Now a few weeks in to its first season, Channel 4 dramedy Ackley Bridge – about two racially segregated schools in a northern English town merging into one hotbed of cheerful anarchy – has, thanks to thoughtful writing and a terrific cast, surprised me by turning out to be one of the best, most interesting British dramas I’ve seen in years.
For the high school drama purist, it has the usual relationship shenanigans between teachers, students, and teachers and students; this means it’s not without some of the flaws endemic to this type of drama – I assume teacher Lila, for instance, has been kept deliberately one-dimensional so that her relationship with student Nasreen can end with Lila being written out rather than the other way round. Genre-typical pitfalls aside, though, the way the show looks at issues of racial and religious identity and division with humour, honesty, realism and a fresh, inclusive eye is almost revolutionary for mainstream tv.
In fairness, there’s already a lot of very well-meaning (and some less so) tv looking at multi-cultural Britain, but most of it tends to do so through the gaze of Caucasian characters with all the issues and action seen through the prism of their attitudes and experience, no matter how many ethnic minority actors are in the cast. It’s refreshing then, to find a show which casts its eye and its net both more widely and more deeply – outrageous though some of the storylines might be, the perspectives and characters, of whatever ethnicity, in Ackley Bridge are a lot more varied and ring a lot more true than many a similar show.
Having said all that, the programme is also notable for a remarkable performance by Poppy Lee Friar as Missy Booth, a teenage tour de force in a leather jacket with a pink feather trim, and a character so pivotal to the show that it might well collapse without her. Her relationships with her family, best friend Nasreen and Nasreen’s family are funny, warm and mad at the best of times, but Wednesday’s episode, (currently available on catch-up) where Missy tries to deal with her grandmother’s death alone and in secret to avoid her younger sister being taken into care, takes things to another level entirely. It’s perfectly-pitched – desperately sad and utterly devastating, most of which is due to Miss Friar herself. She’s amazing.