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'Ackley Bridge' is a High School Drama That Offers More
February 26, 2018  | By David Hinckley

One of the most fascinating aspects of Ackley Bridge, a British drama about a school that merges previously separated white and Muslim student populations, is that the resulting tension is presented as a fair fight.

In Ackley Bridge, which aired in Britain last summer and becomes available Monday on the streaming service Acorn, the predominantly Asian Muslim students are not portrayed as a minority forced to defend their presence.

Yes, some of the predominantly white non-Muslim students would like to see it that way – that this is “our country and you don’t belong here.” That just isn’t the reality.

While the cultural divide is clearly illustrated by, for instance, the fact that many of the female Muslim students wear headscarves, it’s even clearer that both groups belong.

Everyone speaks the same language, studies the same courses, shares the same social media and perhaps most important, is a part of the larger British culture.

The issue in Ackley Bridge, which viewers may feel free to extrapolate into the wider world, is not whether one group can drive another group out. It’s whether both groups will do what’s necessary to work together for common goals.

That’s asking a lot of high school students, of course, since their world tends to revolve around their own dramas.

Ackley Bridge
does check all the requisite high school boxes: mean girls, shameful secrets, entitled jocks, the troubled kid crying for help and so on.

The adults, who get equal screen time, tend to be understanding, with a genuine desire to help make this difficult transition work. They’ve got their own issues, though. The first person ambushed by an embarrassing picture on social media here is not a student.

The head of this merged school, Mandy Carter (Jo Joyner, left), wants everybody to just get along. Her assistant, Steve Bell (Paul Nicholls, left), is from the school that says you try to reason with troublesome students. This approach is immediately tested by Jordan Wilson (Sam Bottomley), who hangs a racist poster in the middle of the main school walkway and in effect dares Mr. Bell or Ms. Carter to do anything about it.

The students themselves naturally take sides, both over specific incidents like the poster and in general. Whether it’s the pickup teams in gym or lunchroom seating, there isn’t a lot of crossover.

The upfront exception seems to be Missy Booth (Poppy Lee Friar, top) and Nasreen Paracha (Amy-Leigh Hickman, top), who were already besties. Under the new order, that friendship soon gets tested.

We’re also reminded that not every issue is religious or cultural when teacher Emma Keane (Liz White) gets distracted by her restless daughter Chloe (Fern Deacon). Chloe is having a hard time handling her mother's split from her father, Nik (Stuart Manning) and the consequences ripple out into the school.

All this is leavened by a regular sprinkling of humor, which helps separate Ackley Bridge from standard teen soap operas. Instead, it tackles the much tougher question of how teens, with their inevitable and volatile mixture of insecurity and overconfidence, deal with the cultural divide issue at which so many of their elders have failed.

It’s not neat, and it’s not clean, and that’s a big part of the reason to tune it in. This first season runs six episodes, and it has been renewed for a second season of 12.
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