You cut your teeth as a director on the short film Boys. What made you decide on Ackley Bridge for your TV series debut?
Ackley Bridge and Jade (Taylor, producer) were the first people who came to have an interview with me. I had always heard about Ackley and spoken about it with people but I had never actually sat down properly and watched it. So when the idea was floating around I thought I would watch a couple of eps. I ended up binge watching season after season and fell in love with the show. It was quite an intense process. It wasn’t like they just handed me the camera and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll have you.’ I had to have a few interviews, one with Jade and one with George (Ormond) and the team over at the production company, The Forge. But it just felt like a really good fit. And it felt like it was a good place for me to cut my teeth as a newcomer and be given some space to be creative as well.
Is it the range of material from alcoholism, mental health and social media to women’s rugby, fantasy sequences and puppies that appealed?
Yeah, it was appealing on paper and then when we started shooting I was asking myself every night, ‘What have I got myself into?’ It was intense as a first job as a director, it was working with animals and some of those real serious topics, dealing with a vast main cast and then numerous amounts of supporting artists at various different locations. Sometimes it was quite unnerving. But I feel like I came out of it a stronger man, a stronger director and actually a better actor as well. Just seeing how much stress and pressure I may be putting on some of the directors that I’m working with as an actor. I went into this next season of Top Boy with a much more open heart.
You appeared in 10 episodes of Grange Hill back in 1997. Do you see a line from there to Ackley Bridge in 2022?
Yeah, I definitely see a through line with those two shows. But what I found with Ackley was it’s the collision of these two communities coming together that affects the state of the school and powers the school and gives it that energy. Look, I don’t come from any of those communities, which is why for me it was beautiful to be able to step out of my comfort zone and really have to delve into other cultures and to understand them in order to do a good job. I think what you have with this show is they both go hand-in-hand. What happens in the community is going to affect what happens in the school. That made it really interesting for me.
What were your early discussions with production about the tone for series 5? Did you want to slightly reset it?
I think the desired effect I wanted was to create a scenario where it kind of went back to season one. I was certainly imitating the style of the first season. I felt that visually that was where it was at its most authentic. With any show, even Top Boy, the first season is completely different to where we are now. You’ve got bigger budget. You’ve got more support. It becomes slightly more stylistic. Things change. I just wanted to strip that away as much as I could and take it back to its bare bones.
What was your first day of filming?
We started with the scene that you see first of the kids coming into school. Marina and the girls are walking in and Asma pulls up in her car. That was full-on. I came in with a folder with all my shot-lists that I had prepped the night before. Within half an hour that was ripped up because it was just never gonna go like that. You do like a half-rehearsal, literally to block it out before you shoot. That’s your lot. It was lucky I was there for the five weeks pre-production. I spent a lot of time with the actors individually on Zoom and then I brought them in to read with me around the table but we didn’t really get it on its feet. So you are going in cold pretty much and sometimes hoping for the best. But I think we got the best.
Are there any tricks to getting 100 teenage actors and supporting artists to do what you need for the big out-door scenes?
You pray. That’s what you do. You pray the evening before. You pray in the morning when you get onto set and then do little prayers in between things. It was tough. A lot of the time we are shooting with two cameras, and I started to lose track of what some of the SAs were doing. . I’m used to acting. I’m not so used to thinking about what’s going on behind me too much and paying too much attention to that. The team at Ackley have been working together so long before I ever existed as a director. They held my hand through it.
How did long-standing Ackley cast members like Sunetra Sarker help who has also directed episodes of Casualty?
Sunetra was amazing. For me, she is the anchor of that show. I understood that already just from watching it. She centres everything. So when I came in she was so welcoming and literally sometimes held my hand while we were shooting. Her understanding logistically of the pieces of the puzzle and where everything is and her tone and how she comes into scenes and stuff was so good. It made my job a lot easier. I don’t know how it would have been if she wasn’t there if I’m honest.
Sunetra says you gave her the space to have fun as Kaneez giving a sex education lecture to the students.
Yeah, that was a funny one. I come from a more improvised kind of background. With Ackley you stick quite closely to the script and try not to deviate. But on that scene in order to get the right reactions I wanted from the kids I asked her to do a couple of takes where she just made some stuff up and said some different things. It worked and she had fun with it, and we had fun. It was good to see.
Did you enjoy introducing new staff member Asma Farooqi, played by Laila Zaidi?
Casting her character was integral to what we were going to do going forward. I watched loads of tapes for casting and Laila was one of my favourites. That alcoholism storyline is really strong. It’s quite demanding of the actor especially someone who hasn’t been through that before. Laila was an amazing person to work with. I think she handled it so well. She handled it with grace. I didn’t want to make caricatures of someone suffering with alcoholism. I wanted people to understand what it’s like for a Muslim woman dealing with that. Laila allowed me to work with her and mould her in the way that I needed to.
Laila says you gave her very good notes about playing drunk.
(laughs) Part of that comes from experience. But then I got some really good advice one time from Sue Tully. She directed me in a TV show I did called Truckers years and years ago (in 2013). I had a scene where I had to play drunk and I was really struggling with it. She gave me this advice. She said, ‘You keep on looking in my eyes but actually look at my nose. That will help you slightly.’ And it did and I did an amazing scene. I just passed on what I’d learnt to Laila, that’s all.
What advice did you have for Megan Morgan taking over the role of Marina from Carla Woodcock?
I’ve never been in that position myself, but I’ve seen it happen in shows I’ve been in. I don’t think we’ve ever seen Marina as vulnerable and as stripped back as this so I think it kind of gave Megan an open book to create. My only advice to Megan was that she didn’t try to imitate what Carla had done and that she tried to make it her own. We gave her the blonde hair. She’s got the sassy attitude and the different style of the way she wears her uniform and being the queen bee of the school. So all the accoutrements are already around her. I think emotionally she just needed to channel something else and take it to the next level and she did. I think Megan is really one to watch when it comes to how her career is going to go. She’s really powerful and she’s really confident. Her ideas and her understanding of narrative and story are really great. A lot of her stuff was one take or two takes.
Adam Little acted in Years and Years but is new to Ackley. How were you able to help him with finding Kyle?
There’s no helping Adam. First of all he doesn’t need it and second he is that confident that he probably wouldn’t take it. (laughs) He was one of the actors that I just turned the camera on. I’d give him some notes and he would be like, ‘Yeah, I get it. But it’s probably better if I come from over there and do this.’ The better idea wins so I’d say, ‘Yeah, do that.’ Adam is a dream to work with. I spent a lot of time with him out of work as well. We have a shared love for training and the gym. So we had a lot of connections and he’s an amazing actor. When he came in for casting it was him straight away for me.
There is a very emotional storyline between Fizza and her dad, Asif. What was it like working with Yasmin Al-Khudhairi and Raj Ghatak on that?
Yasmin’s great. I love her. She’s very thoughtful about how she approaches things. Those sorts of roles and those sorts of storylines can be so emotional. You take those things home with you a lot of the time because you are spending most of your day immersing yourself in a character who is upset or low in mood. There were only two or three scenes that I did with her where she was laughing and happy and upbeat. That takes its toll on you as an actor so hats off to her for pushing through. Her and Raj work so well together. It’s a masterclass watching them with Asif going through the emotions with his mental health and Fizza supporting and managing to contain her upset for her and for him.
Is there one day’s filming you were particularly proud of?
Every day I was pretty much proud of. I think when we were shooting a lot of the stuff on the Moors we were battling some proper Yorkshire snow and cold weather. And actually it’s meant to look like summer. Getting through those days and bringing everyone through the mud and getting them to the top of the hills and shooting in those freezing cold conditions and getting the day done was amazing for me. That was a proud moment and actually being up there and looking over the Moors and seeing the city was amazing as well.
Was there any aspect of this production that you hadn’t encountered before?
I had done pretty much everything except working with dogs. That was a tough one. I’m a dog lover but I didn’t really love dogs by the end of this shoot. No matter how well trained they are they are a law unto themselves. The dog we had playing Kyle’s dog Tyson he didn’t want to do anything when the cameras turned over. I had to work out some real cunning ways to shoot him. So a lot of the times you see the dog in a scene he hasn’t been shot with any of the actors. I’ve shot him independently and just spent loads of time trying to get the right reactions from him and then cut them together in the edit, which I didn’t want to do. But in order to keep the actors energised and get the best takes and best performances out of them I had to do it that way. If I get another script as a director and there’s loads of scenes with dogs or cats, I might have to think about it but we got there in the end. It was all good.