Ackley Bridge is a Yorkshire mill town, home to largely divided white and Asian populations. Like the communities, the school systems have also become segregated. However as two formerly isolated comprehensives are merged into a brand new academy, Ackley Bridge College, the lives and cultures of each are set to collide. Lessons are about to be learnt in and out of the classroom, even if education isn’t the first thing on the agenda…
Starring Jo Joyner, Paul Nicholls, Arsher Ali, Liz White, Sunetra Sarker, Adil Ray, Poppy Lee Friar and Amy Leigh Hickman. Ackley Bridge, (6×60’), heralds Channel 4’s return to 8pm week night drama. Created by Ayub Khan Din (East is East), Kevin Erlis (Shameless) and Malcolm Campbell (Shameless, What Richard Did) it’s directed by Penny Woolcock (Tina Goes Shopping, Mischief Night, The Death of Klinghoffer, 1 Day) and written by Malcolm Campbell, Anya Reiss, Ishy Din, Suhayla el-Bushra and Ayub Khan Din.
MEET THE CHARACTERS
Missy Booth – trapped in Year 11 as she missed a year, 16. Played by Poppy Lee Friar
Missy is a survivor. A real product of Ackley Bridge. She keeps her family together, despite the erratic and destructive visits of her troubled mum, Simone. Three years ago, Missy and Hayley were removed from Simone’s care by Social Services and placed with Simone’s mother, Nana Booth. At home, Missy self-sacrifices, cares for their elderly Nana and makes sure her kid sister Hayley has a normal life as possible. However, there’s also a rebellious side to Missy. Her toughness and opinionated streak means that she gets herself into trouble. A LOT. Her mouth can run away with itself and once she’s said something she’ll never retract it. The boys think Missy is amazing and she knows how to get what she wants when it comes to them. Missy has huge potential. She might not be academic but she is full of street smarts and, given the right opportunities could make a real success of herself despite her circumstances.
Nasreen (Nas) Paracha – Year 12, 16. Played by Amy-Leigh Hickman
Nas is the yin to Missy’s yang and she’s been Missy’s neighbour and best friend for years,. While Missy is the smart mouthed one, Nas is the brains. She’s academic, intelligent and has a questioning mind. Kaneez’s eldest, Nas is the apple of her mum’s eye and is destined to make something of herself. Sometimes quiet and introspective, she privately hopes to go to uni but is terrified of the debts. However, Nas also wants to live in the moment. She is a respectable girl in the community but does enjoy going out with Missy and putting the world to rights. Nas is opinionated and surprisingly well-informed. She can astonish Missy about the things that she knows. She might be from a small town but it doesn’t mean she has to have small thoughts.
Mandy Carter – Head Teacher, 36. Played by Jo Joyner
Working class girl made good, Mandy swears by the power of education. It’s made her the woman that she is today. Ambitious Mandy’s been promoted quickly through her career and sometimes is out of her depth. However, she covers her insecurities with gusto. She can be a bulldozer at times. She’s relentlessly driven which means that her relationship with husband Steve sometimes has to take a back seat. Mandy clearly loves Steve, there’s a real chemistry between them, they make each other laugh, they fancy the pants off each other and they can be a great team, but she can be frustrated by him. To be a super head, Mandy knows that she’s going to have to make sacrifices and though she almost always plays things by the book, Mandy can take risks. Once she’s on a plan of action it’s difficult to sway her off it.
Kaneez Paracha – Dinner Lady, 39 Played by Sunetra Sarker
Heart of gold but tough as old boots, Kaneez is a force of nature. Pakistani born, Kaneez came to Ackley Bridge when she was 16 to marry her husband Iqbal. However, Kaneez has raised her family almost single-handedly as her unreliable husband works away in Pakistan often for months on end. Self-educated, Kaneez enjoys her independence and running her family without a man around. Highly intelligent, colourful and fearless, feet first Kaneez is lippy and opinionated and will never shy away from an argument. Actually she quite likes them. Nevertheless, if there’s work to be done she’ll settle any row and roll her sleeves up and get on with things. She is an eternal pragmatist making the most of what she’s got and telling other folk to do the same. Kaneez is God fearing but ploughs her own furrow. She’s definitely a woman that you want to have on side.
Steve Bell – Sports Science Teacher, 37. Played by Paul Nicholls
A charismatic ‘man’s man’, Steve is a big presence at Ackley Bridge College. Well-liked by the students and the teachers, Steve is always on hand to break up a fight or settle a discussion but he’s also more than up for a kick about on the school field. Steve isn’t a career teacher like his wife Mandy but he does have a vocation and is particularly good at working with kids – especially lads from challenging backgrounds. He knows how to handle himself, and normally how to keep his temper in check, and his charm and banter can get him out of a sticky situation. Steve likes his ale, his football and his wife, though Mandy’s relentless ambition can sometimes cause arguments between the couple.
Emma Keane – English Teacher, 36. Played by Liz White
Emma’s funny, a thrill seeker and a survivor who can look after herself. She is an original and inspiring teacher who tends to make it up as she goes along. Charming and fun to be around, Emma is a laugh. You’d want to go on a night out with her but you might struggle to keep up. Free spirited but still very opinionated, Emma is an authority-figure who has issues with authority. A natural teacher, but not a natural mum, Emma got pregnant in her first year of university and delayed her degree to give birth. The relationship didn’t work out and her daughter Chloe lives with her dad and sees Emma for one weekend a month and half of the school the holidays. She loves her daughter but she also loves her space, her freedom and the pupils that she teaches. Emma will go above and beyond in her commitment to her students’ academic but also emotional needs.
Sadiq Nawaz – School Sponsor and Head of Academy Trust. 40. Played by Adil Ray
Head of a thriving middle-class family, Sadiq is a big name in Ackley Bridge. Local boy made good, Sadiq has grafted for everything he’s got and is proud of what he’s achieved. His factory employs a good swathe of the town and he has high hopes for the community, his reputation and his bank balance. Sadiq is a consummate negotiator and charmer but with a roguish, amoral edge. He appears to be a pillar of the community but there’s something else about him. He can be a bit of a git. He enjoys women’s company and his wife Farida turns a blind eye as long as no scandal reaches the family home. Sadiq loves his children and hopes for a better, more privileged life for them but isn’t averse to making them work for it like he is.
Samir Qureshi – Community Liaison, 36. Played by Arsher Ali
Good looking and well dressed, Sami can appear serious and introspective but once you get to know him he has a sharp sense of humour and an easy charm. Born and bred in Ackley Bridge, Sami fell in with a crew of bad boys in his late teens and became a bit of a jack the lad, drinking, smoking and playing the field. Eventually, Sami found himself on the wrong side of the law which landed him in prison for a five year stint. He found Allah on the inside and is now a reformed man and far different to the chaotic troublemaker of his youth. He’s hardworking and really makes an effort to engage with the pupils he supports on their level – maybe he can make sure some of them don’t make the mistakes he made… He and Emma were an item a million years ago before Emma left for university and he’s just as surprised to see her as she is to see him…
Lila Shariff – NQT Biology, 23. Played by Anneika Rose
Dedicated to her job, Lila is a hardworking teacher who wants to do well in her career. Lila enjoys teaching and is a teacher who kids enjoy spending time with, though she knows how to discipline them if needs be. She comes from Glasgow and struggles to understand the segregated world of Ackley Bridge and the traditional Muslim British Pakistani families in the town, though she’s worked in Ackley Bridge for a term at the old majority Asian school. There’s a naiveté to Lila that is both refreshing but also frustrating. Maybe she’s not quite as sorted as she seems?
Will Simpson – NQT PE, 23. Played by Tom Varey
Taking to his new career like a duck to water, Will enjoys teaching. However, sometimes the kids run rings around him, as to be honest, wide-eyed Will, isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. He loves a bit of banter and can get on with most people and is friendly with teachers and pupils alike. However sometimes the teenage girls can be a bit full on and Will can struggle to negotiate how he’s meant to handle them. Happy being just a PE teacher, Will’s not too bothered about his career and, though he believes in the ethos of the new college, he’s far more at home in the pub or out on the pull.
Jordan Wilson – Year 11, 15. Played by Samuel Bottomley
Jordan is the naughty kid in school, a contemptuous wind-up merchant; he isn’t fazed at the thought of getting into trouble or afraid to push his luck. He’s bright, but thinks school is pointless: why play the game and work your butt off to get qualifications, when there are no opportunities for kids in town? Jordan has fire in his belly, he’s a constant thorn in big brother Cory’s side and a headache for his father. Jordan is a talented artist, and he loves comic books.
Riz Nawaz – Year 12, 16.Played by Nohail Mohammed
Sadiq’s son, sporty and attractive Riz has a real presence amongst his peers and is very easy on the eye. Riz is a loyal person and feels personal integrity, especially his own, is very important. There is magnetism to him that’s not too dissimilar to his father and he’ll probably be a heartbreaker one day. He’s a good footballer and is a potential poster boy for the school, much like his sister, Alya, who already has that role covered.
Alya Nawaz – Year 12, 16 Played by Maariah Hussain
Riz’s twin and future head girl. Alya is fiercely righteous and an academic snob, super intelligent she can be judgemental – a bit of a mean girl. However, underneath it all she is just as insecure as any normal teenage girl. Alya idolises her father and is ambitious, one day she would like to take on his business. If only she could make her dad see that she is capable of it – and not just a girl.
Cory Wilson – Year 12, 16. Played by Sam Retford
Popular and excellent at sports, Cory is not the brightest academically, however he is staving off the inevitable hunt for non-existent jobs by attending sixth form. Successful with the girls, Cory is a ‘player’ but he gets away with it due to his easy charm. Despite a hard upbringing, Cory’s upbeat and not prone to introspection against all the odds. The only issue Cory has is younger brother Jordan, he can’t understand Jordan’s propensity to stir the pot.
Chloe Voyle – Year 11, 15. Played by Fern Deacon
Emma’s daughter. Fiercely intelligent and, like her mum, a bit of a wild child too. Chloe has always lived with her dad in London and sees Emma every other weekend and for half the school holidays. She is used to life in London and Ackley Bridge is a foreign land to her. Chloe’s difficult but it’s just a tool to mask insecurity. Deep down she would like a better relationship with her mum.
Hayley Booth – Year 11, 15. Played by Cody Ryan
Missy’s little sister, Hayley just wants to have fun despite her hard home life. She appreciates the efforts Missy goes to keep the family together but would like to be able to focus on her friends and BOYS. She has a LOUD voice but also low self-esteem. In all she’s a sweet girl with a big heart and is best pals with Razia Paracha.
Razia Paracha – Year 11, 15. Played by Nazmeen Kauser
Kaneez’s second daughter, Razia is bright, opinionated and keen to learn. Her enthusiasm endears her to her teachers though sometimes her forthright personality can be a bit abrasive. She’s confident, but it’s all a front, as she decides who she is and what she wants to be in the future. Hayley and Razia are inseparable.
Lorraine Bird – Mandy’s PA, 47. Played by Lorraine Cheshire
Lorraine is good at her job mostly because she is a right nosey parker. Efficient gatekeeper to her head teacher, Lorraine believes that she runs the school herself and that without her the entire place would fall apart. Lorraine is the keeper of secrets and the spreader of gossip but she is extremely loyal to Ackley Bridge College – even if she doesn’t entirely believe in what she thinks is all this happy-clappy integration nonsense!
Nana Booth – 67 Played by Rita May
Nana to Missy and Hayley, Julie (Nana) Booth has been living on her street for years. Actually she has been living on her sofa for years – as she only leaves her house once a week to get her cash from the post office. Riding on her clapped-out mobility scooter, Nana is a lady with a lot to say for herself. She’s fed up of all the Asians that live on her street and still reckons that one day they’ll all bugger off back to Pakistan. Nana’s had her fill of her daughter Simone. She tried at first to get her off of drugs but now she can’t be bothered. It’s too much effort and leads to too many heartaches. Nana guards her granddaughters fiercely and the destructive and manipulative Simone is banned from the house.
Simone Booth – 36 Played by Samantha Power
Simone is Missy and Hayley’s chaotic mum but the girls were taken away from her three years ago because of her struggles with addiction. She occasionally parachutes into her daughters’ lives and usually causes chaos. She loves her family but is manipulative and selfish, constantly betraying them which has caused huge tension.
Saleem Paracha – Year 9, 13. Played by Esa Ashraf
Kaneez’s youngest, Saleem, is the man of the house. He’s 13 going on 30 and seen it all before. He’s an entrepreneur in the making and always got a scam on the go at school.
Iqbal Paracha – 45. Played by Narinder Samra
Nice but a little hopeless, Iqbal has struggled to provide for his family over the years. He’s come up with various money making schemes, the latest of which is building in Pakistan. Like the others, this hasn’t proved hugely profitable. Iqbal struggles to match his firebrand of a wife and he and Kaneez repeatedly come head to head.
JO JOYNER INTERVIEW
Tell us about Ackley Bridge?!
It’s a new 6 part drama set in a school in Yorkshire that has been set up to integrate the community by being part Asian and part white. It’s got some great young actors leading the cast!
What drew you to the series?
The integration theme, joining the community together and the opportunity to have such a diverse cast was definitely a pull to the show. For me in particular I liked the idea of a show that was set in a school where we follow not just the kids but the teachers just as much and show them as real, fallible people.
You play Mandy Carter, the Head Teacher at Ackley Bridge College, can you tell us a bit about her?
Mandy is hard working and has dedicated the last few years to getting this school off the ground, working closely with the schools sponsor Sadiq. She’s possibly neglected other areas of her life, like having fun and her husband, in favour of her career. She’s a perfectionist and relishes the chance to do something great for the community and truly believes in the opportunities that good education can bring. She’s strong and capable when it comes to leadership and work but can often be the complete opposite when it comes to her own personal life. I love that contradiction; it’s what makes her fully rounded.
What’s her relationship with her husband Steve like?
When we first meet them they’re getting on well but it’s clear that they have had some issues that they’ve been dealing with from the past. There is clearly history there and although Steve is Mandy’s rock, there is resentment from the past on her part and he’s feeling quite insecure about all the time that Mandy’s been spending with Sadiq in order to get the school up and running. They’re a bit of a roller coaster really. Steve’s no push over and time will tell if their relationship can withstand the dynamics of Mandy being his boss, Steve’s past misdemeanours and Mandy’s friendship with a Sadiq….
You’ve worked with Paul Nicholls before on Candy Cabs, was it nice to be reunited?
It was really great, you never think you’ll get paired together again with someone after you’ve worked with them before. I count myself lucky to have worked with some really great leading men so far and Paul is no exception. We work really well together, he makes the job easy for me by bringing something different to the table on every take. My twins were 5 months old when I last worked with Paul, so through the fog of no sleep and weaning I don’t remember much of the job!
You’re also reunited with your No Angels cast mate Sunetra Sarker, what was that like?
Heaven! Sadly we had about one scene together in the whole job, but that was probably for the best as we’d only have ended up in stitches. We moved in together and basically behaved like we were back doing No Angels again, talking all night and working all day. We worked together for three years when I was 25 and she really is one of my closest friends. So, yes, working and living with Sunetra was one of the highlights of the job. She’s not only one of my dearest friends; she’s a favourite actress of mine too!
Many of the younger characters in the show were street cast from the local community, what was it like filming with them?
They were. I think it’s a great thing, finding fresh, natural talent and Penny, our first director, is great at that. Sadly, as is true for most head teachers, I wasn’t in the classroom teaching much! So my time with the younger guys was mostly spent telling them off! But I did spend some time filming with them all out on the rugby pitch and their energy and enthusiasm was really great to have around.
Much of the show is about the cultural difficulties in the town of Ackley Bridge, and the merging of two schools into a new academy, were such schools something you were aware of before taking on the part?
I think I assumed that most schools were already in this day and age. I wasn’t aware that there was a need for such schools I suppose; I didn’t know that some areas had become so divided. I think that having lived in London for so many years, which is particularly such a multicultural city, I was possibly a bit ignorant of the fact that people might be not accepting of other cultures… I’m an actor, we’re generally a pretty open minded, sociable bunch! So I suppose it’s sometimes hard to believe that anyone would be racist, homophobic or not accepting of other faiths… That’s why it’s such a great show. Not only so that the young people from those communities can identify with it and see themselves represented, but also so that those people who are maybe less knowledgeable of other cultures can appreciate the differences and more than that, the similarities between us all.
What were you like at school?
I liked school. Mainly for the social side! I was lucky to have some great teachers and generally I was one of those kids that liked learning about new things. That’s not to say I was perfect! I may have got caught having a ciggie round the bike sheds!
Your husband’s a teacher, did you speak to him or anyone else as research for the show?
He is and my best mate is, in fact a lot of my friends are teachers. I didn’t ask their advice because ultimately we are all playing people, characters. We’re not writing the show. Mandy was never seen in a teaching role, like most teachers who get to head status, they spend more time running the show and less time in the classroom, which I’m sure is a shame for them. I’ve taken workshops and been in classrooms myself in the past, so I guess I had experience from that. When I was researching for No Angels I spent a day shadowing a nurse in Leeds. She was such a great nurse, kind, caring and hardworking. I felt really guilty when I left because she said she was looking forward to seeing herself in the show and I knew I was playing Beth, who was lazy, tough and not half as kind as her! So as much as I like to do research, there’s a limit to what control you have over what goes in to the show and so it’s best to focus on the human element, the characters and the relationships rather than the work environment.
POPPY LEE FRIAR INTERVIEW
Tell us about Ackley Bridge?
Ackley Bridge is a fictional town in Yorkshire and the show is named after it. It centres on a new, merged school. It features very strong, believable characters, it’s very daring and emotive and it offers an original take on multicultural town in 2017. It’s also shot in a way that really draws the audience in and looks really authentic and real, which I think helps with the truth of the story telling as well.
You play Missy, can you tell us about her?
So, Missy is very much a survivor, she’s missed a year of school, so she’s now in the year below with her little sister, Hayley, which is due to the fact she’s had to deal with a lot to do with her Mum. She’s very much the glue in her family despite her Mum, Simone, who has a lot of issues. She wants the best for her sister and her Nana but she’s also got a rebellious side, she can be quite tough and opinionated which can get her into trouble as her emotions can often present themselves in funny ways and bubble over. She can rub people up the wrong way as her mouth can run away from her. However she’s very popular at school, especially with the boys who love her as she’s quite saucy and sassy, but they know they could only dream that she would be interested in them. She’s very street wise and she’s constantly self-sacrificing because she’s had to be Mum, Dad and carer all at the same time. She’s had so much responsibility, but she does it out of love as she’s very loyal to her friends and family and her best friend Nas. They’ve grown up together and their families are entwined, there’s zero prejudice of culture and colour between them.
How does attending Ackley Bridge College affect Nas and Missy’s relationship?
Missy and Nas have been friends for years and years but when they start the new school Nas’ friends don’t appear to like Missy or their friendship and are quite quick to judge. Missy thinks Nas is choosing them over her so that initially causes tension. However it’s when they insult Simone, Missy’s Mum, as Nas pretends she doesn’t know her when she arrives at the school, that Missy’s protective streak kicks in and their friendship hits rocky territory. They do come out the other side, it’s quite interesting as it teaches Nas that she needs to speak for herself, it’s quite thought provoking.
Their relationship is very much at the heart of the show, did you feel a responsibility taking that on as part of such a huge production?
We were quite lucky as mine and Amy’s chemistry is great, we were lucky enough to meet once before professionally, so it was really easy to translate our friendship from real life on to camera. I don’t think i felt a huge amount of responsibility in terms of carrying anything, it was more a responsibility for the younger viewers and cast to be able to look up to us. In terms of production it’s really all about who you’re working with and the whole cast and crew are so supportive of each other and lovely and kind and funny, which I think is what really helped. We wanted it to be believable and I think that atmosphere and the people on set helped all that.
Were you anything like Missy when you were younger?
In some ways I guess, I’m very family orientated like she is and she has a big heart and she’s kind and caring and loyal, which I think I am too. I mean I don’t dress like Missy at all, or wear nearly as much make-up and I don’t even sound like her as I put on a Northern accent for the part! But that’s what I love about this job, I love playing characters and putting on different accents, and the fact I’m playing someone so different from me that’s the beauty of it really.
As you’ve said there’s an amazing cast and you’ve got some quite dramatic emotional scenes with Jo Joyner and Sunetra Sarker and Liz White, did you learn from them?
They are great! And they’re full of the most brilliant, hysterical stories from over their careers which obviously I can’t repeat! They are fabulous, strong, talented women and we all aspire to be like them. Their acting is obviously brilliant, they are really truthful performers, it makes it really easy to bounce off them. It’s always really interesting to see them work, you do pick up little things and you see their passion for projects. They question the characters motives which empowers the younger cast like me to not enter it blindly, to really think about the scenes and be creative, you’re not just saying lines.
Many of the other student characters were street cast locally within Halifax, what was it like working with them?
They were lovely, it was a really interesting and great dynamic as we obviously had the old hats and then the newbies, the kids that hadn’t done anything like this before, and it brings new stuff to the table. You learn from each other, it just makes it really fresh and exciting. The new kids learnt the ins and out of working on set from us, like marks and set etiquette, but in turn we watched their raw, untapped talent and they made it all feel really truthful.
You all lived near each other while filming, what was that like?
Yeah, we were all in the same apartment block so it was great! Obviously we were all so busy a lot of the time but we’d all grab dinner when we could and it was lovely to unwind together. We’d have a chat and a laugh, they’re all so hysterical and brilliant, it was really nice knowing someone was next door or downstairs. It was the girls in particular, we would hang out.
There was a Snapchat unit on set, which is rather different, was that an odd experience?
It was very unique actually, I’ve not done anything like that before, it’s a really great tool to engage the younger viewers, when they watch the show they’ve got a snapchat parallel to the series so they can feel very involved from a personal level so they can really feel part of a characters life and for me, it made it feel very true to life, like our characters were real people. I really enjoyed it, we were working with David Schneider on them, who I’m a massive fan of as Ilove Alan Partridge so it was amazing to meet and work with him.
Which scene was the most fun to film?
I LOVED the day when we went ice-skating, I had some really nice scenes with Sunetra that day which was really fun, but my very favourite scene was the very first opening scene that you see in the trailer- Missy and Nas on the sofa on the skip. It was just so hilarious, it was absolutely freezing and we were hiding hot water bottles wherever we could under our costumes. Missy’s wardrobe is so flimsy so I really got the raw end of the deal!
AMY LEIGH HICKMAN INTERIVEW
You play Nas, can you tell us a bit about her…
I’d say Nas is one of the quieter and tamer students at Ackley Bridge. She is also quite intelligent. She is quite different to me, I think I am a little bit more outgoing and flamboyant than she is. She may be quiet and tame but is definitely ballsy deep down!
Nas has been friends with Missy for most of her life, they’ve grown up side by side, how does attending Ackley Bridge affect their friendship…
Their friendship is more like family so when they go to Ackley Bridge they are confronted with the problems that are going on in the real world and that are going on at Ackley Bridge. At the school there is a lot of diversity and I don’t think they really realised there were so many cultural differences until getting there.
Because much of the show is about cultural difficulties in Ackley Bridge, is that something that you were aware of growing up…
Because we live in today’s society where we think that everything is ok and everyone is accepted it’s difficult when you see these difficulties actually do exist. Racism is still a thing and it still goes on in schools. I realised I was very naive because I thought everyone was accepting, but that’s the good thing about the show as it portrays it in a way where you need to see what’s going on.
In a way Missy and Nas’ relationship is at the centre of the show, did you feel a sense of responsibility taking that on with-in such a huge production?
I did feel a sense of responsibility taking on this role, but I never worried about it because Poppy and I had meet before are and genuinely friends in real life. So whenever I got the scripts through that centred on them I felt comfortable because of my friendship with Poppy and I knew that we were going to be able to bring that to the scenes.
How did you and Poppy meet?
We met about three years ago at a Blue Peter event. We were both on children’s shows and I was there with my Dumping Ground cast and she was there on her own and by the end of it we brought her into our team and then got the train home together so it was so nice on the first day when we met and realised, we were like “Oh my God it’s you!”.
Sunetra Sarker plays your Mum, what was it like working with her?
I absolutely love that woman from the bottom of my heart! She is one of the most fascinating people that I have ever met and worked with. Whenever I had scenes with her I would never worry because we have such a strong connection away from set so I just knew that it was going to show in scenes. In real life I will still run to her with my problems or I will call her and ask for her advice. She is like my real life Mum. She is lovely and such a fab actress, I feel lucky to be able to work with someone like her.
There is an amazing adult cast on the show, did you learn a lot from them?
I learnt so much from working with the other actors. What made it so nice was that we all really did get on so well in real life. When we were filming, we were all living in apartments next to each other so you could just go and knock on each other’s door. It was really nice to have that accessibility because Jo and Liz and Sunetra are so experienced and on set you can see and feel the buzz from them and that’s inspiring for me.
Was it tight-knit on set?
It was, as we were all living next to each other, we would cook each other dinner. I cooked once, but set the fire alarms off making fajitas, so after that we either ate at someone else’s for would go out for dinner. I can’t cook to save my life, thankfully I live with friends and they can cook.
Many of the other student characters on the show were street cast, what was it like filming with them and what was the experience working with them up in Halifax?
It was so interesting because I am from a white family and they are not religious so I didn’t know much about the culture, so Naz who played my sister, taught me so much because she didn’t need to do any research, she was the part, she had lived in it and always had done. I found myself asking them more questions than they did to the actors because they have lived in these storylines.
Have you stayed in touch with them?
Yes I still speak to them. Especially Cody and Naz who play Hayley and Raz I still speak to them a lot.
We hear there was a Snapchat unit on set who were filming content at the same time as you were filming the show, which is a bit of a TV first, was that a fun experience? What was it like filming on an iPhone?
It was a strange experience because I felt like I was Snapchatting. They would say “Turn over, action!” – with a phone in front of my face! It genuinely felt like I was just having Snapchat on my phone. I think it’s going to be fun to see back.
What were you like at school?
I was really, really quiet in school but now I am the exact opposite. I was probably a bit like Nas in school in terms of how quiet she was and then outside she has her other friends. That’s what life was like before she went to Ackley Bridge because Missy didn’t go to the same school as her. I wasn’t that into school, I used to like the creative subjects like Art and English. Most of my friends and hobbies and things I did outside of school. But I did study drama at secondary school.
SUNETRA SARKER INTERVIEW
So you play Kaneez in Ackley Bridge, tell me a little bit about her…..
Yes I play Kaneez, she is the mother of Nas and also is the dinner lady at the school. It was a very interesting role to some of the other roles I’ve been involved with and really good fun.
It’s not exactly what you would call a glamorous role is it?
No, not at all. It is a character part and that was the attraction, to be able to put vanity aside. It’s nothing to do with being glamorous, it was far more interesting to play a real women that we haven’t seen on TV before. For me the appeal of playing Kaneez was that when I was reading the part I hadn’t read anything for television that was this bold and this brave about representing a woman who lives in a house like this. She has a voice and I feel like a lot of single parent Muslim women haven’t really been portrayed in this light so that was why I wanted to go for this role.
She is a force of nature isn’t she?
She is feisty and she wears her heart on her sleeve but she is a woman of substance, she is very vocal and passionate about caring for her children and her family, she doesn’t really hold back on telling people what she thinks, but that is one of the appeals of her personality. She is a force of nature and I like that there is female representation like that, she is ballsy!
When you say it is a departure for you, do you mean she is not as anglicised as perhaps other roles you have played in the past?
Definitely. I am really proud to say I have played many roles are nothing to do with my ethnicity – to play women who are doctors and nurses and detectives, who haven’t had to bring their cultural identity into their everyday live. I am very lucky to be able to play those roles, however this is a departure in the sense that it is showing the woman that we have kept hidden from the public in a way. I don’t think there are many people in places like Cambridge who will have bumped into many women like Kaneez, so it is great that we are bringing them into their living rooms. This is why, for me, I wanted to be dressed in Pakistani clothes and to be speaking with a northern Pakistani accent and living a very working class life style on screen because that’s not something you tend to associate with me.
Did you model your performance on anyone?
I think I modelled my performance on a lot of people who I saw in Halifax at the time we were filming it. There was a lady who we met that invited me over for dinner and she was a really wonderful character, she was very colourful and she laughed at her own jokes, she listed to Kylie Minogue but yet she was really traditional in other ways. I think the personality was really important for me to get across, as these women are more than just a colour and shouldn’t be a put in a box. I think I just picked up on a lot of people who were in Yorkshire when I was working there and I studied the East is East film.
Was teaching Punjabi a difficult learning curve for you?
Very difficult, I don’t speak it. My brain was so busy trying to be this character as not only was I trying to be authentic, and think about the role but I was trying to learn Punjabi and use it in a convincing way. I gave it my best shot is all I can say!
What was it that drew you to the project in the first place?
I think it was because I believe it could be ground-breaking, if it was done in the right way. This is the kind of drama that we can show to an audience in 2017 and tell them what is really going on. It means opening eyes to a part of Britain that we maybe don’t give a lot of interest to. I was really drawn to the way that it shows us a mixture of British Muslims and white people coming together. There is a really lovely relationship we see, of Missy living next door to Kaneez, who lives in a very different dysfunctional home but what is nice is how they blend. I think this show and what it presented to me was something new.
Was it fun being reunited with Jo?
Of course that was one of the other huge bonuses of working on this job. Jo and I haven’t worked together for ten years so we were very, very excited. We were saying to each other “what will we do?” and “what should we do on our days off together?””… So then we were both very disappointed when we didn’t have many scenes together! But when we did get one or two together it was really lovely and we kept looking at each other and giggling! Of course, she hasn’t heard me talking like Kaneez, so it was a probably a blessing at times, as he would distract me from staying in character!
Obviously the nature of the programme being set in the school meant you had to work with a lot of kids and a lot of young actors, how was that for you?
They were great and they were so full of humour. It really kept my spirits up and meant I kept going in the right direction with Kaneez, as sometimes the kids would come up to me and say things like “You sound just like my auntie” or “that’s just what my mum would say” – they were really making me feel like I was on the right lines. What was also really nice was some of the white British kids who didn’t know those ways found it really interesting and were picking up on some of my phrases and using it themselves, which again just shows if it is done in the right way, integration can have some really fun elements too. It was ace to work with Amy and Poppy as a) they were such good actress but b) they were really up for learning. I really enjoyed working with them but I don’t think I even considered that side of it being so much fun!
The filming was in Halifax. How did you find that experience?
We didn’t have much time to explore Halifax because we were always so busy filming however I think shining the light on a town like Halifax is important and if and when people watch it hopefully we have made something that the people of Halifax are proud of and it will have a reflection that this is what is going on in somewhere like Halifax.
What do you think the locals made of the kerfuffle?
I think they were quite amused. I think they quite liked having a camera crew there up and down the streets. I think they are probably looking for something pretty good and funny so hopefully they are pleased with the outcome. I hope it is a programme that shows 50/50, good and bad on both sides and flawed characters and loveable characters. I’m hoping they are happy with the way we have used Halifax as a backdrop.
PAUL NICHOLLS INTERVIEW
Tell us about Ackley Bridge?
It’s a new 6 part drama set in a school for Channel 4. There are so many different story lines and characters involved in it but the basic underlying theme is integration, not just of race but of people and relationships in general. It’s about people becoming closer as human beings, in whatever form, whether it be romantically or the idea of different communities edging close to each other. There are many different strands to it. It reminds me of a play, the first professional play I did called ‘Yoiks, Oiks!’, it wasn’t anything to do with racial division, it was to do with class division and it was about a private school and a low end state school and they both had to mix and when I read the scripts it reminded me of that and being ten years old!
You play Steve, what’s he like?
Hmm… He’s still very much a kid himself inside, even though he doesn’t look like it! He has a bit of a temper on him but he’s not a bad guy, I think he’s got too many feelings going on inside him…
Is it fair to say he really goes out to bat for the kids, that he’s really passionate about their future and their well-being?
Yeah, in that respect I think he’s very good at his job and I think he doesn’t care about public image, I think he came from a very working class background and can recognise kids that he can see himself in, or certain aspects of their life that he understands, and I think that’s why he became a teacher. I loved working with the kids, for me that was the best thing about it. There’s a scene where Steve gets the kids involved in a rugby match and I remember doing it and I saw Sam [who plays Jordan] running with the ball and I was like ‘Go on! Go on, go on, go on, go on! And I got so into it I forgot I was acting until they shouted cut and that’s not happened for years, it’s a real pleasure working with younger actors.
Steve is married to Mandy, what’s their relationship like?
Overall their relationship is very back and forth and there’s lots issues and obstacles to overcome but primarily there is something there holding them together.
He clearly loves her?
Yeah. Of course, of course, but love’s a broad spectrum, obviously there’s a physical attraction first and foremost and then you get to know someone and they make you laugh, or there’s different things that keep people together, and I think Steve likes that she’s a strong woman. He admires her very, very much and because he is such a child she takes him in hand sometimes. But I think primarily, physically, they’re very, very attracted to each other and they make each other laugh a lot and they have fun and they’ve been through what they’ve been through and their relationship is not perfect, but no relationship is.
You first worked with Jo Joyner on Candy Cabs, what was it like to be reunited and work with her?
2010! I love Jo, I f*cking love her, it was quite weird ‘cos in Candy Cabs she was quite a comical character. She SO good, she doesn’t believe it but no decent actress does, I think, she can play anything. When I worked with her on Candy Cabs she was like this glammed up, blonde, busty party girl and it was a very comical character and she just blew me away, but to work with her on this, and to see her play a very different character and find so many nuances, it was just brilliant. I love Jo to bits, she’s just lovely.
How was it being back in the north?
I was staying in Hebden Bridge and I didn’t know the history of it, I didn’t know it was an hour from my home town and in that respect it was lovely, it was such a lovely, beautiful little village, it was an hour’s drive to my sister’s where my nephews are which was ace.
You filmed in February- April, was it chilly having to wear your PE kit?!
Yeah!.. The last day of filming was just really, really, really cold, as soon as we cut and there was a minivan to get in everyone just piled in, everyone just wanted that day to end.
What were you like at school?
Ha, I can’t tell you that! I was never there…
Did you get a detention?
Er, I had a few detentions!.. I wasn’t a bad kid, but there was a group of us, we’re still good mates, there are 4 of us and they were the best thing about school for me. If it wasn’t for them I would have probably left because I started coming on children’s television and if you’re at a stage school and you’re doing well you’re kind of cool, whereas if you’re doing stuff like that at a normal school you’re gonna have trouble, which I did! I remember there was one episode of The Biz where I sang a song and I was f*cking dreading it coming out and when I walked into assembly the day after it came out, and I’m not joking, the whole school started singing the song and everyone was pointing at me and I just wanted to die! It was never anyone in my year, it was just older kids and younger kids, kids just being kids. But I’m weird, I’m an actor but I don’t really like attention!
Did you do any research for the part?
I bumped into my old music teacher when I was taking my nephews to school and I saw him and I was like, “Bloody hell, how are you?!” He’s a really nice guy, he’s done amazing things at the school I went to in Bolton and he’s the director of the brass and strings band. They literally travel the world and people pay to see them and one of his old students is the lead horn in the San Francisco orchestra. So I asked him if I could come in and observe a teacher doing their job, teaching the year 11’s, as that what I thought I’d be doing and so I went back there and it was so weird! It was a really nice thing for him to do though and I got a lot out of it.
LIZ WHITE INTERVIEW
What can you tell me about Ackley Bridge?
Ackley Bridge is a TV drama about a racially integrated school, a new academy which is being opened to help the divide between white schools and Asian schools. The series starts at the opening of the school, so the first day of term, and it takes you through the first term of that school year.
You play Emma, what is she like?
Emma is an English teacher at the school and when you first meet her she is just back from holiday, she has been on her travels, and she comes back to find that her daughter, who she would normally spend weekends and holidays with, has landed herself at the school. She had travelled up from London and interrupts Emma’s lesson on her first day at her new job so she is overwhelmed by her appearance. It shows you that she has an unconventional life; she is not a full time Mum. Usually when couples split up the child will go with the mother but in this circumstance it has worked the other way around. Also, she has gone back to where she was brought up and she has a very strong social conscious and wants to help the kids in the area that she used to be part of. She is strong minded, strong willed and is fun. She isn’t afraid of tackling the system.
Is it fair to say she is a bit of a rebel and isn’t afraid to go out on a limb for the kids, particularly Missy?
Poppy, who plays Missy, and I discussed this as we were presented with the storyline whereby Emma really gets involved in Missy’s character and we decided that Emma and Missy first came across each other at the previous school Emma taught at. Missy had to drop out as her mum left home and she was left looking after her sister and her Nana and she couldn’t keep up with school anymore and left for a year. Emma was around for all that so she has a vested interest in Missy coming back to education. Also, because Emma knows about Missy’s personal life she knows that she needs extra support and doesn’t want to see her slip thorough the net like other kids have so throughout the series her commitment to Missy is tested and explored and it grows as Missy’s personal life becomes more and more strained.
Emma has a rather interesting history with some of the other characters, namely Mandy and Sammy, what can you tell us about them?
Emma used to go to school with Sami and had a relationship with him when she was really young and then they went their separate ways. They were always best friends, then they got together and split up, so it was love’s young dream gone wrong. They both went off and lead their lives and have come back and found each other in their mid-thirties and discovered that they still really like each other. But also it’s complicated by the fact that their lives have moved on and are not simple anymore…
The history with Mandy is that Mandy and Emma used to be teachers at the previous school and on a level pegging and now they have started this school and Mandy is the head and Emma effectively works for Mandy and they both have to negotiate that new relationship and there is a potential power struggle. I don’t think Emma is really interested in getting into a higher status job but she wants Mandy to appreciate Emma as a teacher, there is a conflict, as Mandy now has to steer Emma in line with the way she wants the school to be, so it’s tricky territory sometimes. Sometimes they come together but sometimes there are clashes of personality and tension.
What drew you to the series? And attracted you to the part?
First of all, it wasn’t a part that I’d get picked to play. I really didn’t think that they would see me as that role. When I went in for the audition I felt quite uninhibited because I just didn’t think it was going to work out anyway. I liked that she is really sparky and her character really could go anywhere and also that it was depicting a mother’s journey that’s different from the ones we usually see. I also like her teaching style, she was very direct with the kids. She would try and connect with the kids in a different way, we would always joke that Emma was the funny and popular one but also that gets her into trouble as her daughter ends up posting something on social media so all the kids know a bit too much about her personal life. Also, I thought it was great that a TV programme is addressing one of the issues that is going on in our society which is the voluntary segregation in schools and Ackley Bridge is a school that is trying to shake that all up and bring people together to realise the similarities between each other and appreciate the differences between each other. So in terms of trying to be progressive in the choices you make as an actor I thought this story was a good story to tell because it’s about how progressive change can work, particularly in education.
Many of the kids that you have worked with on screen were cast locally, what was it like working with them and Fern, who played your daughter?
It was great and Fern was brilliant. I thought that part of my daughter was really tough, partly because the first scenes she turns up in she is drunk and Fern does it brilliantly. Chloe is a complicated child and Fern negotiated that really well, as you end up caring deeply for her because she has this fragility. But equally you can understand how trying she can be as a person, as a fellow student or as a daughter. I was really impressed with her and really enjoyed working with her. As for the other kids, you have Poppy and Amy who are just fantastic actresses who have worked lots; they are just brilliant and a pleasure to watch. The kids that were street cast were just so refreshing, it was really heart-warming to see how uplifted they were by the experience of working on this TV show and how they were having theirs eyes opened to all the different departments that a TV production has to offer. Even they don’t go into acting they have seen that there is an art department or a sound department and directors and assistant directors. It was great to see that young people’s eyes were wide and their horizons were hopefully being widened by this production.
It’s not your first time appearing in a school drama as you were in Teachers, how would you say Ackley Bridge is different from other school dramas?
The primary difference is they have consciously gone out to address the racial and social divides that are happening particularly up north. So Ackley Bridge is about trying to cut it right down the middle and make sure that it’s completely socially and racially integrated and that’s the focal point, it’s a fictitious school but it’s actually representing issues in education around the country.
You were born in Yorkshire, what was it like being back there?
It was beautiful being back in Yorkshire and the first time I have worked there. I loved it, we were staying quite near where the project was filmed and I loved the proximity to nature, the drive to work in the morning was glorious – either in rain or sunshine the view was spectacular.
ADIL RAY INTERVIEW
You play Sadiq Nawaz in Ackley Bridge – what’s his story?
He’s a local boy done well, really. He’s a very wealthy businessman from the area, and I think he’s managed to achieve great things in the town, and particularly in his own community. He probably gets a lot of recognition for that. He’s the sponsor of the school, and that gives him an even greater opportunity to become a figurehead in the wider community – not just amongst the Asian community, but the white community as well. Ackley Bridge College gives him a chance to do that. I think he’s a very proud man, and proud of the area. He’s proud of his family. But he does have a tendency to play away. I think he’s a man who’s used to getting what he wants, and I think that’s extended to his personal life as well.
So is he investing in the school for philanthropic or self-interested reasons?
I think it’s a bit of both. I think he genuinely does care about the community. I think there’s something really attractive about that, and worthy of respect. He’s very wealthy, but has stayed in this relatively small West Yorkshire town. He hasn’t gone to the big city. He has a real loyalty to his hometown. But maybe there’s an aspect of him being a king in a small castle. I think he has a genuine interest in making the school work, and wanting it to work for the right reasons, and seeing the communities come together. I think he wants the kids at the school regardless of their backgrounds, to come together and dream big. I think you have to give him credit for that. But he’s also very materialistic. He drives a nice car, lives in a big house. He’s a community leader – he’s similar to Mr Khan [Adil’s character from Citizen Khan]. One of the things that makes him tick is a bit of ego.
What was it that drew you to this project?
I think it was really refreshing seeing British Asian characters that were culturally-rooted, but were in a world that we hadn’t seen before. It’s a multiracial academy, and there are academies out there like this, you just don’t see them. You either see a very Asian school in a documentary or a drama, or a very white school. We haven’t seen a combination of the two, and I think that’s great. For me, it was an opportunity to step out from behind the hat and the beard of Mr Khan, and it was a real challenge. I loved it.
How was it, playing a straight role? Had you done much straight work before?
No, I hadn’t. But I had never done a sitcom before I did Citizen Khan. I’m quite happy going straight in at the deep end. It was fantastic, I loved it. It was a different challenge. When I play Mr Khan, because it’s a studio comedy you’re playing in front of an audience, you’re playing for laughs, so you play, naturally, quite big. With this, you certainly don’t. I was so grateful to be working with people like Jo [Joyner] Liz [White] and Arsher [Ali] and great directors. It was great to watch how other people work, and feeding off them, really. I absolutely loved it. Anything that makes me think again about how I do things, and makes me learn something, is just brilliant.
So you felt you learned a lot on this job?
Absolutely. That can only be the way you work, surely? You go in every day, and you learn new things. Here’s me, who’s done five series of a sitcom on BBC One, thinking “Yeah, I can do that!” But drama, and single camera, is a different thing. One thing you learn is that there’s a lot of waiting around. But that’s great too, it gives you a chance to get to know everyone on the team. And with Citizen Khan, I co-wrote it, created it, co-produced it, so you have a finger in every single pie. Here, you just have to stand and deliver your lines. I have to say, that was a very liberating and satisfying experience.
How was it working with such a young cast?
I thought it was fantastic. The casting directors and the directors themselves – I know Penny Woolcock went out and did some guerrilla-style on-street casting. Some of these kids had never acted before, and they were just brilliant. They really hold the show together, the young kids and their stories, they were fantastic. And they were so nice to be around. They were genuinely excited to be there. And what was really nice was that some of them were big fans of Citizen Khan, which I loved. A lot of them said he was just like their dad or their uncle. There are some real stars that have been born in this show, and I think we’ll be seeing a lot of them.
The show was filmed in Halifax – how was that experience?
I loved it. It was great. I went to university in Huddersfield, so it was a real period of reminiscence for me, looking back at that era. Halifax has all these stone walls and the hills and the climate, everything is so like Huddersfield, it really took me back. I really liked Halifax. It can get very cold, but it’s a beautiful place. I stayed in a little hotel literally across the road from where the school was, and where they filmed Last Tango in Halifax. So the people in the hotel were used to having film crews around. It was great. I think it’s so important that shows such as this are made outside your typical cities like Manchester and London, and to get out there into these communities. You could feel the energy and the culture that exists there.
Much of the show is about the cultural differences between two communities – in that respect, were there similar themes to when you were growing up in Birmingham?
In terms of the integration issue? It was a bit different for me. I was brought up in a very white, English area. My mum made a decision, and told my dad that we should go and live in a white area. We went to the local school. My brother was the first Asian kid to go there, and I was the second a few years later. I think it was a very wise decision by my mum. She really wanted us to experience a mixed upbringing, and a broader life in Birmingham. It was difficult at times, we did face some prejudice. But by the time we left that area, the neighbours were in tears, and didn’t want us to leave. The neighbours next door became Uncle John and Auntie Gladys. So where we grew up, in my family, it was slightly different. But of course there have always been divisions, and those divisions will always exist. What we desperately need is more integration. Multicultural schools are one of the key ways forward.
ARSHER ALI INTERVIEW
Tell us about Ackley Bridge?
It’s a drama set in a fictional Yorkshire town about two schools’ that merge and the resulting growing pains between students and staff alike.
What drew you to the series?
Our inaugural director, Penny Woolcock. She’s a fascinating person and her background in documentary filmmaking as well as straight film, has brought a refreshingly non-institutionalised take on the whole process. The fact that’s she’s only the third female director I’ve worked with in my career is a wholly separate issue…
You play Sami, can you tell us a bit about him?
Sami isn’t a teacher at Ackley Bridge, he works for the school in a ‘community liaison’ capacity. So he’s supposed to be the link between home, school and the wider local community. Sami has a real care and respect for his job, as it’s helped give him a ‘second chance’.
He has a rather interesting past and knows Emma from before, what’s the story there?
Sami and Emma were ‘high school sweethearts’ that grew apart and went their separate ways. Emma progressed to university whilst Sami fell in with an altogether different crowd which eventually saw him ending up in prison. When they meet again at the school, it’s a surprise. A great deal of time has passed since they last met. They’ve both changed a lot. We explore the rekindling of their strong feelings toward each other and whether or not if it’s right or wrong in their current predicaments.
Many of the younger characters in the show were street cast from the local community, what was it like filming with them, and the whole experience up in Halifax?
I think we had a great blend of people who were ‘street cast’ or newcomers like Nazmeen Kausar Hussain and Nohail Mohammed, and more experienced young people like Amy Leigh Hickman, Poppy Lee Friar, Fern Deacon and Sam Bottomley. My interactions with them were mostly off-screen, as a lot of Sami’s story played out with Emma.
Halifax is a very unfussy and laid-back place. I want to give a shout-out to the lovely staff at Holdsworth House Hotel in Halifax and also pass on my congratulations to Halifax Town FC who achieved promotion recently! I always feel an affinity for football teams local to where I’m encamped for a job. I didn’t get to go down to ‘The Shay’ to see them, but hope to next time…
Did you give them any tips?
No. I got tips from them. They are a brilliant, talented bunch. They’ve knocked it out of the park for six. I wish I could have worked with them more. They are naturally more playful, generous and ‘in the moment’ – all things I prize in any actor. Thankfully, Liz White is all of those things too!
Much of the show is about the cultural difficulties in the town of Ackley Bridge, is that something you were aware of growing up?
I can’t say that I was, no. I grew up in a very diverse city, so those things are less pronounced because they tend not to be an issue in the first place.
What were you like at school?
Geek and proud!
CREATOR AYUB KHAN DIN INTERVIEW
You’re the creator of Channel 4’s new drama series Ackley Bridge. Explain a bit about the show.
Well, it’s about a school that’s been amalgamated from what was two schools. They had turned into mainly-Asian and mainly-white schools, and local government have gone “This isn’t right,” so they’ve amalgamated them into one school. So it’s about the lives of the kids, and also their families, and their teachers, and how the amalgamation, and the situation in the area, affects them.
How much of it is to do with the cultural differences or the lack of integration between the communities?
That is the backdrop, and initially that’s what the show is about, but it’s also about the ordinary lives that these people lead, and the problems they face in a rundown area. It’s not just a cultural thing.
Why did you want to set a drama in a school? What was it that appealed about the idea?
It kind of came to me second hand, because it was The Forge [production company] who approached Channel 4. Channel 4 were really excited about the success of the Educating series’ – Educating Yorkshire and Educating Essex – and really wanted to build on that by creating a new drama. I’d just adapted To Sir, With Love for the stage, and my kids were going through the education process, and so I was really interested in education. And when it as suggested that it be about amalgamating a multicultural school, it excited me, about the possibilities the story could take. And I also found really exciting the idea of having so many Asian actors on screen.
Ackley Bridge is a fictional town in Yorkshire. What’s it like?
It’s a typical town with all the problems that a lot of northern towns are facing, with the closure of factories and the decline of industry.
You grew up in Salford – are any of your own experiences growing up as a British Pakistani replicated in the show?
It was a very different period. We were the only Pakistanis in the area. There was only myself and another boy – he was half Egyptian and half English – and one Afro-Caribbean lad. In Salford, at that time, the main road was known as The Barbary Coast. It was quite cosmopolitan, because it was very close to the Manchester Ship Canal. Brown faces were seen all over, it wasn’t as if it was a mainly white area. There were people from all over the world coming in off the docks. But it was a period that was, culturally, very, very white. So this show doesn’t really resemble my background. But it’s about the areas where large communities of immigrants have settled, and it’s about the problems they face. It’s about the problems faced by the children, or even grandchildren of the settlers, are still facing even today.
Do you find it slightly depressing that in this supposedly enlightened modern age, we’re still discussing issues of cultural difference and integration?
It’s a continuous journey. Everyone’s really surprised that this show is going to be half-Asian and half-English. People are like “Wow, this is amazing!” It’s 2017, for chrissakes. Things haven’t really moved on in the 25-30 years that I’ve been a black actor. We’re still excited and surprised that this is happening now. We still face the same problems. A lot of then kids are still facing the same problems that I faced and wrote about in East Is East. That’s one of the reasons that East Is East is still being performed today. In the last three years there’s been three productions. There’s one on at the moment in Newcastle, and one in Nottingham, and there’s going to be another production next year in Bolton. The problems that the kids face in East Is East are problems that young Asians still face today, to do with the sense of identity, and who one is, and how far our parents have assimilated into society, and the problems that are still being thrown up because of that.
What did you do in the way of research?
Apart from speaking to my own cousins and their children, who are from the Northwest, we went to quite a lot of schools and spoke to the young people about the problems they face. I asked them about if they mixed in their communities, I really got down to it with them. And they were really very open and honest in what they were saying. I hope we’ve been able to reflect the kind of problems that they face.
Was it a surprising experience, talking to these kids, or was it pretty much what you’d expected?
For me it was pretty much what I’d expected. I come from an Asian background, so I know what’s going on in the community, and what kids are facing. But for a lot of the other writers, the white writers were very surprised, and incredibly excited, going to schools and talking to young Asians, and seeing life from their perspective. It was a first for most of them, and they were really excited about that. When you see programmes about school that have been on, it wasn’t until Educating Yorkshire and Educating Essex that you really got to see young Asian schoolkids and the problems that they were facing.
Did you watch the Educating… shows in the run up to this?
I watched Educating Yorkshire, and it was one of the things that really excited me and convinced me I wanted to be part of the project. We’re only touching the surface at the moment. There’s so much more to get stuck into, story-wise, with this project. There are so many other areas to explore. I think it’ll really open the envelope. It’s such a complex area. You’re dealing with the kids’ relationships to each other, their relationships with the teachers, the teachers’ relationships, the parents, the impacts on the community. There’s so much potential.
The show was a long time in the making. Did the idea change much between inception and filming?
Yeah. It was two-and-a-half years. I wrote the pilot when I was doing East Is East in the West End. They wanted it really quickly. They greenlit it really quickly, which was fantastic. And then it went through this long, long, long process. But you can’t just say “we’re going to make a new multicultural drama that’s going to show diversity”. It’s a very simple sentence, but when you get down to the nitty gritty of what goes into making a drama like this, you get into a really long process. There are so many different issues involved.
What were the challenges you faced in writing the series?
For me, it was being totally honest about the community that I’m from, and not avoiding the darker issues that are attached to that community. Making sure that all the characters from that community had a real voice, and weren’t there as props for white actors. If we’re going to deal with Asians, we have to deal with them warts and all, and have a completely honest voice.
Where is it filmed? How much were you involved on set?
I wasn’t on set, but I was doing rewrites all the time. That’s part of the job of being lead writer and also exec producing. Because it’s such a fast turnaround on set, in scripts some things change, and my job was to rejig things and rewrite stuff.
You must have been thrilled with the cast that came on board?
I know Paul from his work in EastEnders, which was very, very fine. I know Sunetra because we both worked together, she played my cousin in a TV series called London Bridge. And I knew Jo Joyner’s work as well. But having seen the first two episodes, I was really impressed. The younger actors are amazing. I think the show looks fantastic, and has been directed incredibly well. It has great pace to it, and feels so natural.
Does writing something like this give you as much of a thrill as treading the boards or being in front of the camera?
I love acting – when I started writing, when East Is East took off, I was an actor doing two TV shows. And I’d never, ever envisaged myself being anything but an actor. And then, when East ss East took off, I think I’d become a bit jaded as an actor – I was bored with the roles I was going for. It was always the same – there was nothing being written for black and Asian actors, basically. But suddenly the writing took off, and the excitement I used to get from being a young actor I got from writing. And I still get that excitement from writing today. The writing took over, and I was too busy as a writer to do any acting. Recently I fell back into acting. I had a musical on in New York, and the lead actor fell down some stairs and broke his shoulder. So I ended up going on and starring in my own musical in New York. I really got the bug back. And a couple of years ago, when they decided they were going to do East is East at the Trafalgar Studios, I decided to play the father in that, and it was really good fun. So I think the writing gave me back my love of acting. I love writing great parts for good actors. That’s what’s been so fun about doing this – enjoying the actors, and especially watching the young actors enjoying themselves. I find that really satisfying. Acting is fun, but I really get off on being the writer now. And this show is really exciting, because it feels like we’re experimenting. It really feels like a first, and that is fun.
DIRECTOR PENNY WOOLCOCK INTERVIEW
Your new series is Ackley Bridge. Explain a bit about the show.
The basic premise is that it starts on the first day of the merger between two schools in a fictional Yorkshire town called Ackley Bridge. It’s a merger of a school that’s become completely white with a school that’s become completely Asian. That’s very much the case in the North, and I think all over the country – schools have become very, very segregated. So this is an attempt at bringing people together to see if they can get on. It’s a very optimistic view, so although the series does deal with some tough issues to do with sexuality and violent parents and addiction, which makes it sound rather grim, the spirit of it is very positive and optimistic and warm and funny.
Why did you want to take it on?
I’ve never done a drama series before, and I’ve never wanted to, and I’ve done single dramas and documentaries that tend to be shown way after the watershed. But this was something that George Faber, from [production company] The Forge, sent to me, because he thought it might be my sort of thing. And I said to him that I didn’t do series, and the next morning I received an early version of episode one and I thought “I have to do it, it’s got everything that interests me about race and class and so on.” And also it felt like an opportunity to have almost 50 per cent Muslim characters, and not a single one of them is a terrorist. I guess that was the big inducement to me. I was speaking to the actors who came up for the parts, and all of the men said that the only thing they ever get offered is extreme fundamentalists about to embark on violent acts. And that simply isn’t true, and I think it’s causing a lot of problems. So doing something that shows that Muslims are just people seemed great – if there was ever a time where we needed to do that, this is it.
Do you go off and do your own research, or is it all there in the script for you?
It’s a mixture – the scripts were at a fairly early stage, so I was allowed to have quite a lot of input, which was great. One of the fantastic things about being the lead director is that you get to choose the locations, you get to cast it, and you get to establish a way of working. I think it’s so important not to just parachute into a community and tell people to shut up on their own streets, do your own thing and vanish. All of the supporting artists in the school come from local schools, and there are about eight speaking parts played by kids who we found by holding a lot of auditions. We did street castings, went to boxing clubs and youth clubs and schools and playgrounds, and literally sometimes met people in the street and asked them to come in for an audition. I think it’s the right way to work, it’s an ethos that I really believe in, so the community feels it has something invested in the show. But also, I think it gives it a feeling of authenticity that you wouldn’t get if you were shipping in a whole lot of kids from drama school. And by going into the community and speaking to people on the ground, you learn a lot more about the world you’re trying to portray.
Did anything in your research surprise you?
I think we’re always surprised. Even though I’d spent a long time in Leeds with the Pakistani community, and I’d stayed in touch with two or three people, it’s funny how insidious this representation of other people is, even when you know from your own experience that it’s not true. Gradually, you start to think that people are different from you, and then you meet them and you realise it’s not like that. I was struck by how there’s so much more in common we have as human beings than the things that divide us. Every time I have an opportunity to be in another world, that’s the thing that delights me and surprises me all over again. Of course there are cultural differences – girls are much more monitored, can have much less freedom in the Muslim community – but there is so much more that unites us. At the wrap party, which sadly I missed as I was working, Zain, one of the boys who has a small part, he stood up and said “Before this, I didn’t really know any white people. Now I have a lot of white friends.” It can work. People can actually get on.
Why did you decide to film in Halifax?
Halifax had already been decided upon. With this premise of merging school, they looked for an empty school that was still in relatively good condition that could be used as a base, and what used to be St Catherine’s school in Halifax was the one that had all the elements to make it work. So I’d never been to Halifax before. But I think it’s so important for us to get out of places like London, so you realise the world doesn’t revolve around people in London. The Brexit vote that surprised so many people didn’t surprise me. I don’t spend all my time with middle class people in London. Life outside is different. I think it’s so important to have dramas that reflect the fact that most people live in provincial towns far away from the metropolis.
What was it like shooting there?
Well, it’s a beautiful place. It’s an old mill town, which is why the Pakistani community is in that area, because that’s where the cotton trade was. But obviously the mills are now office buildings and luxury flats. But you’ve got this beautiful architecture, and it’s in the middle of the Pennines, so everywhere you look, there’s mountains emerging out of the city.
But there are some estates there too, which you filmed on. How was that, and how did the locals find it?
There have been periods when I’ve filmed things, like Tina Goes Shopping, when people on the estate were very suspicious and thought I was working for the police, and wouldn’t speak to me. But that didn’t happen in Halifax, everyone was very welcoming. We didn’t have any aggro whatsoever, it was remarkable. I think it’s partly because we did the groundwork, we didn’t just show up. We went round and spoke to people and explained what was going on. And we’d get local people involved – for example, the street that Missy and Nas live on, a lot of the extras are the people who live on that street. That really changes how people feel about filming.
You’ve had such a varied TV career. Why have you moved between genres so often, rather than sticking with one?
For me, it’s all about the story, and there are certain things that really interest me, like marginalised people. When I was a little girl, growing up in the British community in Uruguay, at carnival time people came into town from the poorer areas, and went drumming in the street. I was desperate to join in, and much more curious about their lives than the rather oppressed community I lived in. So I think my obsessions have remained rather the same all the way through. And it depends on the story – what is the best way of telling that particular story?
So the story comes first, and the medium comes afterwards?
Yeah. I would say that’s probably the case. But then I also get offered things. If somebody had offered me some high end period drama that I felt I wouldn’t be able to bring anything to, I wouldn’t do it, because there are people who could do that much better than me, and it doesn’t really interest me. But I don’t get offered lots of different things, and mostly I generate my own work. In this case, it was just something that came along that I realised I really wanted to do. The idea of doing something for hopefully a large audience, that has real humanity at its centre, and has a large Muslim cast, was irresistible.