Congratulations! You’re an associate producer on the fourth series of Ackley. What was that experience like?
It was brilliant because I’ve been involved in television, in front of the screen for so many years – 30 years plus. I’d always had a lot of curiosity and knowledge about what goes on behind the cameras but to genuinely be invited – to be part of the editorial team, production team and what goes on behind the scenes, was brilliant. I did this once with Casualty all those years ago, I was on that show for nine years and I think four years in I started directing episodes. I’ve often found that I like to learn the show as an actor and then start looking to see other areas I can add value.
Has your new role on Ackley changed your perspective on working and acting in TV drama?
Yeah, definitely. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to be more involved in. And so, The Forge have given me such a helping hand in letting me start learning a new bag of skills. It’s definitely something I want to be part of. I think that there are a few of us out there who have been doing TV since we were kids and we do have a kind of inbuilt knowledge of certain areas that maybe people who don’t work behind the camera don’t get to hear. I think it’s good to bring everybody together in these moments.
We have seen your character Kaneez achieve great personal milestones since audiences were first introduced to her in 2017. Did you have much input did you have in shaping her storylines? And do you have a proudest moment with her?
Yes, I did. I think that’s why I felt it was a nice step to move into the Associate Producing role because I was so involved in the first second and third series as Kaneez. I felt like I was so much more invested in this character than I had been with any other characters I’ve been lucky enough to play. This one woman was so special and so important, because this was the first time we were seeing a woman like her being a main character. I think I was always much more invested, not just as an actor, but just as an Asian woman and as a storyteller. So, for me watching Kaneez go from series one to two, to three, I was very vocal and involved. And thankfully, everybody supported me being part of that conversation.
What is the best thing about playing Kaneez?
I love what the writers, particularly Ayub, dared to dream for her. So when I read that she was going to Oxford University to go and stand up for her daughter I loved the ambition of that (and we all know that no daughter would want her mother to make a fool of themselves and do something like that! we’d all be literally cringing behind our bedroom doors, if we knew our mums were going to do that!) but to actually watch her do it and get to play it, I’d probably say that’s my favourite scene in the entire drama, to date because it just was fish out of water territory for that woman.
I enjoyed being Kaneez in a different environment, she’s so comfortable in Ackley and in the house and we’ve become quite comfortable seeing her marching around the school. But to take her into that foreign territory, I just loved that, I must include any scene I got to do with Amy-Leigh Hickman as Nas, Kaneez’s daughter was also some of my best times. Now she’s gone I cherish when I get to see the scenes that we got to do together because we were always quite hard hitting with our conversation. I’d say my top three would definitely be the Oxford scene, the scene confronting about her being a lesbian, and how Kaneez met and fell in love with Rashid.
Equally, what has been the most challenging aspect of playing Kaneez?
I suppose playing love and vulnerability for Kaneez because she’s spent more of her life not being allowed to be the woman she could be. Whenever I have to play moments, where she’s finding out for the first time, she can do X,Y,Z I have to remember this is the first time she’s ever done it, so I can’t be too good at it if that make sense? You can’t be too well practiced in falling in love and saying you love someone when you’ve actually never really done it or known your voice say it. I have to remember that for someone like Kaneez who came over from Pakistan and didn’t speak the language it’s all new.
As Sunetra, I really have to concentrate on staying in a ‘Bradford-stani’ accent, I’m mindful that every immigrant who’s ever come over to Britain has their own unique accent that we can’t generalise what they might sound like. I have to really stick to what I have made Kaneez’s voice to be a hybrid of- so that’s a little extra work for me.
Have you got any funny anecdotes from behind the scenes?
[Laughs] There’s always something funny going on. When you’ve got so many kids as well, and when we’re doing scenes in the playground, – I think it does have a bit of a playground feeling working on Ackley – we all do have our own little jokes. I miss working in the canteen because there were so many funny jokes. I’d be pretending to serve people, six bananas and ten packets of crisps!
Ackley Bridge has a loyal and engaged fan base, but can you describe the series for new audiences who haven’t seen it before?
The best way I describe it is, it’s a bird’s eye view on a community that we don’t tend to look at a lot. So, it’s a mixture of watching the British and the Muslim community living and working alongside each other. And we happen to just base it in the school. It’s not a school drama like Grange Hill or Waterloo Road, it’s the place we’ve chosen to show you how lots of different people, from different backgrounds come together.
And I think that’s what the show is about. It’s about showing kids all working and studying living and having their own problems alongside each other, but with adults who have the same situations going in their lives, it’s a show about communities.
Kaneez plays a key role in her nephew Tahir’s life and (played by newcomer Shobhit). What was it like to work with the new cast who were joining an established and well- loved series? What tips and advice did you give them?
I think I’ve been really lucky that with Kaneez, she’s been so well embraced by the school kids in the show, that working with some new children, regardless of the fact that Tahir is her nephew, Kaneez has a sort of shorthand in understanding children quite well. I think she’s always been a good communicator with kids. I felt like I could use my Sunetra/Kaneez skills with any new kid actors joining the show. I felt more for them because they’re joining an established series with people that they’ve probably watched already, and they’re trying to fit into our jigsaw puzzle.
What I said to them is don’t worry about fitting in with us, we will fit around what you want to be, because we know who we are more. We will play what we’ve already established when somebody new walks in the room. I think it was more about helping, I remember being 15 on my first job in Brookside, and I remember how much I literally drank in any advice any of the grown-ups gave me, so I was quite mindful of making sure they all knew. “If you need any advice, you know where I am, not that I know everything.”
I will admit that I am that kind of cheerleader who speaks up in the middle of a scene, I will say to Shobhit “take as long as you like”, you just have to give people permission to be able to make some choices. I think that’s one of the first things I found really empowering.
I went from being a child actor into becoming what I am today – when I understood what acting really was. Because I didn’t go to drama school, I realised that if somebody had told me earlier, just because the camera’s pointing at you, you don’t have to speak. Just because it’s your turn to speak, you can wait and feel what it is you want to say, before you say it. I basically want to be friends with the new people so that they feel they can ask me when they need help. That’s really what is. But they all came with a bag full of talent.
If you could play any other character in Ackley Bridge, who would you choose and why?
Ooh, Sue Carp or Lorraine! I think Sue Carp has the best one liners ever. I miss her and she’s not in many scenes with me but if we have a future series, I really hope she’s in it more because anything that woman says makes you laugh. Charlie Hardwick who plays her couldn’t be further from Sue Carp, which just says what a great actress she is. She’s a lovely, warm, funny, likeable lady. And then she plays this acerbic, politically incorrect teacher whose probably got a world full of baggage of her own.
How do you think Kaneez would find home schooling and working during lockdown? Do you think there would be any similarities between your own experience and hers?
In a word, no! I literally ask everybody to help Noah my son with any of his GCSE home- schooling, I am useless! I don’t know anything about chemistry – he was asking me about mass moles. And I literally couldn’t even understand the question he was asking me. I got on the WhatsApp family group. I was like, “Clever family of mine, tell me what the answer is”, I was constantly out of my depth as Sunetra, and thankfully, I’ve got a naturally bright kid so he’s not going to be relying on his mum. Whereas I think Kaneez would probably have a very structured rota. She’d be very strict about no TV until you’ve finished your homework. I think she’d be whipping them into shape, and she’d have a little Sergeant Major routine going on.
Ackley Bridge is back on Channel 4 at 6pm weeknights from April 19.