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Ackley Bridge star Sunetra Sarker reveals plot twists for season 5

Ackley Bridge Kaneez Sunetra Sarker
Sunetra Sarker in Ackley Bridge. (Image credit: Channel 4)

As the doors of Channel 4’s Ackley Bridge are thrown open for another term, life at the multicultural secondary school in Yorkshire is more chaotic than ever in Ackley Bridge season 5

The new 10-part fifth series, airing in double bills from Monday, July 11 to Friday, July 15 finds headteacher Martin Evershed (played by Rob James-Collier), Director of Behaviour Sue Carp (Charlie Hardwick) and student counselor Kaneez Paracha (Sunetra Sarker) trying their best to keep the academy’s wayward teenagers, including Johnny (Ryan Dean), Fizza (Yasmin Al-Khudhairi) and Kayla (Robyn Cara), in check. 

However, it’s soon new English teacher Asma Farooqi (Benidorm star Laila Zaidi) who’s giving Martin the biggest headache when she’s arrested on site!

We caught up with Rob James-Collier and Sunetra Sarker to get their school reports… 

As season five begins, Martin has a thorn in his side – the Valley Trust’s fastidious Ken Weaver (George Potts). What’s going on?

Rob: "When Ken visits the school, he sees Martin’s new protégé, Asma, getting arrested! He’s concerned with how Martin is running things, so moves into Martin’s office to keep an eye on him. 

"Coming from the ‘academy’ side, Ken thinks schools should be profitable and that it’s all about managing budgets, whereas Martin sees teaching as a vocation and is passionate about helping these kids. So they really clash. 

"We also see more of Martin’s home-life this series…"

Rob James-Collier as Martin Evershed

Martin's (Rob James-Collier) personal and professional life collide this term. (Image credit: Channel 4)

Yes, how is recently-divorced Martin’s relationship with Jules Perry going?

Rob: "The relationship’s going well but Jules [Gemma Paige North] runs into debt and gets evicted from her home. So Martin asks her and her two daughters, Kayla and Marina [Megan Morgan], to move in with him, which brings about a world of conflict where Martin has to relate to the girls on a personal level at home, while trying to maintain a professional relationship at school."

He particularly clashes with classroom queen bee Marina, doesn’t he?

Rob: "Yes, it becomes a really difficult tightrope for Martin to walk as he can see Marina making mistakes by getting involved in the social-media world and her grades are starting to suffer. She sees him as trying to step in as a father figure and starts to resent him."

Marina Ackley Bridge

Marina (Megan Morgan) explores the dark side of social media. (Image credit: Channel 4)

Elsewhere, Ken nominates Kaneez to teach sex education. How does that go, Sunetra?

Sunetra: "First of all, forget that it’s Kaneez; no adult wants that job — ever!

"It was important we stayed true to who Kaneez is — a straight-talking woman who knows very little about ‘sexual relations’. So she’s trying to be professional when the kids are asking questions but her answers are ridiculous. I was so nervous acting that scene, because Kaneez is in such foreign territory. "

What else is Kaneez up to in this series?

Sunetra: "Her biggest challenge is that she studies for her GCSE Maths and English. Ken thinks she’ll fail given the limited English she speaks and her lack of education. But this is tied in with her trying to tame new pupil Kyle [Marina and Kayla’s younger brother, played by Adam Little], the naughtiest boy in school, and make him the student no one ever expected him to be. 

"Kaneez has a double agenda – she genuinely wants to help Kyle but also knows that, if she succeeds in that but fails her GCSEs, she won’t get fired!"

Sunetra Sarker plays Kaneez Paracha in Ackley Bridge

Exam nerves: Will Kaneez pass her GCSEs? (Image credit: Channel 4)

What can you tell us about new teacher Asma?

Rob: "Asma is feisty and opinionated. It’s nice seeing this strong female character putting everyone in their place. We discover there’s a secret Asma’s hiding, which explains her bold front."

Sunetra: "Kaneez doesn’t take to her immediately, but they eventually end up connecting. Kaneez accompanies Asma to a speed-dating event; you can probably imagine how that goes!"

Laila Zaidi as new English teacher, Asma Farooqi.

New staff: New English teacher Asma Farooqi (Laila Zaidi) ruffles feathers as she's arrested on her first day! (Image credit: Channel 4)

Among the hard-hitting stories this time is a plot exploring the pitfalls of social media…

Sunetra: "Ackley Bridge has a responsibility to represent this stuff. If what’s being discussed in the show isn’t the same as what I’m hearing at a bus stop, then what’s the point? We have to acknowledge what all the young people watching know is going on, and we do that by showing there’s a good way of using social media and a bad way."

Rob: "I'm thrilled this series is dealing with the pressure and negativity of social media in a realistic way. It's having a harmful impact on our kids and I don’t think media companies are addressing the problem nearly as much as they should be."

Johnny, Queenie, Kayla and Fizza

Teenage kicks: Ackley Bridge students Johnny, Queenie, Kayla and Fizza. (Image credit: Channel 4)

This series sees actor Ashley Walters (Top Boy) make his TV directorial debut as he helms the first five episodes. What did he bring to the show?

Rob: "As an actor’s director, Ashley has empathy. Every time he gave a note during filming, it was insightful and said in a collaborative, non-patronising way. It was a pleasure to be directed by him."

Sunetra: "I knew Ashley was going to be a breath of fresh air on Ackley Bridge [Sunetra starred opposite him in series two of ITV drama Safe House]. The kids loved him, we all did. Who didn’t get a selfie with Ashley Walters?!"

Ashley Walters directs five episodes of Ackley Bridge

Top Boy star Ashley Walters directs the first five episodes of Ackley Bridge. (Image credit: Channel 4)

Sunetra, you’re an original cast member, while Rob, you joined the show in series three. What keeps you coming back?

Rob: "I like what Ackley Bridge stands for as a show and I really enjoy passing on some life experience to the young actors if they want it. If I was a teacher, I’d be exactly like Martin in that I’d circumnavigate the bureaucracy for the benefit of the children; I’m passionate that businesses shouldn’t run schools. Martin is always very positive and upbeat, and that’s how I try to be. I want to leave a room full of people a more positive place than I found it."

Sunetra: "Kaneez has been the biggest surprise of my career. I genuinely didn’t realise the fun I’d have playing her. I can say things as this woman that I would never dream of saying, let alone repeating!"

Ackley Bridge starts on Monday, July 11, airing weeknights at 10pm on Channel 4.

Victoria Wilson
Victoria Wilson

With over 20 years’ experience writing about TV and film, Vicky currently writes features for What’s on TV, TV Times, TV & Satellite Week magazines plus news and watching guides for WhatToWatch.com, a job which involves chatting to a whole host of famous faces. Our Vicky LOVES light entertainment, with Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice UK among her fave shows. Basically, if it’s got a shiny floor, she’s all over it! When she’s not watching TV, you might find Vicky in therapy… retail therapy that is!