Button up your shirt, knot that school tie and pull on that itchy blazer: it’s back to school at Ackley Bridge. As ever with the award-winning Channel 4 drama, this won’t be a straightforward school term – there’s a new teacher on the scene, new students causing havoc, some awkward sex ed classes and plenty more of the antics and escapades the Yorkshire school has become known for.
The fifth series of Ackley Bridge starts with a bang, as Marina pulls a pulse-racing stunt at school in the hopes that it’ll boost her social media following. Parents are outraged, Academy Trust area manager Ken cracks down on headteacher Martin Evershed, but ultimately the high is short-lived for Marina: she discovers that her mum, Jules, has racked up debt and that they’re being evicted.
Meanwhile, new teacher Asma arrives – an activist with a stolen statue and a bold plan to teach her students to raise their voices and change the world. Fizza – and Hassan – are enraptured by her, but all is not as it seems, as it transpires later in the series that behind her powerful facade, Asma is battling some demons.
All of this – and more – is happening on Martin’s watch, much to the irritation of Ken who appointed him as headteacher last series.
“Ken comes to school one day and sees Martin’s new protege teacher getting arrested, so obviously he’s quite concerned,” says Rob James-Collier, who plays Martin.
“Rather than letting Martin explain, he just decides he’s going to move into Martin’s office and keep an eye on it. So obviously Martin’s not happy about that.”
Meanwhile Kaneez Paracha, played by Sunetra Sarker, is settling into her new role as a student support officer. Not only is she tasked with teaching Year 11 sex education – as Sarker says, “no adult wants that job, ever, full stop, you know, in a school environment or in a family environment, within anything” – Ken is also insisting that she gets her GCSEs.
“Let’s be honest, how many of us right now could do our GCSE maths and English?” former Casualty star Sarker, 49, asks.
“It’s like Mount Everest for her. With Ken assuming that she’s going to fail, she’s trying to prove to Ken she’s worth being in the school by other means: making the naughtiest boy in the school turn up and be the student no-one ever expected him to be.
“And the flip side is: how the hell is she going to get her GCSEs with the limited English she speaks, and the lack of education she’s ever had?”
As is typical at Ackley Bridge, the drama isn’t just left at the school gates. James-Collier teases that we’ll get to see more of Martin’s home life in this series, as his relationship with Marina’s mum Jules intensifies and he finds himself having to be a sort of father figure to the teenager while maintaining professionalism at school.
“It’s a really difficult tightrope for Martin to walk, particularly with Marina because she sort of resents him, because she hasn’t got that paternal influence in her life,” Downton Abbey star James-Collier, 45, says.
“And Martin’s seen it all before, she’s making – hubris of youth – young mistakes. So that brings a lot of conflicts, he’s got to manage that whilst at the same time see her mum.
“It’s comedy moments, but drama moments in there as well.”
Getting back into the roles of teachers has made James-Collier and Sarker reflect on their own school days, and how their academic experiences have influenced their performances.
They were both self-confessed class clowns, with James-Collier admitting he was “disruptive” and Sarker saying she used to do “a lot of school pranks”.
“I realised very soon in my childhood that the joker in the class was my forte, making people laugh,” Sarker says.
“I was very small, I was actually the smallest in the class for a long time. So I could fit inside the piano, I could play the piano from behind the piano. And the teachers would think there’s a ghost in the room.
“I can’t tell you much about the actual education side of it, because I guess I wasn’t particularly super brains!”
“You look back and you think, maybe I should have got my head down more,” adds James-Collier, “but when you’re a kid, school can be boring. You’re just more interested in having a laugh.
“But there was a teacher, my English teacher, who sort of changed his mind on me because I got suspended a couple of times. He realised my potential in English in particular, he sort of gave me a second chance and I ended up getting an A for GCSE.
“Sometimes as a kid, that’s all you need – someone to say: ‘No, you’re good at this, you’re making silly mistakes, you’re gonna throw it all away.’
“That’s a lot I take into Martin’s role: I think we see that with Martin and Johnny, he sees a young kid who’s making the same mistakes he did. I do bring a bit of that into it, that empathy that my teacher showed me.”
As ever, this series of Ackley Bridge is working to spotlight the integration of white and Asian communities in the divided Lancashire and Yorkshire towns it represents. Diversity is part of the show’s DNA, from the complex character storylines such as that of Kaneez, to ensuring the cast and crew is representative.
Joining Ackley Bridge for series five is Top Boy’s Ashley Walters, who directed episodes one to five.
“He was really open to hearing the differences between black culture and Asian culture and the nuances of playing the woman that Kaneez is,” Sarker says.
“There was a great energy from Ashley being there. Everybody wanted to up their game, including myself.”
“I feel like the hidden key to diversity is showing the three dimensionality of diversity,” she adds, highlighting what she feels Ackley Bridge does right in terms of diversity.
“Because sometimes we think we’re ticking boxes, and saying we’re being very diverse, but the actual content and quality of that role isn’t great. Like you might say half the show has black faces, but if those black faces haven’t really got a good story, that’s not the same as the people who are not people of colour, who are getting all the stories.
“That’s not equal, is it? Good story and diversity together is what makes us feel more equal.”
Ackley Bridge series five starts on Channel 4 at 10pm on Monday, July 11.