By Caroline Hollick, Head of Channel 4 Drama
There is a reason why they call it God’s Own Country. Yorkshire inspires near-religious zeal, and I have all the fervour of a born-again. I moved to Leeds from London over 20 years ago and have been deeply in love with Yorkshire ever since. And when I got the job as Head of Drama at Channel 4, in 2018, the existing drama I was most excited to be looking after was the award-winning Ackley Bridge.
Cheeky, ground-breaking and packed with edgy jokes, Ackley sums up everything I adore about my adopted home. And millions of young folks agree – it’s currently the biggest show of the year on All 4 for teenagers and the biggest library title for 16-24s. Plus the Ackley Bridge hashtag on TikTok currently has 82 million hits to date. To this lame Gen-Xer used to counting overnight figures, that sounds like a lot.
Filming started before the pandemic hit so, despite a production shutdown, we decided Ackley Bridge College would remain a COVID-free zone on screen (but of course we completed filming under the strictest COVID protocols). However, to me the show has never felt timelier. The new series of Ackley Bridge is our chance to bring a bit of joy, and to tell stories which can help teenagers make sense of the complex world they find themselves in.
We’ve put younger viewers squarely at the heart of our new strategy, making each episode a snappy 30 minutes and moving the time-slot to the brand-new time of 6pm; sandwiched between The Simpsons and Hollyoaks, Channel 4 will truly own teatime! The full series will also be available on All 4 for excitable viewers who can’t wait to binge-watch, as well as being shown nightly over a two-week period, for those who like to watch with their families and enjoy the co-viewing conversations around the issues Ackley Bridge explores.
Last series saw us say goodbye to Nas, Missy and a host of other favourites. This year we’ve got a brand-new lead cast, alongside familiar faces such as Kaneez, Martin, Mandy, Hayley, Sam, Spud and Ruky. And the theme of the series is ‘love’. Sparks will fly when best mates Kayla and Fizza both fall for the same guy – charismatic new boy Johnny – but the series is as much a paean to the highs and lows of female friendship as it is to teenage romance.
Johnny comes from the Romany Gypsy community, a group which often faces extreme prejudice and negative portrayals. Confronting stereotypes is a touchstone for Ackley, both now and in the past three seasons, and 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.
Ackley always aims to counter the negative narratives which claim that our differences outweigh our similarities. Our storytelling presents us with an optimistic view of the world. If Johnny embodies a trope, it’s the flawed romantic hero – sensitive, loyal and yet unsure of his own heart.
Ackley is renowned for its commitment to representing stories of multi-cultural Britain, and no character personifies this better than Kaneez Paracha, school dinner lady-turned-student support officer, played by Sunetra Sarker, who’s been a popular face of Channel 4 since her child actor days on Brookside.
Kaneez is just as important to the fabric of Ackley as the teenage characters – one of the things which makes Ackley Bridge stand out is that the adults aren’t simply there to serve the younger characters’ stories. Kaneez’s journey over the last three series’ saw her move from traditional wife, at first denying her daughter’s sexuality and encouraging her to consider an arranged marriage, to a woman fully embracing her independence with new love Rashid, while never abandoning her traditional culture.
She’s a fully rounded, complex Pakistani woman, the kind of character we seem to rarely see on British TV. Series four sees Kaneez mediate the chasm between firebrand Fizza and Fizza’s highly conservative mother with a gentle wisdom that shows how much Kaneez has changed and grown over the years.
Sunetra herself has been on an Ackley journey; this series sees her taking an Associate Producer credit, after being very vocal and involved with Kaneez’s storylines over the preceding seasons. “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,” Sunetra says. “This one woman is so special and so important, because this is the first time we’ve seen 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.”
It’s the bold approach of the lead writer and creator, Ayub Khan-Din and the entire writing team, which allows Ackley to subvert stereotypes so effectively. “Our new writers continue to highlight, through humour, irreverence and insight, that what unites us, is far greater than that which divides,” he says. The show also isn’t afraid to play hard-hitting narratives, such as protesting LGBTQ+ teaching in schools, alongside broader stories about body positivity, dealt with in a warm, accessible and hopefully endearing way (it’s also never afraid of a fart gag – episode one has a particularly resplendent example!)
Story producer Kam Odedra, who also wrote episode six, is very clear about the importance of representation when it comes to ambitious storytelling. “Having spent my career as often the only person of colour in a room, on Ackley Bridge series four, I had the honour of working with writers who were people of colour, with the majority being women,” she says. “The storylines were created from a place of truth and you can only do that in a room where you feel seen and heard.”
That female production perspective fed into the complexities of our new female leads – loveable nerd Kayla and sarcastic tough girl Fizza. Both have to negotiate a plethora of obstacles, some reflecting common teenage experiences, some more specific to those from British-Asian backgrounds. Kayla, for example, not only has to deal with having a mean girl half-sister but has to learn to have confidence in her dual heritage.
Rebellious Fizza’s rejection of her strict mum comes complete with nose and lip piercings, but things take a darker turn when she accuses her mum of religious-fuelled homophobia. For me, one of the things that makes Ackley stories stand out is the way members of the team have crafted their lived experience alongside their imaginations in a way which leaves all of us feeling like we’ve learned a bit more about ourselves and the world around us.
The nerve-wracking thing about a successful school drama is that your heroes and heroines get too old for school and have to move on. We all miss Missy and Nas, though I’m delighted that Hayley, Sam, Spud, Ruky and other familiar faces will still be in school, making us laugh and causing trouble.
But that’s also the joy of school drama – every few years we get the chance to refresh and reinvent. I can’t wait for Ackley’s army of fans to fall in love with our new gang. And in these peculiar times, a show like Ackley takes on even greater importance. “It’s a show about communities,” Sunetra says. “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.” That’s something all of us, more than ever, can relate to.
Ten-part drama Ackley Bridge begins on Monday 19th April at 6pm on Channel 4, with new episodes each weeknight. It will also be available as a boxset on All 4.