If one of the roles of TV drama is to shine a light on real-life issues, Ackley Bridge tackles some gritty topics head-on. Education, race relations and identity are all themes in the six-part drama for Channel 4 in the UK.
Another role of drama is to entertain, and if the premise of Ackley Bridge sounds heavy going, The Forge, which is producing, set out to cover the issues at hand with warmth and humour.
“In one way it’s sort of Shameless for schools,” says Louise Pedersen, CEO of All3Media International, which is selling the series internationally.
“It’s about a largely Asian and white school coming together, and what that says about cultural and educational issues,” she adds. “It’s not just about the kids, but is also about the teachers trying to make the school a success. We think it will be a compelling, modern school or precinct-based drama that raises issues we grapple with – all with a warm-hearted approach.”
The Shameless connection resonates on more than one level, given that show was produced by Company Pictures, the firm that Forge founder George Faber previously created. Two of Ackley Bridge’s creators, Kevin Erlis and Malcolm Campbell, also worked on the earlier show.
At a corporate level, All3Media owns Company, while All3Media International has a first-look deal with The Forge. Ackley Bridge is the second show out of the pair’s first-look deal following last year’s miniseries National Treasure.
Faber describes the show as follows: “A returning series set in a school in the North of England, in a town with a white and Asian community who live side-by-side, but have completely separate lives,” he says. “Our school has merged an all-white school with an all-Asian school, and we join them on day one. This is a very segregated town, so the school is a social experiment and we’re looking at what happens when two tribes are brought together under one roof.”
The Forge founder says tackling sometimes difficult subject matter in a relatable way is in the DNA of the writing team. “Ayub Khan Din wrote a film called East is East, which was very successful internationally, and was warm, funny and surprising in the way it looked at growing up in a Pakistani family in the 1970s. Our show is warm and funny with really engaging relationships.”
In the UK, Channel 4 runs Ackley Bridge at 8pm, marking the free-TV channel’s return to weeknight drama in that primetime slot.
Jo Joyner plays the dedicated head of the freshly-minted Ackley Bridge College, and her ex-Eastenders colleague Paul Nicholls is her on-screen husband and school P.E. teacher. The cast of pupils includes Sam Bottomley (Jericho), Fern Deacon (The Enfield Haunting) and Arsher Ali (Four Lions).
While the series is billed as an insight into modern Britain, the producers are convinced it will find an audience outside the UK. “We’re looking at the kids, we’re looking at the teachers, we’re looking at their homes, and hopefully that makes it a show that will resonate all over the world,” Faber says. “This is going to be so pertinent, political and relevant to us all.”
The show: Ackley Bridge
The producer: The Forge
The broadcaster: Channel 4 (UK)
The distributor: All3Media International
The concept: Primetime drama about the coming together of white and Asian schools