Unexplained pregnancies, punch-ups, choir competitions, sexual tension you’d need a chainsaw to chop through, tears a-go-go... Waterloo Road isn’t short on soap-opera dramatic staples. By the series’ earlier standard, though, all that makes this 10-episode second chunk from the back end of series four seem fairly uneventful. There are no shootings, knifings or arson attacks this time out...
Grim northern secondary school Waterloo Road is half Grange Hill, half Coronation Street, with the drama zooming in as much on the predictable traumas of the kids as it does the shenanigans of the staff room. It’s a by-the-numbers drama commission that’s somehow turned into a bit of a stealth success, racking up series after series and pulling down audiences skywards of six million on the Beeb. At first glance it’s difficult to see how. After all, this is a show where the plotting tends always towards the predictably apocalyptic and it has a fondness for cliché that threatens to blossom into a full-throated love affair at any moment. Just why do people like it so much?
And then you watch a few episodes and somehow it creeps under your skin. You know it’s rubbish, but you can’t help shake the sneaking suspicion that – despite the tub-thumping emotion washing about on screen – no one’s actually taking it quite as seriously as they’re supposed to. There’s always a jolt of black humour to help dissolve a few of the soap bubbles.
The performances keep you gripped, too. Yes, the kids are almost all annoying stereotypes, but the grown ups undeniably make for a good watch. There are a lot of TV drama old-stagers here – Denise Welch, Eva Pope, Angela Griffin and Philip Martin Brown, who’ve done their time in the trenches of Corrie, Holby City, Auf Wiedersehen Pet and so on. These guys know how to milk a script for all its worth and they manage to make even some of the most unpromising old tosh play quite sweetly.
There are even a few surprises. Neil Morrissey’s been in the show for a few series now and – whisper it – he’s actually pretty good at some of this straight-acting malarkey. You wouldn’t pay to see him do a run in Hamlet, true, but you swiftly stop asking yourself how Tony from Men Behaving Badly ended up as a deputy headmaster. Quality drama Waterloo Road isn’t, but it’s a decent, infectious guilty pleasure. We’ll be back next term.
Silly and over-the-top, this just about earns itself a passing grade – even if it’s never going to challenge for a distinction.