Teen dramas such as Teen Wolf or The Vampire Diaries that feature fantastical creatures and universes are popular worldwide because they offer a sense of escapism from the struggles of adolescence. However, it saddens me that they have become more common than realistic dramas which allow young adults to feel represented and heard.
For years the U.S has been producing a variety of teen dramas on various networks and streaming services such as The CW, Freeform, Netflix and Now TV. Some have focused on the rich and affluent like Gossip Girl, others have centered on crime and murder like in Pretty Little Liars. A few have given young diverse American stories a chance to be told such as the 2018 Netflix Original success On My Block and ABC Family‘s (now Freeform) 2008 drama Secret Life of the American Teenager which made Shailene Woodley the star she is today, after playing a pregnant teenager. Yet the U.K has only ever hit the mark with Channel 4’s gritty, bittersweet drama Skins, which finally portrayed diverse British working class experiences of teens from 2007 until 2013. The show’s main cast were teenagers depicting real teen issues of sexuality, complex friendships, eating disorders and substance abuse which gave each episode a raw, believable feel that brought fame to names such as Nicholas Holt, Kaya Scodelario, Dev Patel and Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya who was also a consultant writer on a few episodes.
In 2017 Channel 4 premiered Ackley Bridge which captures the essence of what made Skins so engaging, yet is still something fresh for generation Z living in the Brexit era. Although it is not as gritty as Skins it is still a relatively accurate reflection of the adolescent experience and finally shows northern life. Ackley Bridge focuses on a Yorkshire merger school designed to improve cultural integration between the Muslim and predominantly white communities in the small fictional town which means the north is finally being shown on mainstream television. In the first episode, CBBC’s Amy Leigh Hickman shines as Nas, a studious girl who is excited to finally attend the same school as her energetic best friend and neighbor Missy, played by Poppy Lee Friar. So far throughout the two seasons aired, their unwavering friendship has been at the heart of the plot, even when certain episodes focus on their peers they consistently help each other navigate xenophobia, relationships, exams, sexuality, substance abuse and prejudice stereotypes against them both.
Not only does the drama give voices to teenagers by representing a diverse cast whose characters experience an array of difficulties, but also conveys problems faced by British teachers in recent years through the detailed characterization of Headteacher Mandy, (played by Jo Joyner) who is the embodiment of how hard most teachers work. She struggles to cope with declining government funding and the pressure of achieving exam statistics that prove success, yet she still remains passionate about her profession while coming to terms with the breakdown down of her marriage and supports her students.
The main theme that runs throughout the series is the benefits of a community which is vital to convey in a twenty-first-century society, in which most people don’t know their neighbours, youth clubs are becoming a distant memory and the Brexit vote has divided the country.
A very poignant episode explored this further in season two, episode nine when Cory resorted (played by Sam Retford) to using a local food bank as a better alternative to stealing due to his Dad’s long-term unemployment. His friend’s sister Alya (played by Maariah Hussain) noticed him volunteering there and took photos with the aim of humiliating him by sending the photos to a large group chat. Alya’s malicious intent was not effective and only led to the judgment of her morals. Later in the episode, she begins to understand what it means to be privileged when her Father’s business goes bankrupt, therefore meaning they lose their affluent lifestyle and causing the family to move into her crowded aunt’s terrace house. The importance of community is highlighted through this narrative as it was a vital lifeline to Cory and gave the Nawaz family assistance when they fell from fortune into misfortune. I thought this was a great reminder to teenage viewers that although people like Cory have a seemingly confident bravado at school, we never fully know what difficulties anyone is experiencing at home. Additionally, it is an important lesson for those from richer, more materialistic backgrounds to be sympathetic towards peers experiencing poverty, as anyone can have a drastic change in circumstances.
I would encourage anyone to watch Ackley Bridge if you want your eyes to be opened to diverse cultures, austerity in Britain and the academic pressures faced by both students and teachers in 2018. Not only will you learn about the adversity faced by central characters, but about the common experiences of people you know who are too afraid to voice their thoughts with peers that might prefer to believe stereotypes on social media.
Featured Image courtesy of Channel 4