If I were to list the most seminal TV moments of my youth, it’s surprising how many would come from Waterloo Road. Remember Kyle Stack and Finn Sharkey’s fraught battle to be crowned the school’s biggest bad boy? What about the time Janeece nearly had a baby in the toilet? Then there’s the episode that saw literal fireballs rip through the school corridors. Raw and realistic, but also utterly bonkers, Waterloo Road helped us to escape the monotony of daily life without actually leaving it. But since the popular YA soap was abruptly axed in 2015 after a nine-year run, there’s been little to fill the void.
Enter Ackley Bridge: a modern-day teen drama in a working-class setting which grapples with the complexities of Yorkshire multiculturalism. At first glance, I thought the Channel 4 comedy-drama, which debuted in 2017 and recently finished airing its fourth season, could live up to the standard Waterloo Road set 15 years ago – but the show still has a few lessons to learn from its very different forerunner.
Both are set in the north of England and show a group of kids often ignored by British media. But unlike Waterloo Road, Ackley Bridge smashes together local British-Asian and white communities in a single academy school, and gives a more representative account of northern kids’ realities. It’s streets ahead when it comes to diversity and sensitivity, but if you’re looking for a gripping drama – sadly there’s no contest. Waterloo Road wins every time. Its soapy storylines about abandoned babies – alongside more typical ones like teen drug addiction and depression – are simply better and more engaging.
There’s something too nice about Ackley Bridge. It has an air of positivity that’s great in its own right, but feels a bit naïve. Perhaps the new early air time (6pm, compared to its predecessor’s 8pm slot) is to blame, which means it can’t air adult-themed plotlines – like Maxine Barlow’s brutal murder by her boyfriend Earl. When shows like Waterloo Road and Ackley Bridge try to mimic everyday life, the hardships each character goes through can remind you that reality isn’t always so perfect. We’ve all experienced the ups and downs of high school, and the way in which Waterloo Road included both made you believe – and care about – its characters. Ackley Bridge just doesn’t have the same edge.
That said, it’s still worth a watch – and seems to have struck a chord with a younger demographic. According to Channel 4, a third of the show’s viewers are aged between 16 and 34, making it the channel’s highest youth-skewing drama since 2015’s This Is England 90. Ackley Bridge‘s lighthearted depiction of two very different communities learning to get along clearly connects with Gen Z. Meanwhile, Waterloo Road‘s treatment of topics like teen pregnancy make it seem out of touch. Chlo Grainger’s decision to have a baby with long term boyfriend Donte during season four may have been positioned as a positive, but every other pregnancy afterwards was seen as life-halting. Drugs, too, were something to fear – as the show seemingly tried to scare a generation straight with some disastrous subplots that totally misunderstood addiction.
While attitudes have undeniably changed, the public’s appetite for a good playground scrap has always been there. “I think every school show that’s gone before – Grange Hill, Waterloo Road – they’ve all had something to say to the generation that’s watched them,” creator Ayub Khan-Din told the Guardian in 2019. Thinking about Ackley Bridge, though, it’s hard to decide what that message is. If Ackley Bridge wants to truly impact the lives of its young audience, it should stick on Waterloo Road and start taking notes.