Jo as head teacher Mandy Carter with the cast of Ackley Bridge
Jo Joyner has barely been out of work for two decades, starring as brassy northern women in series such as No Angels, Clocking Off, Ordinary Lies, Mount Pleasant and now Channel 4’s new schools drama, Ackley Bridge.
What’s odd is that Jo is from Essex, and is about as northern as pie and mash. “Every role, except for three jobs I’ve ever done, including Doctor Who and EastEnders, has been northern,” chuckles Jo, 40, who was born in Harlow.
Jo just fell into playing northern women when she headed to Manchester after drama school to launch her acting career. “I’d even do the interview in a northern accent, too, because people wanted authentic northern actresses,” says Jo.
“I’d be answering questions about where I went to school in Manchester and where I’d grown up and I was just making it up as I went along!” The public finally got to hear Jo’s natural accent in EastEnders, in which she played put-upon Tanya Branning from 2006-2013.
Now Jo’s back up north – this time in Halifax – and deploying her second-nature Mancunian accent in Ackley Bridge, Channel 4’s heartwarming and raucous pre-watershed drama aimed at filling a Waterloo Road-shaped hole in the TV schedules.
She plays Mandy Carter, who’s been thrown in at the deep end with her first head teacher’s job at the new (fictional) Halifax-based academy, created by the merger of two colleges, one British-Asian and the other white.
Sorting out racial tension, hormonal teens and misbehaving teachers, as well as pleasing the academy’s sponsor, flirty local businessman Sadiq Nawaz (Citizen Khan’s Adil Ray), fill Mandy’s manic days.
“Mandy is a great character who’s concentrated on her career and is driven and a bit fearsome, which I like about her, but she’s neglected her home life,” explains Jo.
Mandy is married to the school’s head of PE, Steve Bell (The C Word’s Paul Nicholls), and their relationship is somewhat bumpy – Steve objects to the amount of time Mandy spends with Nawaz; her promotion has caused a power shift at work, because now she’s his boss, and in the first episode she refers to Steve having cheated in the past.
Ackley Bridge co-stars other faces familiar to viewers. Life On Mars’ Liz White plays bohemian teacher Emma Keane, whose unconventional teaching and parenting methods send Mandy into a tizz.
In the first episode, Emma’s troublesome daughter Chloe (Fern Deacon) ruins her mother’s first day in the classroom by turning up unexpectedly. “It was really good to represent a model of motherhood that isn’t often represented,” muses Liz, 37.
“She’s not the primary carer of her daughter, which isn’t often shown, and she’s a single woman in her mid-thirties. I found her an interesting character.”
Casualty’s Sunetra Sarker, who played surgeon Zoe Hanna, plays a dinner lady and single mother of three.
In fact, Ackley Bridge marks a reunion for Jo and Sunetra, who first met on the Channel 4 nurses drama No Angels (which ran from 2004-06) and have been best mates ever since. They even moved in together in Halifax while filming Ackley Bridge.
“I hate living on my own,” explains Jo. “That’s how we first met on No Angels. I knocked on her door and said, ‘Hi, I’m Jo next door. I hate living on my own – I’ve never done it actually, so if you want to come in and watch telly, just pop around.’ All these years later we’re still watching telly!”
Sunetra steps out of her comfort zone in Ackley Bridge to play Pakistani-born Kaneez Paracha.
“Because I’m not from the area, I don’t speak Punjabi and I’m not Pakistani, this was a huge challenge for me,” says Liverpool-born Sunetra, 43, whose parents are Hindus from India. “You don’t see many women like Kaneez onscreen – often we depict Asian women as either very nice or very militant, so it’s nice to see such a rounded, humorous woman.”
Ackley Bridge, Wednesday, 8PM, Channel 4