Interview with Ackley Bridge creator Ayub Khan Din
You’re the creator of Channel 4’s new drama series Ackley Bridge. Explain a bit about the show.
Well, it’s about a school that’s been amalgamated from what was two schools. They had turned into mainly-Asian and mainly-white schools, and local government have gone “This isn’t right,” so they’ve amalgamated them into one school. So it’s about the lives of the kids, and also their families, and their teachers, and how the amalgamation, and the situation in the area, affects them.
How much of it is to do with the cultural differences or the lack of integration between the communities?
That is the backdrop, and initially that’s what the show is about, but it’s also about the ordinary lives that these people lead, and the problems they face in a rundown area. It’s not just a cultural thing.
Why did you want to set a drama in a school? What was it that appealed about the idea?
It kind of came to me second hand, because it was The Forge [production company] who approached Channel 4. Channel 4 were really excited about the success of the Educating series’ – Educating Yorkshire and Educating Essex – and really wanted to build on that by creating a new drama. I’d just adapted To Sir, With Love for the stage, and my kids were going through the education process, and so I was really interested in education. And when it as suggested that it be about amalgamating a multicultural school, it excited me, about the possibilities the story could take. And I also found really exciting the idea of having so many Asian actors on screen.
Ackley Bridge is a fictional town in Yorkshire. What’s it like?
It’s a typical town with all the problems that a lot of northern towns are facing, with the closure of factories and the decline of industry.
You grew up in Salford – are any of your own experiences growing up as a British Pakistani replicated in the show?
It was a very different period. We were the only Pakistanis in the area. There was only myself and another boy – he was half Egyptian and half English – and one Afro-Caribbean lad. In Salford, at that time, the main road was known as The Barbary Coast. It was quite cosmopolitan, because it was very close to the Manchester Ship Canal. Brown faces were seen all over, it wasn’t as if it was a mainly white area. There were people from all over the world coming in off the docks. But it was a period that was, culturally, very, very white. So this show doesn’t really resemble my background. But it’s about the areas where large communities of immigrants have settled, and it’s about the problems they face. It’s about the problems faced by the children, or even grandchildren of the settlers, are still facing even today.
Do you find it slightly depressing that in this supposedly enlightened modern age, we’re still discussing issues of cultural difference and integration?
It’s a continuous journey. Everyone’s really surprised that this show is going to be half-Asian and half-English. People are like “Wow, this is amazing!” It’s 2017, for chrissakes. Things haven’t really moved on in the 25-30 years that I’ve been a black actor. We’re still excited and surprised that this is happening now. We still face the same problems. A lot of then kids are still facing the same problems that I faced and wrote about in East Is East. That’s one of the reasons that East Is East is still being performed today. In the last three years there’s been three productions. There’s one on at the moment in Newcastle, and one in Nottingham, and there’s going to be another production next year in Bolton. The problems that the kids face in East Is East are problems that young Asians still face today, to do with the sense of identity, and who one is, and how far our parents have assimilated into society, and the problems that are still being thrown up because of that.
What did you do in the way of research?
Apart from speaking to my own cousins and their children, who are from the Northwest, we went to quite a lot of schools and spoke to the young people about the problems they face. I asked them about if they mixed in their communities, I really got down to it with them. And they were really very open and honest in what they were saying. I hope we’ve been able to reflect the kind of problems that they face.
Was it a surprising experience, talking to these kids, or was it pretty much what you’d expected?
For me it was pretty much what I’d expected. I come from an Asian background, so I know what’s going on in the community, and what kids are facing. But for a lot of the other writers, the white writers were very surprised, and incredibly excited, going to schools and talking to young Asians, and seeing life from their perspective. It was a first for most of them, and they were really excited about that. When you see programmes about school that have been on, it wasn’t until Educating Yorkshire and Educating Essex that you really got to see young Asian schoolkids and the problems that they were facing.
Did you watch the Educating… shows in the run up to this?
I watched Educating Yorkshire, and it was one of the things that really excited me and convinced me I wanted to be part of the project. We’re only touching the surface at the moment. There’s so much more to get stuck into, story-wise, with this project. There are so many other areas to explore. I think it’ll really open the envelope. It’s such a complex area. You’re dealing with the kids’ relationships to each other, their relationships with the teachers, the teachers’ relationships, the parents, the impacts on the community. There’s so much potential.
The show was a long time in the making. Did the idea change much between inception and filming?
Yeah. It was two-and-a-half years. I wrote the pilot when I was doing East Is East in the West End. They wanted it really quickly. They greenlit it really quickly, which was fantastic. And then it went through this long, long, long process. But you can’t just say “we’re going to make a new multicultural drama that’s going to show diversity”. It’s a very simple sentence, but when you get down to the nitty gritty of what goes into making a drama like this, you get into a really long process. There are so many different issues involved.
What were the challenges you faced in writing the series?
For me, it was being totally honest about the community that I’m from, and not avoiding the darker issues that are attached to that community. Making sure that all the characters from that community had a real voice, and weren’t there as props for white actors. If we’re going to deal with Asians, we have to deal with them warts and all, and have a completely honest voice.
Where is it filmed? How much were you involved on set?
I wasn’t on set, but I was doing rewrites all the time. That’s part of the job of being lead writer and also exec producing. Because it’s such a fast turnaround on set, in scripts some things change, and my job was to rejig things and rewrite stuff.
You must have been thrilled with the cast that came on board?
I know Paul from his work in EastEnders, which was very, very fine. I know Sunetra because we both worked together, she played my cousin in a TV series called London Bridge. And I knew Jo Joyner’s work as well. But having seen the first two episodes, I was really impressed. The younger actors are amazing. I think the show looks fantastic, and has been directed incredibly well. It has great pace to it, and feels so natural.
Does writing something like this give you as much of a thrill as treading the boards or being in front of the camera?
I love acting – when I started writing, when East Is East took off, I was an actor doing two TV shows. And I’d never, ever envisaged myself being anything but an actor. And then, when East ss East took off, I think I’d become a bit jaded as an actor – I was bored with the roles I was going for. It was always the same – there was nothing being written for black and Asian actors, basically. But suddenly the writing took off, and the excitement I used to get from being a young actor I got from writing. And I still get that excitement from writing today. The writing took over, and I was too busy as a writer to do any acting. Recently I fell back into acting. I had a musical on in New York, and the lead actor fell down some stairs and broke his shoulder. So I ended up going on and starring in my own musical in New York. I really got the bug back. And a couple of years ago, when they decided they were going to do East is East at the Trafalgar Studios, I decided to play the father in that, and it was really good fun. So I think the writing gave me back my love of acting. I love writing great parts for good actors. That’s what’s been so fun about doing this – enjoying the actors, and especially watching the young actors enjoying themselves. I find that really satisfying. Acting is fun, but I really get off on being the writer now. And this show is really exciting, because it feels like we’re experimenting. It really feels like a first, and that is fun.
May 24, 2017 7:36am ET by Channel 4