Ackley Bridge has a loyal and engaged fan base, but can you describe the series for new audiences who haven’t seen it before?
It’s a fresh drama set in a school in the North with young people at the heart of its stories. The school was set up to bring the community together and is a mixture of ethnicities and cultures. The show doesn’t shy away from the difficulties that a diverse, multi-cultural school can face, it celebrates differences, challenges stereotypes and embraces the fundamental themes that bring us all together.
Mandy is a much loved and recognisable face in Ackley Bridge. What was it like returning to the set for series four? How did it differ to the first time you walked on set on series one?
One of the exciting but difficult things about a show set in a school, is that as soon as you’ve fallen in love with all the characters and when you really think you know them – off they go! And you welcome in a new set of students. It was a mixture of emotions because it’s warm and familiar ground, but this year some of my old friends were missing. We’ve got some fantastic new young adults joining though, and I know the audience will love getting to know them.
You started filming last year pre-Covid restrictions and wrapped in the middle of the pandemic. What can you tell us about the atmosphere like on set? What were some of the biggest challenges as an actor?
It was a very strange end to the first half of the show. I left Sunetra Sarker in Leeds and we were both very nervous of what the world was going to throw at us. We did feel like a tidal wave was coming towards us and we wanted to get home to be with our families and keep them safe. I don’t think I’ll ever forget us being in my flat, listening to Boris and saying we can’t believe this is happening. We were one of the last shows to stop filming in just ahead of lockdown. Then by the end of September we were back there, and it was very surreal. Luckily Sunetra and I were officially in a bubble – so it was a real treat to be able to have dinner together at night – but the set was not the same, obviously. It’s very hard to rehearse with masks on, not seeing people’s faces, being at a distance from those you weren’t bubbled in. Perhaps the hardest thing for me, was leaving a show and filming my last scenes on something I’ve been a part of for four years… and not getting to have a last dinner with cast, or a wrap party with crew, or even hug goodbye to people! Very sad.
It’s Mandy’s last term at the school, what was it like filming your last scene? Were there any tears?
There weren’t tears, but it was very sad. It was nice because it meant we had a laugh with the crew, and I’ve got the recording to keep as a memento. Then because we were bubbled Sunetra proceeded to give me hugs on behalf of all the crew – here’s one from sound, here’s one from makeup…
What will you miss the most about playing Mandy?
I’ll always be proud to have been a part of a show like Ackley Bridge – our show has been a great way to demonstrate all the best things that can come from a diverse but connected and respectful community. The thing I’ll miss most about Mandy was her drive to deliver that to her community, to bring people together and to believe that education was a route out for anyone who truly wanted it.
What’s your favourite Mandy moment from series one to four? Have you got any funny anecdotes from behind the scenes?
One of my favourite Mandy moments would be when she helped Missy stay with her mum and went to court with them to support her. It was a great demonstration of how a lot of good teachers are so much more than just that to their students, school can often be a safe haven. I also always enjoyed my stuff with Steve, I loved working with Paul, and it was a chance to show a side of Mandy that was less in control than her work persona.
What was it like to work with the new cast who were joining an already established and well-loved series?
It was great, I didn’t really get to get stuck in with them though, which is a shame, but I think you’ll really grow fond of them.
What were you like at school? Were you the model student or a bit rebellious…?!
Oooo, that would be telling! I was somewhere in between. I did get my work done, but I also got detention a few times, you know for fun stuff really, talking too much or being out of grounds to go to the shop, nothing serious.
What should viewers expect from Ackley’s earlier time slot, will there still be drama?
I think that’s what Channel 4 do best! They don’t play too safe and they won’t shy away from challenging stories. I think it’s a great opportunity to reach a broader audience being on earlier and I think there’ll still be plenty of controversy!
How do you think Mandy would find home schooling and working during lockdown?
I’m sure she’d find it challenging as her baby is so young, I don’t know how single parents with young kids have coped! Do you think there would be any similarities between your own experience and hers? No! I’d hope that Mandy was a bit more informed on the curriculum for me…. and better at maths! I’ve had it lucky with the age of my kids too, they’re 10/11 over the lockdown and so we’ve had a good mix of them working alone and with me. It’s actually been a privilege to get a window into their world like this and to see closely what their strengths and weaknesses are. I think I have a much better understanding now of what they’re capable of and it’s been great to be at home after so much time working away on Ackley.
Ackley Bridge is back on Channel 4 at 6pm weeknights from April 19.