Yorkshire-set school drama Ackley Bridge is returning for a second term, with an extended series starting next week. ‘Headteacher’ Jo Joyner speaks to Gemma Dunn.
It SCORED top marks last year for its willingness to tackle the thorny topic of racial segregation – and now lessons are set to resume at Ackley Bridge as the school-based drama, which is filmed in Halifax, returns to screens for a bumper 12 episodes on prime-time television.
The Channel 4 drama, set in a fictional Yorkshire mill town and supported by Screen Yorkshire, will once again follow the trials and tribulations at an academy made up from two formerly isolated comprehensives situated amidst a largely divided white and Asian population.
Like the communities, the school systems had previously become segregated, but that all changes when two comprehensives are merged into a brand new academy, Ackley Bridge College.
One of the programme’s leading stars, former EastEnders actress Jo Joyner – who played fan favourite Tanya Branning for seven years before leaving the soap in 2013 – admits her career has been busier than intended since departing the long-running BBC show with the aim of concentrating on family life and moving to the countryside.
“In years to come, I wouldn’t be going, ‘Ooh, great, I’ve got lots more money in the bank,’ I would be saying, ‘Wow, where did my children go?’” she reportedly said at the time of what might have been had she stayed on the soap.
Fast forward five years, and while the London-born actress, 41, has relocated to the leafy market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, her flourishing career has showed little sign of slowing.
The mother-of-two has gone on to star in the likes of Ordinary Lies, Marley’s Ghosts, Porters and Shakespeare & Hathaway, to name but a few. She has even reprised the role of Tanya on some short-lived occasions – EastEnders’ 30th birthday and on Christmas Day – much to her fans’ delight.
Reflecting on whether she’s working more than she intended, Joyner confesses: “A little bit. I am. But you know what? You’ll never hear an actor say it, will you?
“I said it to my husband the other day, I said, ‘I just want to come home’ and he went, ‘You’re not allowed to say it’ and I went, ‘I know, I know I shouldn’t’,” she quickly adds.
“I’m really lucky and they’re all lovely jobs. But I think maybe next year I might have a bit more of a pause.”
Today she’s on set in Halifax filming for Ackley Bridge, a show that divided opinion among many viewers but also won critical acclaim – and sizeable audiences – for its approach to difficult issues.
The first six-part series marked the channel’s return to 8pm week-night drama for the first time in 13 years and regularly attracted well over two million viewers per episode, bringing the channel almost double its normal audience share for the time-slot.
Importantly, the show resonated with the young people it depicted, being Channel 4’s best-performing show for children aged between 10 and 15 all year.
Created by Ayub Khan Din, Kevin Erlis and Malcolm Campbell, who jointly count East is East and Shameless among their past successes, the show 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 also took place in Leeds and Calderdale, with local children used as extras.
Joyner will reprise her role as driven head teacher Mandy Carter – and other regular characters will return too, including Steve Bell (played by Paul Nicholls), Missy (Poppy Lee Friar), Nas (Amy-Leigh Hickman), Emma (Liz White), Kameez (Sunetra Sarker) and Sadiq (Adil Ray).
How has she enjoyed her time back in the power suits? “Good! We’re doing twice as much this year, which is great because we’re getting to really look at lots of other characters and go into their stories,” she says of the elongated second season.
“It’s always nice to get a chance to go back after a first series, because by then everyone has a better idea about what they’re making, who they’re playing, and you get a second chance to put your stamp on it.”
For those in need of an update, we last saw working-class-girl-made-good Mandy in a world of bother, as her professional and personal life collided after her affair with Sadiq was made public.
This time around, viewers will get more of an insight into who Mandy was before embarking on her career in education.
“I remember saying to [the writers] last year, before we came back, ‘I’d really like to know why she’s so driven and why education means so much to her’.
“So that’s exactly what they’ve done. They’ve looked at that and they’ve looked at where she’s come from and how hard she’s worked to get out of her own home environment, which wasn’t particularly fabulous,” she reveals.
“It shows the reasons as to why she has a soft spot for these troubled kids – and also why she doesn’t accept excuses from them.”
Education is simply a means of escape for her character, Joyner expands. “She can appear quite fierce and has really high expectations of her students, which might look a little bit unsympathetic up until this point,” she says.
“So it’s nice to understand why she’s marching about giving everyone orders, and give it a bit more depth.”
Then there’s the representation of diversity in Ackley Bridge – a theme that struck a chord among the cast from the get-go.
“It’s one of the reasons we all wanted to be involved,” Joyner admits. “It’s definitely of the climate; it’s certainly a time when we need a bit more understanding, to find the things we all have in common, and to learn a bit more about different cultures.
“What’s also lovely about this and part of being able to go back and do it again,” she follows, “is that we can be more confident about focusing on the Asian families.
“We can know that the audience are happy to go in and watch episodes that are predominantly Asian, rather than white,” she elaborates. “You’re not being so careful about this appeasement, because our characters are so great.”
She notes: “I do think it feels fresher and younger because of that. It’s got a more modern take on things; it’s progressive.”
After an intense six-month shoot on the show, will she be glad to be home? “I go back home the majority of the time,” she says. “The [twins] are eight now, so they’re doing football clubs and there’s always some reason to go that way, rather than they come up here.
“It is a long time!” she recognises, having spent the stretch living near the Halifax set. “Particularly because I’m then going on to Porters, and then Shakespeare & Hathaway will be going on again until Christmas.
“But I can’t grumble,” she says, smiling. “In a couple of years’ time, I might be desperate to have too much to do, so what can you do?”
Ackley Bridge returns to Channel 4 on Tuesday, June 5