TV’s Niamh Brennan looks back on Waterloo Road, asking was it the best TV show of all time?
I’m of the opinion that there is not a show that presents the realities of school life as well as Waterloo Road ever did it. Not only that, but they presented the realities of a recognisable working-class environment in a way that didn’t stigmatise or glamourise. Certainly, at times it seemed like Waterloo Road experienced far more trauma than the typical secondary school, but it did so in a way that made it feel like all of the characters experiencing the events were ripped straight from any comprehensive school in the UK.
Having recently re-watched the first five series of Waterloo Road on YouTube, it was interesting to reflect on the importance of the show twelve years after its initial airing. The thing that was immediately most striking to me was the varied storylines that covered any and all situations that may occur to 11-18-year olds and their teachers and family. From the typical secondary school dramas of bullying, friendship and relationships to the more important discussions of mental health, sexual identity and physical abuse, Waterloo Road covered anything and everything; in comic tones when the situation demanded it, but also with delicacy when a more serious message or dispute was conveyed. Importantly, Waterloo Road always considered pupils and teachers with equal weight. No problem was weighted more heavily because of age or experience. For a teenager growing up and looking to Waterloo Road as an emblem of navigating school life, it was important to show that teenage issues were important too. Sometimes it was also nice to see that no matter how bad you felt your school experience was going, at least it wasn’t open gang-warfare on the playground.
It also struck me how the characters all looked the ages they were supposed to be playing, with only the odd exception. Often on TV shows adolescents are played by adults made to look younger, and as a result there is a disconnect as they just don’t look like you do. Jenna Coleman playing a 16-year-old at 22 never quite felt right, and her attempt to play the unruly child gang leader was often more comical than dramatic because of it. But the show had actors of all ages playing their ages, and the variety paid off. Looking back all the characters seem so young and innocent, not uncomfortably played by actors old enough to be their own parents.
Waterloo Road introduced me to the world of being over attached to fictional character from TV shows. From being over-invested with the success of Chlo and Donte’s relationship to the near to heartbreak I felt watching Sambuca Kelley die in the arms of her mum and Tom Clarkson, week by week the show consumed my thirteen-year-old life and I felt like I was watching real events and real people live their daily lives.
Although most of the actors who appeared in Waterloo Road have not gone on to do much more since their time on the show, it’s also exciting to see which characters have flourished afterwards. Many of the actors have joined long running soaps. Donte Charles actor Adam Thomas who appears in Emmerdale, also finished runner up in I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2016, whilst both Lucy Dixon and Chelsee Healey who played Danielle Harker and Janeece Bryant respectively have gone on to appear in Hollyoaks. On a more global scale, Tom Payne, who played Brett Aspinall in the first two series now stars as Jesus in The Walking Dead, unrecognisably so.
It was a shame that the joy of Waterloo Road was lost when they relocated from Rochdale to Greenock. After that it never quite had the same excitement about it, and plot lines felt forced rather than the natural outpouring of drama that came before it. But the nostalgia of the show has lived on positively in my memory. Unlike many other shows I enjoyed as young teenager, I enjoyed watching Waterloo Road just as much the second time around. It was interesting to see just how I understood the sarcastic and pessimistic wit of Steph Haydock and Grantley Budgen the second time around, and how much Waterloo Road was ahead of its time in depictions of equality and mental health awareness. I wholeheartedly plan on continue to rewatch further series of the show as they become available and would recommend that everyone else experiences the heart-warming nostalgia, or watch it for the first time, too.