Casualty star Sunetra Sarker is back for Ackley Bridge Series 2

Sunetra Sarker who played Dr Zoe Hanna in BBC One’s medical drama Casualty, is back for series 2 of Channel 4’s school drama Ackley Bridge. Sarker joined the cast of Ackley Bridge last year when the show begun.

Sunetra Sarker as Kaneez in Ackley Bridge

For those unfamiliar with the show, explain what Ackley Bridge is all about.
It’s a look at life through the eyes of a mixed community of the white and Asian school community in North England. It’s about showing the similarities and differences in the homes of various different school kids and their families. It’s about watching a slice of life in working class Britain.

You play Kaneez – tell us a bit about her.
She is the mother of Nasreen and the school dinner lady. She is a force of nature. A woman I haven’t seen on television before; full of personality and opinion. A good mother with a sense of humour but also a strict mother with a protective streak. She is a voice in the community and is fair to both white and Asian views. She has built herself from scratch. Arriving in England as a young Pakistani woman and finding her feet with the language and life skills she is a real example of self-learning and independence. She is a warm but fierce character in the show.

What was it that attracted you to this project?
The fact that I hadn’t seen an Asian woman written like this for TV before. I loved Ayub Khan Din’s writing immediately and could hear her voice on the page. I knew instinctively that I wanted to bring something of my own to this woman. Also it was a very different role for me than the last few roles I’ve played and I wanted to be stretched so it felt like a good challenge.

Muslim women are often portrayed as rather silent, browbeaten characters. That’s not how you’d describe Kaneez, is it?
No not at all. I think all the variations of Muslim women on television are within context on shows but never explored fully. Kaneez shows you westernised ways side by side with her Islamic life and blends both humour and truth in an authentic way that I don’t think gets represented enough in the media.

All of the cast have to learn the Yorkshire accent, but you have to come up with an accent that’s part-Yorkshire, part Punjab. Was it difficult to nail down?
God yes! I was studying the Bradfordstani accent before, during and after the series. I was talking with the people of Halifax and the other Asian cast in the show that have relatives that speak that way which helped me enormously. I also had a voice coach occasionally to guide me and I really studied my scripts in a way I never have before.

Do you ever find your accent wanders a little during a scene?
Naturally it can, as different words have different emphasis and the accent is actually very personal to Kaneez. All people who speak English as a second language have their own spin on their choices of speaking English and so I now feel I own Kaneez’s voice in a way that I understand in my own way. The whole cast and crew can speak Kaneez too it’s good fun! She can make up words and mix them up with the freedom that she has learnt the language her own way and is understood.

If we dropped you in the middle of the Punjab now, how much would you be able to communicate in Punjabi?
Not at all. My family are from Bengal so I wouldn’t have a clue!

Kaneez has her own rather colourful version of English. Is any of that improvised, or is it all there on the page for you?
The writers are good at writing the content of Kaneez’s words but a lot of it comes from me working on the scene’s intentions and getting the context right and then the ‘Kaneezisms’ I make up get added if I feel it’s appropriate and if the bosses agree. When I came up with the Spice Girls line in the first series the whole room laughed and so we knew that would have large appeal. Sometimes I have to be careful to not let the Kaneez language creep into my own life off screen as it’s so easy to slip into it now! haha.

How did you find filming in Halifax? What do you make of the place?
We are working so much during the time I’m in Halifax there is very little time to socialise in Halifax but it’s a very friendly town and the local people have welcomed us all with open arms.

Did you get any feeling as to how series one had gone down?
I feel it was well received and I was especially touched at how all communities related to the topics and the people that have stopped me to talk about how much the show touched them in different ways. It was a credit to the show. Twitter response was also very encouraging. I was very lucky to have people who have followed my career still believing in such a different style of my work.

You have lot of scenes with Amy and Poppy. How has it been, working with them?
Amazing. Those girls make me feel like we are all the same age and they give me more respect than I really deserve. Both are so talented and funny to work with on set. I look forward to scenes with them in every script.

Was it fun to be reunited once again with Jo?
We have been close friends for so long I can’t remember not knowing her. It’s a huge bonus working with a friend on a job. There is an immediate trust and we both enjoy pushing creatively any chance we can – basically I never feel silly trying new choices in my acting in front of Jo. We have been really lucky to work with each other on two great Channel 4 shows together.

What were you like at school? Detention or distinction?
Detention. I talked too much to pay attention to what was being taught. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to all my past teachers now! I was the class clown and wangled my way through GCSEs, A levels and a degree somehow but I’m more academic now than I ever was as a kid.

Ackley Bridge returns on Tuesday 5th June at 8pm, on Channel 4

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