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8 June 2017

Social commentary lesson Ackley Bridge gets a C+ at best

Its basic approach is to treat race and everything else with a certain comic jauntiness.

By Rachel Cooke

In case you’ve been walking around with a bucket on your head, Ackley Bridge (7 June, 8pm) is Channel 4’s much-trailed new drama about the merging of two comprehensive schools in a fictional Yorkshire mill town. And yes, the publicists have indeed been hard at it, letting us know via tabloid and broadsheet alike that its pedigree could not be finer if it was Matthew Freud’s dog (its creator is Ayub Khan-Din, who wrote East is East), and that the first episode had to be reshot against the clock by its highbrow director, Penny Woolcock (a plotline based around a hoax bomb was deemed to be in bad taste after the 22 May Manchester attack).

According to the TV hacks, Channel 4 has great “confidence” in this “must-see” show: so much so, that it is the first drama series to be screened at 8pm since Brookside was moved to the slot in 2002.

Well, I do not have confidence in it. We’re talking “C+” at best, with a “SEE ME” for its writers. Not knowing what it really wants to be – Comedy? Drama? A nostalgia trip for viewers who were raised on Grange Hill – Ackley Bridge comes off like the bastard child of Shameless and Educating Yorkshire with a dash of Happy Valley thrown in for extra modishness (its topography of dry-stone walls and ginnels is pure Sally Wainwright, and therefore the best thing about it as far as I’m concerned).

It aims to be warm: 8pm is a pre-watershed family slot. But it is also determinedly (dread word) relevant: of the two schools that form the new academy, one served the Asian community and the other the white. Its basic approach, then, is to treat race and everything else with a certain comic jauntiness. It could not be broader if it was Elsie Tanner’s backside.

You don’t have to be Richard Littlejohn to predict that in the beginning the merging of two such schools would, in reality, be quite fraught. All the same, it seemed a bit much that on what was only the first day of term, a lippy student called Jordan immediately tested his new teacher’s political correctness by announcing that his name was actually Abdul, that he was a “revert” to Islam and that, yes, he did intend to wear the hijab he’d satirically fashioned from a sweater. (Oh, get on with your GCSEs, you little pound-shop Chris Morris – as his teacher definitely didn’t say.)

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Meanwhile, a white girl called Missy, whose mum is a drug addict, found herself on the wrong side of the catty piety of a group of “nice” Muslim girls; a Muslim member of the school’s support staff revealed that he had spent time in HMP Leeds, perhaps for reasons to do with extremism; and an Asian student announced that she didn’t want to be taught any books by “dead, white men”. Truly, I’ve heaved rucksacks less packed than this.

The school’s daffy English teacher, Emma Keane (Liz White), agreed immediately to this last demand: “I’m with you!” she said, shutting the door on Barry Hines for ever. The staff of the Ackley Bridge academy are, you see, not only sexy and adorable; they’re incompetent, too. Mandy Carter (Jo Joyner), the head teacher, couldn’t discipline a protractor; her hopeless PE teacher husband, Steve Bell (played by Paul Nicholls), has already punched the aforementioned Jordan after the boy revealed that he overheard sir accusing his wife of sleeping with the school’s sponsor, Sadiq Nawaz (Adil Ray).

Meanwhile, Ms Keane has already had to deal with the fallout from the topless pictures she unaccountably keeps on her mobile; images her daughter tweeted by way of punishment for her maternal failings. Quite where such a series takes its weary audience next is anyone’s guess: a bad Ofsted inspection isn’t going to cut it in a realm where St Trinian’s and St Custard’s appear to have collided head on with the Equal Opportunities Commission. One thing is for sure: come the end of term, I do not plan to be anywhere near the staff room.

Speaking of weary, what about House of Cards, now in its fifth, exhausting season? People talk of the ruinous effect of the current White House on the series; but if it is in trouble – and I think it is – the problem lies not with Trump but with its writers, who long ago backed themselves into a cul-de-sac and whose scripts now comprise endless boring process, punctuated with moments of loopy melodrama. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is little more than a parody, a Richard III for people who shop for candlesticks at Pottery Barn.

His wife, Claire (Robin Wright), ceased to be psychologically plausible the moment she fell in love with her husband’s ghostwriter (she thinks he’s Norman Mailer; everyone else recognises him for a bloke who once subbed at Details). As I write, season six has yet to be confirmed. My guess is that the jig is up.

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special