Ackley Bridge review: a timely school-set drama about unity in society

Picture: Jo Joyner plays Headteacher Mandy Carter (left), Adil Ray plays school sponsor Sadiq Nawaz (Photo: Channel 4/Matt Squire)
Picture: Jo Joyner plays Headteacher Mandy Carter (left), Adil Ray plays school sponsor Sadiq Nawaz (Photo: Channel 4/Matt Squire)
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It’s the last night of summer in Ackley Bridge, Yorkshire. Two teenagers are sitting on a fly-tipped sofa, drinking cider and discussing philosophy. “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school,” postulates Missy (Poppy Lee Friar). She’s quoting Einstein, via her teacher. Suffice to say, her best friend Nas (Amy Leigh Hickman) is suitably impressed. Einstein’s musings might have been left out of the girls’ cider-soaked chat under ordinary circumstances, but things are changing fast. In a bid to reduce segregation between white and Asian populations, two local schools are being integrated. Nas and Missy will be taught together for the first time, despite having been family friends for years. But neither can anticipate the problems they’ll encounter.

Not your typical school drama

There’s been no shortage of British school dramas over the years. Waterloo Road, Teachers and Grange Hill all proved popular, but tended to focus on the school system itself. Ackley Bridge feels different. This show casts its net beyond the school and into wider society.

This isn’t just another show about warring departments and boisterous teenagers. It’s about the cost of segregation, and what it means to bring a community together. One of the most powerful moments of the opening episode comes when a young white student, Jordan (Samuel Bottomley), dons a hijab and calls himself ‘Abdullah Bin Kevin’. Many of the Asian students are offended, and P.E. teacher Mr Bell (Paul Nicholls) is left to try and defuse the tension.

Turning intolerance on its head

It’s infuriating to watch a culture being ridiculed, and the anger that follows the incident is understandable. What this show does well though, is handle both perspectives. Mr Bell does not want to write Jordan off as ‘racist’, and tries to calm things during a meeting with the police later that day. Instead, he wants to educate him, and make him see why it’s wrong to discriminate or ridicule other faiths.

The show demonstrates how incidents like this can be prevented or handled, and does not dramatise them simply for the sake of drama. Racial and religious intolerance are not the only measures of division in the show, however. The class divide is also a prominent theme.

‘Food banks, smackheads and pram face’

Missy has grown up in a low-income household. Her mother is an addict, and she is being held back a year after allusions are made to her “having a hard time”. When Missy approaches Nas in the school, her friends are perplexed by their relationship. They mock Missy’s mother and judge the family, putting Nas in a difficult position. Ultimately, the two girls fight, and their friendship is jeopardised. Terms such as “benefit scum” are thrown around, and this feels like a thread the story will continue to pull at. As Jordan says: “Food banks, smackheads and pram face – it doesn’t matter if you’re white or Asian. We’re going nowhere.”

Outside of the big social issues, the show’s characters are well-formed and entertaining. Headmaster Mandy Carter (Jo Joyner) is struggling to keep her marriage to Mr Bell intact. English teacher Emma Keane (Liz White) has personal problems of her own, with a leaked topless photo and an estranged daughter coming to stay. And Kaneez Paracha (Sunetra Sarker) is determined to help daughter Nas find the right path. In this day and age, the threat of division is not something Britain can take lightly. Shows such as Ackley Bridge demonstrate the importance of understanding, education and unity. That message feels more timely than ever.

Ackley Bridge is on Channel 4, Wednesdays at 8pm. Catch up on All4 now.