Cultures collide as two ethnically diverse schools are merged in Channel 4's new drama, Ackley Bridge. As doors open for the first day of term, stars Jo Joyner and Liz White tell us more...
Jo Joyner and Liz White have revealed why Channel 4's new prime-time drama, Ackley Bridge, really is an education…
Listen up kids… TV Times is going back to school! No, we’re not here to retake our GCSEs, we're in fact at the fictional Ackley Bridge College in Halifax, the setting for Channel 4's new 8pm drama Ackley Bridge.
While the distinctive school 'smell' and narrow corridors take us right back to our own childhood, and all the school's pupils are dressed in identical orange, turquoise and purple uniforms, you soon realise that Ackley Bridge College is a school with a difference.
Ackley Bridge centres on a Yorkshire mill town where Asian and white communities have been largely segregated. As the series begins, it's the first day of term for two formerly isolated comprehensive schools, which have merged to create this brand-new ‘integrated’ academy. As cultures collide, it looks like valuable lessons are about to be learned both in and out of the classroom.
Spearheading the new academy is head teacher Mandy Carter, played by former EastEnders’ actress Jo Joyner, who’s married to PE teacher Steve Bell, played by Paul Nicholls (Law & Order UK).
The drama also stars Liz White (Life on Mars) as English teacher Emma Keane, Casualty favourite Sunetra Sarker as formidable dinner lady Kaneez Paracha, and Citizen Khan’s Adil Ray as the academy’s sponsor, Sadiq Nawaz.
As everyone tries to work together to make the academy a success, it looks like it might already be doomed to fail, as stars Jo and Liz reveal…
What do we find out about your characters as Ackley Bridge begins? Jo: "As head teacher, Mandy's very career-driven and has spent the last year setting up this 'integrated' school, working closely with Sadiq (Adil Ray), the main sponsor. As a consequence, she's probably neglected her husband Steve (Paul Nicholls), and her home life a bit. I love the contradiction that Mandy's so organised in her career, but not at all in control of her personal life. Mandy and Steve are not in the best of places at the start, then Mandy complicates things even more as the series goes on…" Liz: "Emma's a real free spirit, who does things her own way and doesn't like being stifled by authority. She worked with Mandy in a previous school but, now Mandy's got this big promotion, they've got to renegotiate their friendship. Emma discovers her ex Sami (Arsher Ali) works at the school and we also learn Emma has a teenage daughter, Chloe, who lives with her father. In the first episode, Chloe uses social media as a tool for revenge, so Emma faces serious consequences. Her first day goes t*** up… quite literally!"
English teacher Emma (Liz White) is thrown when she discovers her ex Sami (Arsher Ali) is also working at Ackley Bridge College
How do the white and Asian pupils find being part of this new 'integrated' school? Liz: "Our two central characters are Missy (Poppy Lee Friar) and Nasreen (Amy Leigh Hickman), who live side-by-side on the same street and have grown up as best friends. Nas is Asian and Missy’s white and, while they acknowledge they're from very different backgrounds, they share many similarities as well. But their friendship is soon tested."
Missy and Nas are all smiles now... but it sounds like the new 'integrated' academy is going to drive a wedge between them
Are we right in thinking that many of those playing the other students in Ackley Bridge aren’t trained actors? What’s it like working with them? Liz: "That’s right. A lot of the kids were just cast on the street. Two lads were found in a boxing club and a girl was spotted having a row with her mum and was approached to be in it, too! Another lad was found working as an apprentice car mechanic and now really wants to be an actor." Jo: "Having those kids on board really gives the show that element of truth. I've loved working with them – you really feed off their excitement about a new job and remember never to get complacent." Liz: "They all call me Miss Keane! It's very sweet and helps keep me in character. I probably pretend I'm much more 'down with the kids' than I am." Jo: "They call me Jo, usually with a fist bump. Or Tanya. I get that all the time!"
This show tackles some controversial issues – how does it work in an 8pm time slot? Jo: "In terms of it’s subject matter, I do think this show has got to be a bit brave, so it's possibly as brave as it can be for 8pm. Channel 4 shows are knows for being a bit more edgy and dangerous, and I was afraid we'd lose a bit of that being on before the watershed. But I know that many people on this show fought hard to ensure that it didn't lose too much of its 'edge'." Liz: "What’s challenging is to actually reflect on something that’s going on in Britain today. I wasn’t aware this kind of segregation still occurred, with academies opening up to bring white and Asian pupils together. Unfortunately, though, what often happens is, they last for about a year or two, before becoming either predominantly white or Asian again."
Can the pupils from two formerly segregated schools learn to work together?
So, does this drama offer hope that integration can work? Jo: "I definitely think this show is optimistic. For Mandy at least, she’s wants the school to be a business success, but mostly she wants to have great, high-achieving students who are integrated. At the end of the day, when that school bell rings, she wants to see a whole mixture of people walking off together rather than going their separate ways." Liz: "The most positive thing about working on this show is that there were no cultural divisions between the white kids and Asian kids on set. Little groups will naturally occur but that’s only if, say, they all like sport. I think generally, when you get kids together, it’s very little about race at all. It’s just about kids discovering themselves. And that’s what this drama shows."
Do you both have fond memories of your own school days? Jo: "I didn’t have a great time at secondary school, just because girls can be horrible sometimes. But, in terms of schooling, I’ve always loved education and learning. I couldn’t do Mandy’s job, though, I’m not very disciplined." Liz: "I loved studying but I realised, when I was 11, that I wanted to be an actress, when a friend introduced me to youth theatre. I had a freedom there that I just didn’t have in school. I remember a careers’ officer once saying I should be a gardener! I didn’t have a massively bad relationship with school, though, it could have been worse."
Ackley Bridge starts on Wednesday, June 7 at 8pm on Channel 4.
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