Last Thursday saw BBC One’s long-running drama, Waterloo Road, relaunched in its new Scottish home of Greenock. The choice of location initially raised a few eyebrows since Greenock and the surrounding areas have often had an unsavory reputation.
It’s true, after all, that the initial filming of Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen in the town was disrupted when the crew arrived at the location house to find locals had burnt it out the night before. The crime rate has never been anything to brag about and the very name of Greenock has often been used as a byword for deprivation and a poor standard of living.
But there is another side to Greenock. Go there on a sunny day and it’s clear to see it boasts an undeniably picturesque spot on the Clyde, an experience enjoyed by many a traveler down the West Coast and passengers of the massive Cruise Liners which now regularly stop on the shore. It’s an area rich in history and beauty and the average resident is no more a drunken hooligan than every Leither is a Begbie or a Sick Boy.
At least initially, the townspeople have been as welcoming as possible to the arrival of cast and crew. Inverclyde MSP Duncan McNeil has been quick to claim credit for kick starting the process of having Greenock chosen for the shoot and regular stories in the local newspaper continue a campaign of positivity about the venture.
Of course, attitudes can change when the production is finally broadcast, as was seen by the council led backlash to the way Peter McDougall’s brilliantly observed Just A Boy’s Game portrayed the Greenock and Port Glasgow of the late seventies. It will be interesting to see if any Waterloo Road portrayals of local life rub those in authority up the wrong way.
But it should also be remembered that the council had an entirely different view of the aforementioned Sweet Sixteen, despite the hardly glamorous lives it represented, and even took the step of reducing the certification from the nationally adopted ‘18’ to a ‘15’ to enable as many teenage Greenockians to view it as possible. So, at least for the time being, all the signs are good ones and, to my knowledge, nobody has tried to set fire to the school yet.
The school building in which Waterloo Road is now set is couldn’t be more ideal for a social drama. Greenock Academy closed down in June 2011 after 156 years of history, nearly sixty years of which were at the Madeira Street location on which it now stands. A large part of that history was as a fee-paying school, a legacy that had the pupils labeled as posh kids for most of its existence, despite being a comprehensive from the seventies onwards.
The nonsense of this latter day reputation was further compounded by the decision to expand the register by bussing in pupils from some of the schemes a little further afield. It’s fair to say that the youthful dynamic in the Academy became a lot more fun from the mid-seventies onwards and I can say that with certainty because that’s where I started my secondary education in 1978.
Some of the things that went on there would undoubtedly make good plotlines for the show, whether it came from some of the bizarre and eccentric behaviour of certain teachers or notorious acts by the livelier of the pupils. Obviously I won’t go into any of that here as I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone, or incriminate myself, but I would like to share my favourite piece of graffiti I ever saw on the school wall. It was a simple sentence that stated ‘THE JANITOR MUST DIE TODAY’.
It’s the immediacy of the word ‘TODAY’ that raises this demand above the average and is a compliment to the social mixing that went on within the academic circles. Incidentally, the randomly selected janitor was not put to death on that day, or any other one for that matter.
The lowering of the borders between people from widely different backgrounds, or cross contamination if put another way, was an ideal upbringing and near perfect preparation for the adaptability required to deal with the vastly eclectic types of people you meet when unleashed on the real world once school’s out forever. If Waterloo Road captures even a fraction these kinds of lives it will be on the right track.
The motto that used to hang on the gates of Greenock Academy was Hinc Vera Virtus – From This Place Comes True Worth. Hopefully this motto will prove to be a suitable moniker for the drama produced within its walls. And it would be great if one of the episodes was entitled ‘The Janitor Must Die Today’.
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Waterloo Road can be seen on BBC One on Thursday evenings.
Top image by Cara Hoey