"It's got that courageous independence about it and we knew we could be braver because of Channel 4's background."
Channel 4's Ackley Bridge began as an hour-long 8pm drama before moving last year to half-hour episodes, airing daily at 6pm before Hollyoaks. As the series returns for its fifth series, the half-hour format has remained, with double episodes every night at 10pm.
The series, set in a Yorkshire mill town, picks up with Johnny, Kayla and Fizza as they try to navigate the second half of the school year and new teacher Asma played by Laila Zaidi, who crashes into her first day with her fist in the air and a stolen statue in tow! Kaneez, played by Sunetra Sarker, can’t stand her imperiousness. But despite her perfect veneer, we soon discover she’s battling a few demons of her own.
And as Martin, played by Rob James-Collier, finds his headship falling under the spotlight, Ken, played by George Potts, is flown in to steady the ship and forces Kaneez to take her GCSEs and puts everyone under the cosh at school.
I caught up with Sunetra to talk about the joy of working with the young cast on Ackley Bridge, the instrumental impact being on Channel 4 has had on the drama, what's in store for Kaneez this year and why she was hesitant about joining Loose Women.
Can you believe we're here talking about Series 5 of Ackley Bridge?
No, I can't. I feel really old saying series five. It feels like it's been around for years when you say something like that and yet to me, it's still quite a fresh show.
Even more so because for the last series, the format changed to half-hour episodes. What impact did that have?
It was an experiment of sorts because TV is changing so much and the demographic we're trying to reach is a youthful, different generation to what we all grew up with. So you have to keep rethinking and rejigging how it's being sold to people.
With the TikTok generation really grabbing us, we found the online presence the show had, people were just watching the boxset. You binge-watch nowadays so I think half-hours are much easier to binge and get through than five or six massive hours.
It was a really good idea to try and mix it up and also keep everyone curious I suppose, as to what the show is about. If you think you know everything already about a show, some people can drop off so it was a breath of fresh air to try and change it up.
Also, with a show like Ackley, school years move on so you have to have a new cast and you have to make them feel like they're part of something that they can have their own take on.
Thinking back to the first time you read the script for Ackley Bridge, how did it make you feel?
I love this question. I really do. Because I can remember it so vividly. The show was called ABC back then, which stands for Ackley Bridge College. The audition scenes were going out and before I'd even seen the name of the writer, they stood out so prominently for me. The part of Kaneez, I just had not read a woman with this sassy, clever, humourous take, speaking to another Muslim girl in a way that you just never see.
It was actually a scene that never ever got shot, but it was a scene where Kaneez barges down the round into the school and disturbs the first assembly of the year by walking in and going "Which girl in this room told my daughter she has to wear a headscarf to be a Muslim?" and then this girl stands up and she has this big one-on-one row. I remember thinking, this is a really good script! What's going on? I never see stuff like this with Asian women.
Especially because Kaneez was the kind of woman who usually in a show might be the shopkeeper's wife, she might be the woman sat in the background with a headscarf on, she definitely won't be shown having a sense of humour! She might have a couple of scenes but nothing as special as what had been written for Kaneez in Ackley.
So I got really excited and then I looked at the front of the script and it was written by my good friend Ayub Khan Din who I'd worked with for years on London Bridge, we played family. He then went on to write East is East and the rest is history.
Once I knew it was Ayub's voice in there, I just knew this was my chance. I didn't want to lose the opportunity to play somebody that was so different to me, but somebody that I was so excited to read.
Very selfishly, I just rooted for me getting this part as much as I possibly could. It was exciting. And also, the kids! I grew up with someone very much like the Missy and Nas relationship. My friend Vicky lived across the road and she lived in my house as much as I lived inside hers. That Asian British merging of cultures, from such a young age, became so normal. And again, I haven't seen that on screen before. So it was great for all these firsts.
Considering the current conversations around the future of Channel 4, what is it about Ackley Bridge that is inherently Channel 4?
It speaks Channel 4, doesn't it? It's got that courageous independence about it and we knew we could be braver because of Channel 4's background, and the way it supports new writing and new performances.
I think if you're going to try and get a multicultural audience, especially, a lot of gambles are taken on Channel 4. I think it is a very Channel 4 show.
What's Kaneez Paracha up to this series?
She's enabling, supporting and getting into a bit of trouble along the way!
What's good about introducing so many new characters to a show like Ackley, is that because you've really got to know so many of us who are still in the show, we don't have to set everybody up from scratch.
So Kaneez loves her job, she couldn't want anything more than the pride of working as a school counsellor. It means so much to her that she's consumed herself with doing good as a worker bee.
Kaneez is going through the school year very normally until she's very abruptly informed that she has to have GCSEs to keep her job!
And how does she deal with that?
It's just the biggest mountain you could have ever given someone like her. Even you and me Elliot, if I asked you now to do your GCSEs again, the fear that you feel - and that's us who have been born and brought up here and done it.
I've just been through my son's GCSEs, funnily enough, as I was learning the role and it's just mind-blowing. I think that feels so unachievable for somebody like Mrs Paracha. She's got limited English in many senses. She hasn't been educated at all in the things that you would at school.
But, because she's actually so determined and has that grit in her, she knows that nobody's really going to help her so has to look at herself which is where she finds her self-doubt. Even she can't find a solution to learning Pythagoras' theorem.
It's really scared her and a lot of my storyline this series, in the background of everything, is she would do anything to get out of it. A little bit like how I felt on the first night on Strictly. If anyone could have given me a 'Get out of Jail' pass then, I'd have taken it! I drew on that fear of "What have I said yes to?".
She also has a lot to do with a new student at the school called Kyle, doesn't she?
Yes, there's also a lot about Kaneez trying to find her place with Kyle, the new student who's absolute trouble all over. She has a run-in with Kye who she makes her new project. Because no one thinks he'd do any good, she thinks with a hidden agenda of trying to make him a good boy, she might be able to buy some brownie points in case she doesn't pass her GCSEs.
She's tactical! I'm always very keen not to make her too earnest and too goody-goody, because if you take away all those other wonderful dimensions of Kaneez - very outspoken, puts her foot in it when she doesn't mean to and is also a bit of a truth teller - I can't pretend that she's lovely and likeable all the time.
There's also a new teacher in the school, Asma, Mrs Farooqi. How does Kaneez take to her?
Yes, all these new people that turn up, she's quite thick-skinned so doesn't respond to Asma, our new activist teacher who comes in very opinionated, flying the religious flag slightly and being the good Muslim girl. Kaneez doesn't bat an eyelid at her when Asma was maybe expecting Mrs Karacha to be wooed by her.
Reluctantly, she's going to become friends with Asma who needs her help for speed dating! That was so much fun, playing somebody who can say what she wants.
What are some of your favourite scenes in Ackley Bridge?
For me, the fun playing Kaneez, when I get to really fly her flag is the sex education chat. Who thought that was a good idea?! None of us wants to talk to any children ever about sex if we can help it. Least of all someone like Kaneez, who's really just discovering life as a modern woman herself. So that was fun.
I love all the scenes with the students. Whenever I get the chance to sit in the classroom with them, ultimate pleasure. As an adult, I've got this really lovely joker card of playing an adult who can also be a student in the show. Because she's always learning.
She's so far away from me I get the chance to play the Kaneez at school version that I can create. I can just make her be, what I in my head, want her to be. More than maybe when she's at home.
When she's at home she's a mother so the role is a little bit more defined but I really like the opportunities when I'm given free rein. Even the driving lessons, my fun scenes are any time she's being allowed to show her innocence.
With the kids. They're all great. And they laugh with me, so I can often be rude to them in a scene and they actually go with it. Whereas when you're working with just adults all day long, you probably have to be a bit more measured on any adlibs!
I loved in series four, the relationship between Kaneez and her nephew Tahir. I thought there were some really beautiful scenes between the two of them...
Aw, well he was a temporary visitor because the whole point of showing a lot of the Asian storylines that we feature in Ackley is the truth. And authentically, there are extended families in many races - Greek families, Asian families, Middle Eastern families - they just have lots of family who drop in and out.
For that series, Tahir was a cousin's son who was stranded, she took him in, she gave him everything she could and she reached him. And he reached her.
He's gone on to become a better person and not in Ackley anymore because he was a symbol of how warm and welcoming families are when it comes to serious emergencies. It was a lovely ending and I wish him well! I think he's a high-flying A-level student somewhere.
What's the reaction been like to you playing Kaneez in Ackley Bridge and were you ever worried about taking on the role and the comments you might receive?
Back in the day, when I first started the show, I was very anxious. In fact, the rest of the cast were always trying to appease me, telling me not to worry and that no one will say that nobody like this exists.
I was very aware that we're reflecting a part of Britain that isn't shown all the time on screen and a woman like me who sounds - and it can be comical because it is a hybrid of Bradford and Pakistani - I wondered, are people going to make fun of the accent? Are they going to make fun of me in a head scarf? Am I going to get backlash from the Muslim community because I'm not a Muslim.
I was worrying about a lot of things unnecessarily, because the truth is, if you enjoy a story. You enjoy a story. And if you don't enjoy a story. You don't have to watch it. We were so punchy with our opening stories, that I didn't get any haters, which was very nice.
I got outpourings of wonderful Asian fans and people who had been waiting to see their homes represented on screen. I knew they were some of the people I was doing it for. And for those reasons. But what surprised me, was the lady from Cambridge who stopped me in the middle of Zara to say "It's thanks to you and watching that episode that my daughter came out to me and told me that she's gay" and I was like "Wow! I didn't see that coming."
Usually, people stop me for a selfie, but she wanted to stop and tell me that because her and her daughter were laughing as they watch Nasreen come out to Kaneez and how she didn't take it well, but then did this back-to-front way of solving it- it relaxed them both and in turn her daughter was comfortable enough to tell her that she has a girlfriend at university. I really enjoyed hearing those sort of responses.
I love that. The power of television at its finest.
I've been on telly for years, remember. I've been doing this for over 33 years... I don't even know how many years, but 30 plus and have always been surprised at the different ways that TV reaches people.
Even a show like No Angels I did for Channel 4 ages ago, which was predominantly a comedy, a feel-good comedy - a few years ago, maybe 2018/2019, a lady sent me a letter saying that her mum only had a few weeks to live and they sat in the hospital and watched all the reruns of No Angels and wanted to tell us how much we all gave them.
We walk around as actors saying "We're not saving lives. We're not rocket scientists. We know it's just acting." - but entertainment does actually have quite a big job in self-care and loving life a little bit, switching off.
Could you ever have imagined the longevity of your career? Brookside, Casualty, Ackley Bridge... lots of long-running shows which I'm guessing is the dream for an actor.
Well, it kind of is and yet you don't know when a show if it will get picked up or go on. You always have to go in assuming it's just that one job. If you enjoy it, fingers crossed it goes again. But yeah, I've found that I've worked in shows which are successful for quite some time because I enjoy them as well.
Casualty I did for nine years, Brookside six, Ackley Bridge we're onto five and No Angels was three. I feel like when I find a character, I quite like sticking with them.
Finally, I have to touch on Loose Women. You joined the show in 2021. How are you enjoying it? I personally think you're a welcome addition to that panel.
What a complete left-field turn I took and I thank Covid for a lot of this. It's only because we were doing a Zoom link on Loose Women and I was talking about Ackley Bridge in the first place, that I mentioned that I'd never been on the show which then made them start thinking about it.
Straight after that interview, I got this phone call saying "Come and try being a panellist" and I was like - No! Gosh. I know my remit. I was always nervous about doing Loose Women because I thought I'd end up throwing my family and friends under the bus every day by telling some awful story about heartbreak or "The time when..." but I went along as a little experiment and also curiosity. And I enjoyed it so much.
I was so lucky that the first time I did it I got Nadia (Sawalha), Kaye (Adams) and Jane (Moore). They literally grabbed me and loved me from day one and made me feel like we were just having a chat around a table.
I don't think I can be scared of live TV anymore because like I've said with Strictly, the worst scenarios have been. I do really enjoy it. I then said I couldn't do it again, that was a one-off, but they said "you can" and I thought, OK, let's see... and now I'm there. I feel like maybe my age has made me feel like I have got a point of view that I can share.
I do enjoy the topics. Sometimes I can be completely out of my depth and I'll say so actually. I think that's one of the nice points about Loose Women, there is no fear to say "I don't get that." So I'm learning on TV!
Ackley Bridge returns Monday 11th July at 10pm and 10.30pm on Channel 4, continuing nightly and with all episodes available at launch