Ackley Bridge series 5, review: Grange Hill for the TikTok generation

Ackley Bridge - Channel 4
Ackley Bridge - Channel 4

At my school, there was a divide: those of us who were allowed to watch Grange Hill and those who were not. Some parents (not mine, thankfully) were of the belief that exposure to Tucker Jenkins would turn their offspring feral. Well, where are those kids now, eh? Ok, I know one of them is an actual nuclear physicist. But perhaps the rest are heroin addicts, having never seen the terrible fate that befell Zammo McGuire.

Lord knows what those parents would have made of Ackley Bridge (Channel 4), which is Grange Hill for the TikTok generation. Turning up in a full face of make-up like Kim Kardashian, being arrested for theft… and that’s just the teachers.

The pupils are busy losing their virginity, signing up to post selfies on a site called AdultFanz, and whipping out their smartphones in class to cast votes in an online “Fit or not?” poll of their female classmates.

This all sounds vaguely terrifying, but try not to be alarmed. Ackley Bridge is a Hollyoaks-style soap in which all of these issues are tackled with a light touch – and if you think teenagers aren’t familiar with this stuff, then you don’t speak to many teenagers.

The teachers are comedy characters, including the headmaster (Downton Abbey’s Robert James-Collier) and student support officer Mrs Paracha (Sunetra Sarker). Both actors are soap veterans, and it shows. Sarker is very funny, horrified at having to lead a sex-education talk. When one pupil submits a question asking if it’s ok to watch porn, she splutters: “Never! Drink a glass of water and watch ‘The Blue Peter’ instead.”

Mrs Paracha (Sunetra Sarker) and Asma (Laila Zaidi) - Channel 4
Mrs Paracha (Sunetra Sarker) and Asma (Laila Zaidi) - Channel 4

Being a soap, it has a firm set of moral values. Marina (Megan Morgan) is the school beauty who signs up to AdultFanz, but that will be a cautionary tale. She is a stroppy little thing, but it is spelled out that she behaves this way because she is insecure and unhappy at home.

The original story, created by Ayub Khan Din (East Is East) in 2017, was of a majority Muslim school merging with a majority white school in a Northern mill town, and all the ensuing tensions. They have largely been ironed out, and the script is bang up to date: now, children of all races condemn colonialism, egged on by a teacher who lectures on “systems of oppression”.

Ackley Bridge used to be a teatime show, but this series is running nightly from 10-11pm. While the content is racy for an early slot, the scheduling is also a sign that teenage lives have changed since the Grange Hill days: now they watch TV on demand, away from parents’ prying eyes.