The TV Series
The densely plotted British public school drama Waterloo Road is apparently a big deal in the U.K., where its eighth series is currently running strong. It was produced by Shed Productions, the same outfit responsible for the better-known (here in the U.S., anyhow) Footballers' Wives. Trading manipulative, sexed-up trophy wives for overburdened teachers and snotty students gives a slight idea of what Waterloo Road deals with in each drama-packed episode.
Waterloo Road's ever-present turmoil mostly emanates from the lower middle-class Manchester, England middle school where it is set. In each episode, faculty members' complex personal lives butt up against their pupils' misbehaviors and the constant threat of closure due to an apathetic staff and underperforming students. The things that go on in each installment can get overwrought and kinda stupid, sure, but it's generally done with a thoughtful nuance for portraying complex, intriguing characters. The stories generally focus on the adult faculty members of the school, with the teen population's myriad problems taking up about a quarter of the show's running time (you just know that that adult/kid storyline ratio would be reversed if this was an American production).
As Waterloo Road opens at the beginning of a new school year, the old headmaster at the embattled institution is seen crazily tossing around paperwork on the roof of the school's administrative wing. It is into this boiling cauldron of incompetence that our newly promoted headmaster arrives - presiding over a faculty with so many neuroses of their own, it's a wonder that any real instruction gets accomplished in the first place. The eclectic cast of characters include:
- Jack Rimmer (Jason Merrells) - new headmaster at Waterloo Road. Jack is a volatile type who keeps a flask of liquor in his desk, having little patience for disorderly students or faculty that go against the complacency-encouraging grain.
- Andrew Treneman (Jamie Glover) - Newly hired deputy headmaster and English teacher. Andrew's strict, regimented teaching method shocks the other faculty members and Jack. Perhaps they had it wrong?
- Kim Campbell (Angela Griffin) - No-nonsense art teacher who serves as a caring mentor to many of the students. Kim and Andrew share a bit of sexual chemistry between them.
- Steph Haydock (Denise Welch) - Blowsy, flirtatious French teacher who has a drunken fling with Jack in the second episode. Steph's casual teaching style will result in dangerous consequences as the season progresses.
- Tom Clarkson (Jason Done) - Laid-back, rather spineless English teacher who is engaged to one of the other Waterloo Road teachers. Tom carries a torch for another woman, who also happens to work at Waterloo Road, but can't find the strength to tell his fiancée (later wife) about it.
- Lorna Dickey-Clarkson (Camilla Power) - Another English teacher, who becomes Tom's bride in the first episode. Tightly wound, manipulative Lorna essentially guilt-trips Tom into marriage, then further shames him by secretly aborting their baby. All this without suspecting that he's in love with her best friend.
- Izzie Redpath (Jill Halfpenny) - Drama teacher and frazzled single mom to two teen girls who also attend Waterloo Road. As if battling the girls' father for custody rights wasn't enough, her older daughter gets into a scrape with the law along with her outcast boyfriend. Izzie is also friendly with Tom and Lorna, but that will change when she finds out Tom's true feelings for her.
- Chlo Grainger (Katie Griffiths) - Izzie's petulant daughter, a student at the school. In the first episode, a tragic accident involving her and a few other classmates will land Chlo's boyfriend in jail, but ever-mounting suspicion casts much of the blame on her.
- Donte Charles (Adam Thomas) - Another surly Waterloo Road student, Chlo's boyfriend. Donte spends much of series one in jail, being manipulated by his portly, limo-driving dad, various Waterloo Road officials, and his girlfriend.
- Lewis Seddon (Craig Fitzpatrick) - Thuggish student (who bears a passing resemblance to the Dead End Kids' Leo Gorcey) and the epitome of the hell-raising student body at Waterloo Road. Lewis will eventually be involved with a legal scrape involving one of the faculty members.
Shot mostly within the confines of a real school, Waterloo Road has an immediacy that is usually missing from dramas of this ilk. That bracingly realistic setting helps out the show a lot, especially when the many intertwining subplots get too baroque for their own good. Although Waterloo Road been shown around the world to good ratings, the eight episodes collected on Series 1 were the only part of this elephantine saga to get any exposure in the U.S. (they were broadcast on the BBC America channel). If the other seasons are as juicy and watchable as this one, hopefully Acorn will eventually get around to releasing them soon.
Acorn Media's Waterloo Road - Series One comes on two discs in a standard Amaray case with paperboard slipcover. The locker design on the package is interesting, since I don't believe they even have lockers at the school depicted in the show.
Presented in 16x9 anamorphic widescreen, visually the show is given a decent but not spectacular treatment on disc. Each DVD contains four episodes, which results in some pixelization, splotchiness and lack of detail. The cinematography, which appears to be filmed on celluloid, accurately captures the school's gritty atmosphere.
The stereo soundtrack on each episode was just fine, not very showy but serving its purpose adequately. English subtitles are also provided (helpful for the sometimes thick accents, although I never needed them).
Excepting trailers for other Acorn Media products on the first disc, there are no extras.
Compulsively watchable and full of British piss and vinegar (but not quite as gritty as it aspires to be), the first season of Waterloo Road is an entertaining seven-hour grand tour of the goings-on at a "typical" UK middle school. Though it isn't outstanding in any particular way, the carefully drawn characters and absorbing plots make one understand why it became a huge hit in its native country. Hopefully Acorn Media will be issuing the other seasons on DVD soon. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.