It’s a new term at Ackley Bridge – and with that, comes fresh faces in the classroom.
In the third series of the Channel 4 drama, the school, which was designed to unite the divided white and Asian communities of a small Yorkshire mill town, has become part of a large multi-academy trust.
Created by Ayub Khan Din, Kevin Erlis and Malcolm Campbell, who jointly count East is East and Shameless among their past successes, the show has used a former school near Halifax as its main location, with former classrooms and school offices transformed into production offices, edit suites and costume and make-up departments.
Filming has also taken place in Leeds and Calderdale, with local children used as extras.
In the latest series, headteacher Mandy Carter (played by Jo Joyner) has a different boss, who’s given her more pupils – unmanageable kids from the trust’s other schools – and new colleagues.
Amongst them is disenchanted director of behaviour, Sue Carp (Charlie Hardwick) and hot-headed deputy head, Martin Evershed (Rob James-Collier).
At the start of the series, Mandy is six months pregnant (the father is her ex, Steve; Paul Nicholls, who played him, has left the show).
And former EastEnders star Joyner, 42, was relieved to hear Martin isn’t going to be a new love interest for her character.
“I think the idea is that Martin and Mandy will have a really nice friendship and I kind of hope it stays like that because men and women can be friends, and it would make a change, wouldn’t it?” quips the chatty mum-of-two, who has nine-year-old twins, Edie and Freddie, with husband Neil Madden.
Of a potential romance, the Essex-born actress adds: “I didn’t think it was a priority for somebody who’s got so much on at the moment, with a baby and the school... I just didn’t feel that it was very realistic to be having lovers.”
What we do know is that the pair will be clashing over their teaching styles.
As James-Collier explains, English teacher Martin is a bit of a maverick. “He’s a guy who’s incredibly passionate about teaching, but he’s not necessarily incredibly passionate about the bureaucracy that comes with it,” follows the 42-year-old.
“I have friends who are teachers and there is a lot of administration and politics that get in the way of actually teaching now, and that can be quite frustrating.”
A big draw of the role for the Stockport-born actor – best known for playing Liam Connor in Coronation Street and butler Thomas Barrow in Downton Abbey – was working with the cast members who play the pupils.
There can be “a pretension” that comes with acting as people get older, he suggests.
“With young adults, they don’t care who you are, what you’ve done, what you’ve just come from, whether you’ve been to LA or not.
“They’re just like, ‘We’re here now, we’re living life, we’re having a laugh, and we want you to have a laugh and just join in’. They don’t care about anything else and that’s really refreshing. And they are bloody fearless!”
There was a scene where the students had to stand up and dance, “and they went through the whole song”.
“Now if that was a room full of adult actors, after a while we’d run out, they’d like be like, ‘Ah I hate ad-libbing and improv’, but they kept going,” he recalls.
“So I’m inspired by that... When I started out, I was similar to them, I’d just go for things more and maybe along the way you sort of forget things like that, with the politics of it all.”
While this has been a new challenge for James-Collier, this is Joyner’s third series leading the cast of the emotional, yet amusing, drama.
What’s been different this year, she notes, is the feel of the show – it’s more “hard-edged”.
“I think the intention was always to be quite brave with Ackley Bridge and not as sedate as some of the school dramas,” she elaborates candidly.
“Having Channel 4 behind you, everyone goes, ‘Well, it’s Channel 4,
it’s going to be a bit grittier’, and then came the slot of 8pm, so everything had to be slightly tamer, and no one quite knew how much they could push everything.
“Now we’ve had a couple of years to try that out and to ground it all, I think you can really tell that people are going, ‘Right, let’s push it a little bit’, ‘Yeah, let’s say that’, and as long as somebody reacts like that’s a shocking thing to say, that’s OK.”
And it’s fair to say there are certainly some big shocks in store – expect some teary moments.
Discussing the new episodes, Joyner says: “There’s a really good sense of humour, it’s a little bit riskier a sense of humour than it has been before and equally, when it’s sad, it’s very sad. I was reading it [the script] in the hairdressers crying.”
A storyline Joyner confides she wasn’t particularly happy about, however, was her character becoming a mum.
“I was a little bit upset that they made her pregnant actually, because when I took the part I found it interesting that I was going to be playing a woman that didn’t want children – it was part of Mandy’s remit that she didn’t want children,” says the actress, also known for TV shows No Angels and Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators.
But she agrees it will make for some interesting scenes, as Mandy “will find it very difficult to go on maternity leave and leave her baby – as in the school – in somebody else’s hands”.
“I think it would be interesting to see her struggle with becoming a mother,” she later suggests, “and actually maybe go back to work quite quickly and not quite deal with... I don’t want it to be too easy. It’s boring isn’t it? There’s no drama in that.”
In terms of what else we can expect from the show this series, it’s going to cover some difficult topical issues, including grooming.
Meanwhile, much-loved Year 13 pupils, such as Nas (Amy-Leigh Hickman) and Missy (Poppy Lee Friar), enter their final year and face questions about their future.
So, it sounds like fans won’t be disappointed. Is James-Collier looking forward to seeing what they think of Martin?
“I never think of it like that, because it would be with a sense of trepidation,” reasons the down-to-earth star, who will be seen in the upcoming Downton Abbey movie being released later this year.
“Obviously it’s an established show, you’re coming into it and you’re the newbie, so you just want the fans to accept you.
“All I think about is, ‘Hammer these scenes and do the best I can do’, which I am doing at the minute; don’t get complacent, and use the pros and the strengths of the kids to riff of them.”
Station bosses pleased at return
Channel 4 bosses say they were delighted to confirm the return of Ackley Bridge for a third series.
Speaking last year when the new eight-episode run was confirmed, Commissioning Editor Manpreet Dosanjh said: “We’re thrilled that our beloved Ackley gang are returning to Channel 4 for what is sure to be another joyful, outrageous and unmissable series. This bold and ballsy show reflects modern Britain in all its diverse glory and does so with wit, grit and its heart firmly in the right place.”
Executive Producer George Ormond added: “Making Ackley Bridge gives us the chance to tell stories about a part of multicultural Britain that doesn’t get seen on TV very often, and do it with humour, guts and a big heart.”
Ackley Bridge will return to Channel 4 next Tuesday, June 18.