New cast of Channel 4's Yorkshire school drama Ackley Bridge talk of series four return

Yorkshire school TV drama Ackley Bridge has taken on big issues from the very start – and the latest series is no different, three new cast members tell John Blow.

It’s a high-wire act to put on a Yorkshire accent in front of natives.

But it sounds like top marks for Yasmin Al-Khudhairi, who says she was never pulled up on it in the shops of Halifax, where she passed off the region’s dialect as her own in preparation for a role in school drama Ackley Bridge.

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The show returns next week and features a number of new faces, including Al-Khudhairi, alongside Robyn Cara, Ryan Dean, Carla Woodcock, Shobhit Piasa and Conor McIntyre.

Robyn Cara, Ryan Dean and Yasmin Al-Khudhairi appear in Channel 4's new series of Ackley Bridge.

It is the first three who joined The Yorkshire Post over a Zoom video call to discuss what for each of them is their first lead role.

And it’s ironic that such a big step at times felt like blast from the past.

“It’s weird putting back on the school uniform,” says Cara, from Northampton.

“How do I do a tie? You can’t remember but it does all come back to you. It’s weird sitting in, like, the science classrooms and Bunsen burners and all this...”

Kaneez (Sunetra Sarker) from Ackley Bridge.

Al-Khudhairi adds: “It was really good to get into character, getting into your uniform. I felt like I was back being 15 again and messing around again – it was really, really fun. It really helps.”

Channel 4’s Ackley Bridge was inspired by real-life Yorkshire and Lancashire schools established to integrate white and Asian communities in some of the most divided towns in the country.

Since it first aired in 2017 it has won praise from critics for the way it has dealt with such issues.

The fourth series of the humour-sprinkled school drama was due to hit screens in September last year but, predictably, filming was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic and the broadcast date was pushed back.

The new series of the show, filmed at locations across Calderdale, will begin on Channel 4 on Monday and the 30 minute episodes will air at 6pm every day for two weeks.

In what is a first for the show, the whole series will also be available to watch online on All 4 following the first episode.

The award-winning drama has filmed at locations including, once again, the former St Catherine’s Catholic High School at Holmfield, Halifax.

Many familiar faces will return including Sunetra Sarker, Rob James Collier, Jo Joyner, Charlie Hardwick and Tony Jayawardeena.

Cara, who has previously appeared in Hounslow Diaries, plays funny Kayla, who is torn between her white mother’s family and her traditional Pakistani father’s family. Al-Khudhairi – who has played parts in Killing Eve and 2019 film Hilda – portrays her best friend Fizza, a “fiercely intelligent, fist-in-the-air firebrand”.

Dean (who appeared in The Gentlemen) takes the role of Johnny, a “heartthrob” from the Romany Gypsy community who is suspicious of school.

It wouldn’t be a drama focused on young people without a classic love triangle, but as ever with Ackley Bridge, other issues are at play.

As Cara says, despite fresh faces and romance it “still tackles all the issues that people have and it challenges stereotypes,,,”

Dean adds: “I come in with quite a blast and then I think what we see with Johnny is we get to see more of his heart, more of his relationships with his family, relationships with his granddad and his sister.

“I think the main thing we see with Johnny is we just see him grow. We get to see him being a kid in a school dealing with problems every kid, in every school, will deal with.”

The Romany Gypsy community is a group which often faces “extreme prejudice and negative portrayals,” Caroline Hollick, Channel 4’s head of drama this week wrote for the Radio Times, adding that “the inclusion of Johnny and his family is the latest in a long line of story arcs, developed with advisors, that aims to highlight and challenge discrimination against different communities.

"We’re excited that our new leading man is so multi-faceted, and we’ve loved bringing Johnny and his family to the screen in a way that positively challenges perceptions across the series.

"Through the characters of Johnny and his family we’ve tackled the same big, noisy themes of integration and community cohesion as boldly as our previous series did.”

Though it is not a heritage shared by Dean, the 22-year-old from Lancashire says: “It’s an honour to be able to portray what I feel could be many [people’s] stories out there or what people can relate to as their story.

“I would just say it was an honour and it was something I really just wanted to make sure I could get as right as I could and as true as I could.”

Diversity has “always been at the heart of what makes Ackley Bridge so special,” says Channel 4, and in this series all five of its writers – Ayub Khan-Din, Suhayla El-Bushra, Kim Revill, Kam Odedra, Alex Stewart – are said to be from diverse backgrounds.

Meanwhile, other new pupils include Marina, Kayla’s ‘mean girl’ sister, played by Carla Woodcock (Free Rein) and Tahir, played by Shobhit Piasa, the smooth-talking nephew of Kaneez, whose patter hides a family secret.

Conor McIntyre (Coronation Street) also guest stars as Johnny’s grandfather.

Ackley Bridge is just one example of many shows that have been attracted to filming in the region, and Calderdale in particular, in recent years. Indeed Screen Yorkshire, the agency dealing with film and television in the region, has financed this series as well as supporting it with crew and locations.

Others programmes filmed in Calderdale include a number of Sally Wainwright’s efforts, such as Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and latterly Gentleman Jack, whose popularity on the BBC and HBO sent visitor numbers at its main location, Shibden Hall, rocketing pre-pandemic.

Because filming took place amid coronavirus restrictions – Cara, Al-Khudhairi and Dean were in a bubble during the production – cast and crew were unable to stray too far during their time in Yorkshire.

“If we could, we would have gone to more places and travelled around,” says Al-Khudhairi, who is from the suburbs of south London.

“I went on a lot of walks though. I went to Shibden Park and walked all the way up there.

“You could see the whole of Halifax, I loved it and I did that like every day I had time off – would just walk somewhere.

“It’s so beautiful.”

She adds: “When I got to Halifax it was really nice walking around going to the local shops and kind of like trying my accent out as well, just randomly to see, just in case anyone was like ‘That’s not good’.

“I didn’t get that. No one was just like, ‘She’s from London, get her out of here’.”