyone that’s experienced this before will recognise and understand Preston’s pure terror in that moment.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of this new incarnation is that it has managed to capture the spirit of the original series. At first, I worried that it would be too cheesy, unable to maintain the gritty foundations the old series portrayed so well whilst dealing with the issues of today. While there are cheesy moments that might not have been included in the original series – the school uniform fashion show being one that springs to mind – they’re handled in good humour and we’re soon brought back down to earth with a bump. The central family of the series, the Walters’, are somewhat reminiscent of the Kelly family. Mum Nicky (Kym Marsh) works as a dinner lady at the school as well as working two other jobs to support her children Preston and Tonya (Summer Violet Bird). Despite Nicky’s work ethic, she struggles to make enough money, and the family is evicted from their home. In a heartbreaking scene, Nicky confides to headteacher Kim that she cannot afford school uniform. Like the original series, the reboot also focuses on how a child’s turbulent home life can negatively impact their schooling. Danny Lewis (Adam Abbou) is a pupil that “slipped through the cracks” during the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were unable to attend school for months at a time. Thought to have dropped out of Waterloo Road, Danny is found squatting in the school, homeless with nowhere else to go. As we’ve seen with so many pupils over the course of the series, Danny’s life is turned around by the staff at the school, who help him return to his studies and provide him with a better life. One member of staff, Val (Shauna Shim), goes so far as to foster Danny when his place at a local hostel proves to be dangerous. Throughout all its ups and downs, the original series had an underlying theme of community at its roots, and I’m glad to see that this is still the case in regard to the reboot.
Chlo’s awful death at the end of episode one left me reluctant to carry on with this all-new version of Waterloo Road. However, the new characters and the issues explored throughout the series quickly changed my mind. Well-researched stories – particularly such as Kelly-Jo’s and Preston’s – need to be represented on screen, especially for our younger people who are perhaps only just beginning their own secondary school lives. It’s time to pass on the Waterloo Road baton to a new generation – and in my opinion, it couldn’t be in safer hands.
Waterloo Road is available on BBC1 and BBC iPlayer.