Ackley Press Pack - Sunetra

Interview with Sunetra Sarker who plays Kaneez Paracha

Category: Press Pack Article

As an associate producer on Ackley what sort of early discussions were you involved in for series five?

This series we were keen to get across a new teacher, Ms Asma Farooqi, and to try to make her as three-dimensional as possible. We have given her some flaws but not too soon. I feel like I was heard in my introduction to who I thought Asma should be. On the associate producer side really all I’m there to do is to add value to what the writers and other producers aren’t privy to not being on the set. The great thing about having an actor in the room with some of the writers is to be able to occasionally say things like, ‘Did you know so and so is really good at rapping?’ You wouldn’t know that if you hadn’t stood around listening to these kids doing all these wonderful other skills that they have. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where my influence is but I know it’s appreciated wherever I can throw in extra intel. I’m not a spy! (laughs)

What does Kaneez make of Ms Farooqi and what has Laila Zaidi brought to the Ackley ensemble?

As an actor Laila is a breath of fresh air. She is exactly what the show needed – a real different Asian woman. From Kaneez’s point of view she is so nonplussed by people with airs and graces. Ms Farooqi is keen to make a big impression with her but Kaneez doesn’t give a flying hoot. Until someone’s worthy of it Kaneez doesn’t really pay any attention. I like the fact that it wasn’t an immediate motherly instinctive, ‘Let’s welcome this new lady.’ That’s what I like about our show. We don’t make it as predictable as you might think it could be. Kaneez doesn’t suffer fools. She looks for the underdog more than she looks for the champion.

What excited you about the series 5 scripts by Suhayla El-Bushra, Kim Revill and Emteaz Hussain?

What was most exciting for me was the mental health storyline that Fizza goes through with her father, Asif (Raj Ghatak), again another really great off-piste character. Raj has really embodied playing a character that we don’t often see with brown skin. He is a father, in drag with already a huge bag of tricks there and now there is this mental health issue and Fizza is faced with looking after her father. Usually you would have the mother being not well and we would all feel sympathy for everybody. But in this storyline you feel the prickliness of Fizza not being able to handle a dad who is not taking his meds. I think that story is special.

Kaneez has her hands full with new arrival Kyle, Marina’s half-brother, played by Adam Little. How do their lives intertwine?

I really like Kyle. It’s the most unlikely pairing. A boy who has been dealt a hard set of cards to live by and he’s making the best of what he has. Kaneez is again non-judgemental but very opinionated. I like that contradiction. Adam is such a brilliant actor. He really is so very different from his character. That’s again what was refreshing for me. I’ve been so lucky to get to work with Amy (Leigh-Hickman) as my daughter playing Nas and Poppy (Lee Friar) as Missy. We’ve had some really outstanding young adults on our show. When new people come in you never know whether they are going to be as confident. Adam and Megan as Marina aren’t playing likable, nice people and yet they are not villains. They’ve got a really fine line to tread to be appreciated as a character. I have a real soft spot for Kaneez meeting new people in the show.

You also get to meet some new four-legged friends. How were Tyson and the six puppies to work with?

I’m so scared of animals. My parents came over to the UK a year before I was born and it just wasn’t on their priority list to have pets. So I don’t have that ease that everybody seems to have around cats and dogs. I think it’s also because I’m such a chatterbox but dogs and cats can’t talk to me so I don’t spend time enjoying their company. I’ve played a vet numerous times. As soon as they say, ‘Action’ I’m fine. When they say, ‘Cut’ I’m petrified again. Something happens between action and cut where I’m treating them like I’ve lived with them all my life. We did have a giggle though. When I had to scoop up the dogs and help rescue them oh my god they literally wouldn’t go in my arms. I was having to ad-lib. Not one of them wanted to come to me. Eventually they managed to get a shot of me holding one.

What makes Ackley Bridge an important show in terms of opportunities both behind and in front of the camera?

What is so remarkable is that instead of just trying to find a show that ticked a lot of boxes and was multi-cultural, which a lot of broadcasters and providers would probably be looking for, what we did with this show was we went to what we would like to watch regardless of the cultural side of stuff. We brought in storylines and it just so happened because it was based in a city like Bradford that you had to reflect what’s going on there, which is not often reflected in TV. Ackley took big risks including my character. Kaneez is a mouthy single mother with a headscarf shouting the odds at other Muslim people. You don’t know always how that’s going to land. It would be easier sometimes to just not have her say anything but I got a chance to play a woman - who has a voice in a show that hadn’t had a voice before. That’s the biggest headline for me.

Kaneez has to take GCSEs in English and Maths to stay in her position in the school. Is that asking interesting questions about what makes a great teacher?

That’s true. Who are the teachers that we remember for the right reasons? Often they are the ones who are not always the cleverest.  It’s the one who reaches out because they just know that you need a conversation. The more I see of schools now the more I feel they have bridged the gap quite a bit on approachability. My son is in sixth form and the way he speaks to his teachers seems quite adult. I think Kaneez fits right in that place where she doesn’t patronise. She makes mistakes and I like the fact that she makes mistakes. But I would have liked to have had a Kaneez at my school.

How were you when it came to the pressure of exams?

I was terrible, awful. I’m not academic in any way, shape or form. I’ve become far cleverer in my older years just by watching documentaries. I wish school had been the National Geographic channel. They are so much more informative. I met Steve Backshall doing Strictly. We became firm friends and he invited me to a few of his tours. He educated me on everything I would never have known about nature, wildlife, expeditions and science.



Kaneez is tasked with delivering a sex education lecture. What was that lecture like in your school days in Liverpool?

For Kaneez to be delivering that was probably one of our funniest scenes. Ashley, who was a brilliant director on this series, as an actor he also knows to let us have a bit of rope. He was letting me riff. I kept picking different questions out of the hat and I would have to make things up. We had a lot of fun putting Kaneez in that position. That was what I wish there had been more of at school in my Sex Ed – a bit of fun. You watched those mandatory videos. The lights went out, the projection went on and we all sniggered in the back. Who knows if any of us were any wiser for those classes? They’re just cringe aren’t they? But they have to be done and I’m pretty sure they are better now than they were then. And also better than what Kaneez does, which is basically say, ‘Don’t have sex.’

Having directed episodes of Casualty yourself what did you find interesting working with Ashley Walters on his TV directing debut?

We actually worked together on a show called Safe House. Then I watched his short film and it was extraordinary. I’m always really happy to see actors doing it. I was so pleased that Ashley was putting himself forward as a director. I would like to think that I was a support for him. Because he was the new boy everyone was in awe of Top Boy being behind the camera. But he was really open to hearing the differences between black culture and Asian culture and the nuances of playing the woman that Kaneez is. There was a great energy from Ashley being there. Everybody wanted to up their game, including myself.

What was your most emotional day of filming this series?

That was the day where Kyle ends up telling Kaneez why he went to young offenders. It was a very small scene. I didn’t have to say much. I just felt so much. I think just hearing the way that Adam delivered it was really quite emotional. Another time I got a little flicker of emotion was Kaneez having to explain to Rashid that she really, really doesn’t want to lose her job. As I was saying the lines, I could feel every woman in my position who is wearing a hijab or a headscarf who knows that the odds are stacked against her. I find it much easier to be emotional with Kaneez than I am with myself.

Do you give Jo Joyner any Ackley updates now that she has left the show?

I’ll send Jo a text saying, ‘On rugby pitch, minus 5’. And she will send me a picture of her in the sunshine gardening just to make me feel jealous. There is a shorthand that I have with Amy (Leigh-Hickman) and Jo where I can just refer to where I am. The Moors is especially icy. It’s freezing but it never looks like it onscreen. The wind is howling. There are trees falling over. So, whenever I am filming Ackley, I will send some of my ex-colleagues a little reminder of the terrible weather conditions just to get a bit of sympathy.