After closing its doors in 2015, BBC’s Waterloo Road is set to return. Beginning in 2006, it was a soap set in a failing comprehensive state school originally in Rochdale and ran for ten series. It was never exactly high-art drama – some of the acting isn’t great, and occasionally the storylines felt very over the top (not to mention the strange decision of moving a terrible school to Scotland in series eight). But it tackled very real issues: domestic abuse, bullying, teen pregnancy, and more. It wasn’t just focused on the students – the teachers also had their fair share of problems, and all aspects of education were shown, including governors and local authorities. Despite bad behaviour, severe budget restrictions, and pervasive character flaws, the teachers did care about the students, giving the show real heart.
It was refreshing to see accurate school representation, from the ugly 1960s buildings and the tiny ties and rolled-up skirts to the pressures on schools to perform well in spite of the budget challenges faced. The relatability of Waterloo Road, combined with its melodrama and powerful storylines, made the programme one of the UK’s most popular TV dramas at the time.
Channel 4’s Ackley Bridge appeared to be the obvious replacement for Waterloo Road. It’s similarly set in a northern English state school but focuses on the merging of Asian and British communities in a joint school
Channel 4’s Ackley Bridge appeared to be the obvious replacement for Waterloo Road. It’s similarly set in a northern English state school but focuses on the merging of Asian and British communities in a joint school. It incorporates comedy and positivity, whilst still tackling racism, sexuality, and poverty. The shorter series length and more obvious main characters such as Naz and Missy in the first two series does give the show greater warmth and character depth. Hence, it seems odd to bring back Waterloo Road as Ackley Bridge filled its gap in a more exciting way.
The school drama format has also branched out. Netflix’s immensely popular Sex Education is deliberately set in a decade-less, Americanised school, handling sensitive subjects concerning sexuality and relationships well. It lacks Waterloo Road’s realism, but it’s more transatlantic, light-hearted, and comedic than Waterloo Road.
It’s not just fictional school settings that gained interest: Channel 4’s Educating… school documentaries showed the realities of modern state school education, with heart-warming, honest stories of real students and teachers. The show has had multiple series, covering secondary schools in areas such as Yorkshire, Cardiff, and Greater Manchester. Standout moments such as Musharaf’s speech after English teacher Mr Burton helps him with his stammer are very moving. Instead of Waterloo Road’s focus on the problems in state schools, the Educating… series showed the triumphs of state education.
It seems like we have forgotten that the later series of Waterloo Road became increasingly poor, with the show’s cancellation being overdue since the relocation to Scotland
Director of BBC drama Piers Wenger has emphasised the return of Waterloo Road as “the perfect lens through which to explore post-Covid Britain”. Schooling has been severely disrupted since the beginning of the pandemic, and the changes in exams to teacher assessed grades, most notably with the gap between private and state school grades increasing, will be interesting for the new Waterloo Road to explore. I’m sure we can expect the show to tackle issues around social media, sexual harassment, and rising child poverty.
Waterloo Road won’t be the same show. Gone will be the side ponytails, spiky hair, and JD drawstring bags. Y2K fashion might be back in style, but somehow I cannot see chunky highlights becoming popular again (at least I hope). And I’ll miss iconic characters such as Mr Clarkson and Mr Budgen. It still seems strange to bring back a show that didn’t finish that long ago – the turnaround for something to invoke nostalgia has become increasingly short. It seems like we have forgotten that the later series of Waterloo Road became increasingly poor, with the show’s cancellation being overdue since the relocation to Scotland. And with Ackley Bridge’s more vibrant and updated take on the school drama, and better representation of the state school experience, this comeback doesn’t feel necessary. But its popularity on BBC iPlayer, where all the episodes of the original series are available, shows there is an appetite for Waterloo Road. They had just better bring back the same theme tune, because that was a banger.