In this edition of Cinema Year Zero, you’re likely to find thoughtful essays from writers who have spent their summer months discovering the works of unsung filmmakers, or overlooked film movements. Unfortunately, in May I joked to my partner that our next binge box set should be the BBC’s mid-2000’s comprehensive school-set soap opera Waterloo Road, only to soon find ourselves several seasons (and summer months) deep. The show was a one time ratings giant that has largely been forgotten for several reasons, not least the exodus of viewers when producers decided to move the setting from Rochdale in Greater Manchester to a boarding school in rural Scotland for its final seasons, following a plot line where the school gets shut by authorities and a billionaire donor agrees to revive it in another deprived area. As is the case with any TV drama funded by the British taxpayer, there’s very little of cinematic note to the show, unless you count guest appearances from future big screen stars such as Jodie Comer or Jack O’Connell, or a very early writing credit for Harry Wootliff, director of the subpar romantic drama Only You (2018).
And yet, what it represents feels oddly prescient, a stark contrast to the expected worldview of a social realist work set in the North of England. The more I became acquainted with its approach to mining various subjects of tabloid hysteria for plot lines, the more apparent it became that any grit was artificial. This was a vision of this part of the world designed solely for the most middle class Daily Mail readers in the south, who have the fewest ties to this setting and are therefore most likely to buy into it. Rochdale has suffered many horrendous headlines in recent years, from a child sex abuse scandal to being listed as one of the UK’s top 20 most deprived areas, with some neighbourhoods being amongst the most impoverished in Greater Manchester. Waterloo Road never looked past this negative press to offer a more grounded view of life in the town, its depiction of its setting an entirely reactionary one. In fact, the show’s greatest achievement may be introducing a pair of characters that, when watched now, feel like very clear precursors to the archetypal “former Labour voters” of the north that the broadsheet commentariat have recently gotten worked up over – something particularly unusual considering they reside in Rochdale, the birthplace of the co-operative movement, which remains a socialist stronghold even if the “Red Wall” around it crumbles.
Both of these characters made their debut appearance in the first episode, airing in 2006, and were the only two of the original cast to survive the transition north of the border in 2012. The first of these is Grantly Budgen (Phillip Martin Brown), a curmudgeonly senior English teacher who exists within the show’s earliest seasons solely to voice the most abhorrent views related to whichever storyline is at hand. This could be telling a gay kid he deserves to be bullied for being open about his sexuality, or equally ghastly views related to children of immigrants or Traveller communities who he believes don’t have a right to be taught there. He is also, adversely, the staff’s union representative and a firm believer in collective action, a frequent critic of the “so called Labour government” of the Blair/Brown era due to cuts to education, and is later revealed to have met his wife at a socialist demonstration many decades prior.
Somehow, the character became a fan favourite, given increasingly heartfelt or humorous storylines as seasons progressed, the more prejudiced aspects of his character gradually toned down into a banal “he hates everybody equally” worldview. If works by Britain’s leading social realist filmmakers have only continued to reaffirm their base political ideologies, be they the importance of collective action (Mike Leigh’s Peterloo (2018), also starring Brown) or the need for union support within a rapidly growing gig economy (Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, 2019), Waterloo Road routinely uses the character of Grantly to undermine both ideas. Those who demand collective action are almost always doing it for selfish reasons, with any strike action usually a result of Grantly convincing other staff members certain pupils aren’t worth the effort. That he’s seldom depicted in a classroom teaching gets to the heart of the show’s ideology here – the unspoken but heavily implied suggestion that striking teachers are usually just looking for a new excuse to get out of doing their jobs.
The other teacher of note is Tom Clarkson (Jason Done), the closest thing to an audience surrogate character on account of being the most generic man ever personified on prime time television. This is a guy whose ideal Saturday is having a pint and watching the Man City game. Tom is a character always one step away from tragedy, with every love interest thrown his way either meeting a painful end (which, in season two, includes both women he’s in a love triangle with), or about to face a harrowing experience of their own. After losing a child in an early episode, the show inexplicably reconfigures its own worldview around his, pivoting to becoming the rare British work with an overtly pro-life ideology. Teen pregnancies are a recurring narrative trope in any high school drama, and yet abortion and adoption are unusually treated as taboo topics within Waterloo Road, Tom usually barging his way in to say a baby should stay with its birth mother – which is always met with eventual acceptance. In one genuinely baffling season three episode (episode 9, 2008), a pupil who kept her pregnancy a secret and miscarried was forced to both name the baby and throw a funeral for it, even though she was going to give it up for adoption.
This consistent pro-life message proves especially strange considering that, in the season prior, the show introduced a creationist villain (Jerry Preston, played by Paul Birchard) for a multi-episode arc, his religious beliefs written to be sneered at. A later season goes even further by offering a racist stereotype of a Congolese immigrant who gives his own daughter an exorcism. Waterloo Road agrees with some of the most conservative aspects of religious ideology and morality, but rolls its eyes at the idea of religion itself, depicting it only in the most melodramatic light while quietly agreeing with some of its outdated moral values. Faith isn’t a topic encountered much in contemporary British social realism – Terence Davies is one of the few examples of a director who has routinely explored the subject, and even that’s in response to his own atheism. Waterloo Road, as is the case with any topic it tackled, didn’t have the curiosity required to ever do it justice, never looking beyond whichever tabloid headlines formed the inspiration for each episode.
This might be an inherent flaw with the soap opera format, but Waterloo Road never feigned any interest in starting a cultural conversation in the way Coronation Street, Eastenders or Hollyoaks often would via the introduction of LGBTQ characters, or via months-long storylines handling issues from teenage pregnancy to sexual assault. Waterloo Road merely wanted to react to topics in sensationalised ways, and casually forget plot lines the second they ceased to be relevant. Nowhere is this more damning than in season three, where former pupil Lewis Seddon (Craig Fitzpatrick), who sexually assaulted one teacher and threatened to kill another, is suddenly working in the school canteen, his previous actions never mentioned again.
Paul Laverty would conduct intensive research prior to writing any of his screenplays with Ken Loach, speaking to people affected by the issues he sought to explore. The Waterloo Road writers’ room seemed to just leaf through a few tabloid articles relevant to each sensationalised topic they covered. It’s naturally a warped view of life up north for this reason, the pupils all representing aspects of a news culture obsessed with knife crime and teen pregnancy, many of the adults resigned to accepting this as the way of life, long settled into their reactionary ways. It’s a heightened reality presented as gritty realism, designed predominantly to generate reactionary responses from any viewers foolish enough to think this was an accurate depiction of the average state school.
Only as a depiction of the North does Waterloo Road feel particularly insightful; equally divorced from reality, but informative of the ways other parts of the country view large swathes of the “Red Wall” now. It’s unrecognisable to anybody actually from there, but that’s beside the point – with its characterisations of quietly conservative teachers and a next generation of violent, rebellious school kids, the show unintentionally created a perfect shorthand that would help the rest of the country assume this was why many older people in this area would suddenly turn Tory. Waterloo Road rarely reflected school life during the waning New Labour years accurately, but if a good work of social realism can perfectly encapsulate our times, then the best a bad example of the genre can be is prophetic.