Class act takes a tartan turn

17th August 2012 at 01:00
The new set of the long-running show Waterloo Road is at the former Greenock Academy. Jackie Cosh reports on the programme's move north of the border and reveals why a change of location is a good thing all round

As children and teachers across the country bemoan the end of the summer holidays and return to the classroom, staff and pupils at one school have more than most to contend with. A new building in a new part of the country, a school boarding house to set up, and will there be any casualties when that camper van crashes?

Regular viewers of Waterloo Road will recognise the scene. Series seven of the BBC drama, set in a challenging comprehensive near Rochdale, finished with a minibus full of staff and pupils stopping at the Scottish-English border to have their photograph taken. From nowhere a camper van appeared, heading straight for them. And at that the camera cut.

Waterloo Road was first broadcast in March 2006 and has since built up a huge following, with a fan base spanning the generations and the series trending highly on Twitter when the show is on.

Over the past seven series it has covered everything from teenage pregnancy to pupil teacher affairs, drugs to gang fights. At the same time it aims to depict the calmer side of school life - the politics, the stress of the job, problems with pupils.

Given the nature of education today, it would not be possible to make the drama completely realistic, says producer Lizzie Grey. "With everything changing and with us not knowing until three weeks beforehand when we will transmit, we can't wed ourselves to something specific which doesn't reflect reality," says Miss Grey.

"We try to reflect school life but with facts we could get caught out, so we have kept it loose in terms of what exam system they follow. We get TESS and regularly look to stay up-to-date with current debates. Recently we were looking at covering one issue when it turned up on the front cover of the magazine."

The production team spend time speaking to teachers and other contacts in education, keeping up-to-date with the curriculum, speaking to social workers and headteachers, and to prepare for the move up to Scotland they spoke to managers of free schools and independent schools to see how Waterloo Road could be run in Scotland.

"Some of the production team are ex-teachers and we really do our research and know what is possible, and the best dramatic way of telling a story. There is no point in drama if there is no truth in it," says Miss Grey. "We are very keen to root the educational stories in the education day, how they impact on the school day and how the day is disrupted."

The end of the last series saw the local education authority make the decision to close the school, but some pupils failed to find places in other schools. Determined not to abandon them, headteacher Michael Byrne, played by Alec Newman, has taken steps to set up an alternative school outside Glasgow with a boarding house, funded by his ex-pupil and multi- millionaire friend Lorraine Donnegan (Daniela Denby-Ashe).

For Mr Newman, the storyline mirrors reality to an extent. A Scot by birth, he and his family left Scotland when he was four, moving down to England. Like his character Michael, he is returning to live in Scotland after a long absence.

He was starring in a production of King Lear in New York when he heard he had got the role in the last series and on his return to Britain managed to find time to do some research.

"I met a man in a pub - Gregg Davies, head of Shiplake College in Henley- on-Thames. He invited me to visit. He was invaluable and Daniela went down also. It was good on two levels. I saw how a school works and I read the accounts and saw how much a free school costs. I was also able to watch him as a headteacher," he says.

He acknowledges the fact that the move to Scotland is a big leap for viewers. "We are asking people to buy into this new version of the show we love," he admits. "I can tell you that nothing is made up and daft. Some may feel like a stretch but I can go to someone like Gregg and ask whether it is outside the possibilities of feasibility. He would say `unlikely but possible'. Bearing in mind that it is a drama we are doing. It is not a documentary."

Educating Essex and Waiting for Superman, a documentary on flaws in the American education system, provided more background and for the move up to Scotland, Alec read Toby Young's book How To Set Up a Free School.

"That was very useful. This is a very unique change in the storyline, so it was very important that people don't say `that's not what would happen'. The show can still play if facts are not correct but I wanted to ensure they were."

Philip Martin Brown, who plays English teacher Grantly Budgen, is one of the original cast and an ex-teacher. "I trained as a teacher in the mid- 1970s. I had always wanted to be an actor but everyone said `get a second string to your bow'," he says.

"I went to the New College of Speech and Drama and did a DipEd. Up until four years ago I did supply teaching in Kent, teaching everything - maths, science, PE, RE. It worked very well. They knew they could ring me up but they also knew that this was my primary job."

The character of Grantly is based on an amalgamation of people. "I based the character on people I had seen in staffrooms when on supply, but also on people who taught me - one in particular, Mr Holmes in Barrow-in- Furness. I have met him since and he likes the fact the character is based on him," he says.

His experience of teaching has helped him in some ways. "It has helped with little things like being in the classroom during an episode. If the kids have their bags on the desks I throw them onto the floor as they are not allowed to do that in the classes I teach. When the fire drill is done it has to be done in silence. In the first series people were talking on the way out and I knew it has to be done in silence."

But he admits that there is only so much realism needed. "Waterloo Road is all condensed into one hour," he says. "People say it would never happen in a school but I say, do they really want to see me doing paperwork? It is quite a moralistic show. Bad kids come good. Nobody gets away with crime. There is a message in every programme, even if it is subliminal."

Mr Brown says that in true Grantly style his character does not take well to the move: "He doesn't like it. He has a new pastoral role because he and Maggie look after the kids at the boarding house. He loathes it. There is quite a bit of humour."

The new set is the empty Greenock Academy which shut its doors in June 2011. Its former headteacher has visited the set and is said to be pleased the building is being used. Many others locally have commented that the filming has brought a new lease of life to the area.

Walking around the new set, it is clear that much effort has been put in to ensuring it is not too different from the Rochdale set. While some of the old classrooms are being used for filming, new paint and lighting makes them hardly recognisable. Pupils' artwork, which was produced by local schoolchildren, bear the names of other children, and make reference to the English school year system (Year 8 as opposed to S2). The surrounding landscape is also not too different from that in Rochdale.

"The move was very challenging," admits Ms Grey. "We have worked hard to maintain the brand that viewers all know and love. It can't be too different but we still need to celebrate the scenery on our doorstep. We have brought 12 of the core characters and have recruited three new adult characters.

"Hopefully it will not be too different. It will still be big, bold and character-driven. We try not to be inner-city and deliberately chose a spot which matched the location in Rochdale. Even though the systems are different, what people face on a day-to-day basis is universal."

As headteacher it is only fair that Alec Newton gets the final word. He says: "A lot happens in one hour of Waterloo Road, and no school has so much happen in one hour. That can only happen in my mind if the facts are right. Teachers don't watch Waterloo Road for bang-on accuracy. We know that. But they will only do that if we get the nuts and bolts right."

The new series of Waterloo Road starts on BBC One, Thursday 23 August at 8pm

Going into Greenock

Greenock Academy was a non-denominational school in Inverclyde that closed in June 2011. It merged with nearby Gourock High and its pupils and staff moved into the new Clydeview Academy later that year.

During 2012 and 2013, 50 one-hour episodes of Waterloo Road will be shot in Greenock. Shed Productions, which makes the drama series, relocated as part of the BBC's commitment to increase network programming from Scotland and the other nations of the UK.

Beset with problems

Some of the problems Waterloo Road teachers have contended with include:

- the alcoholism of trainee teacher Russell Millen;

- drama teacher Izzie Redpath being stabbed to death in series two;

- learning support assistant Davina Shackleton being rushed to hospital with smoke inhalation when the school was set on fire in series three;

- because of the stress of having to cope with his wife's Alzheimer's disease, Grantly Budgen ended up teaching his A-level class the wrong syllabus.

A cast in a class of their own

The Waterloo Road alumni include a host of British stars

  • Robson Green
  • Denise Welch
  • Debra Stephenson
  • Neil Morrissey
  • Jill Halfpenny
  • Jason Merrells
  • Angela Griffin
  • Tina O'Brien
  • Roxanne Pallett
  • Wil Johnson
  • Tom Chambers
  • Tim Healey
  • Christine Tremarco
  • John Thomson.
    • Photo credit: BBC

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