“Two households, both alike in dignity.” Shakespeare said it first in Romeo and Juliet but while it’s unclear starting out, whether Ackley Bridge is going to be a love story, it is a show about a school merger bringing integration to a town where Asian and White students live side by side but rarely interact. If the newly christened Ackley Bridge College is going to survive, they’re going to need to break the (prejudiced) ice.
Luckily Ackley has teachers who believe in what the school’s about – helping students succeed, no matter their circumstances. It’s not a line the show’s giving, either. With two seasons under its belt so far, Ackley Bridge follows students and teachers through their various ups and downs, with “ups and downs” being plural for a reason. Too often troubled kids are shown being “steered right” after one interaction but for every time a teacher is able to convince Missy Booth (Poppy Lee Friar, in an iconic leather jacket) or Jordon Wilson (Samuel Bottomley) to keep their attendance up, new problems arise, which make it harder for them to commit to school. The point Ackley Bridge makes, by not giving up on these so-called “difficult” students, but also not making out like it doesn’t take effort and persistence, is important. You can reach these students, and they’re worth reaching, but it’s not always easy.
With Ackley Bridge being a new school, too, head teacher, Mandy Carter (Jo Joyner), is under pressure to prove their model works. The way success is measured, though, is with test scores and enrollment numbers, not enrichment of lives. The show follows her dealings with the financial realities of running a school while also trying to push against treating Ackley like a business, which would do the students no good but help keep the school afloat and the teachers paid.
Breaking boundaries is part of Ackley Bridge’s DNA but it’s also a part of the series I find fascinating: how much does (and should) a teacher’s role extend beyond the classroom? It’d be cleaner to keep the two separated, and there are some hairy exchanges that happen (one of the teachers punches a student in the first episode) but again and again you see teachers cross that line (and it’s not usually physical violence – sometimes it’s helping with social services or a paternity test). While it could be a legal nightmare, if somebody sued, it’s also when you see these teachers make the biggest difference, by letting their pupils know they can come to them for help, but also coming to them when they don’t ask for it.
What Ackley Bridge does, too (and it’s obvious but crucial) is realize it’s less about finding new stories but new voices to tell them (that goes for behind the scenes, where many of the young actors were street cast). The range of human experience is vast. As a young, Pakistani woman, Nasreen Paracha’s coming out story (portrayed by Amy-Leigh Hickman) is personal and specific, and that’s what makes it ring true. It’s a story only Nas (and Ackley Bridge) could tell.
Ackley Bridge is available on DVD and streaming on Acorn TV. Season 3 starts this June in the UK. Streaming dates for the US haven’t been announced yet.