ACKLEY BRIDGE (2016)
This is one of the very few things I have directed and not generated. This is how it came about. I volunteered to make some short films for Jeremy Corbyn’s 2016 leadership campaign. In those days all we ever heard was how hopeless he was and I got drawn into that dreary discourse. One day I heard myself say, “He’s hopeless”, and I was disgusted with myself. This was a man who shared my politics, who had been attacked from the day he was elected and I had absolutely no idea whether or not he and his team were hopeless because all we heard were these relentless attacks. So I decided to help and hoped that in the process I might learn something.
I did. I learnt there were a lot of enthusiastic and idealistic young people, that John MacDonnell had a grip on a radical economic plan that I would love to see in practice and that whatever Jeremy’s flaws he was heading up a grassroots movement that didn’t feed at the trough of neoliberalism that has led us into a world where the eight richest people in the world own the same wealth as half the worlds population. Eight own the same as nearly four billion people. What the fuck.
Anyway I was on my way to the edit one evening when I bumped into George Faber who had produced Mischief Night (see the film and writing) (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mischief-Night-DVD-Ramon-Tikaram/dp/B000MQCBL8/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1504460453&sr=8-1-fkmr1&keywords=mischief+night+2005)
He suggested I come and see him and asked whether I would consider directing something I hadn’t written. I said I would if I thought I could bring something special to it. (Actually I said I would if I thought I could do it better than anybody else but that sounds more arrogant than it is. I meant that I am not a jobbingtelevision drama director and there are many people who could do standard drama better than me. Plus I would find it boring which I avoid above all else.)
The next morning I got an early draft of Ackley Bridge. A series about merging a white school and an Asian school in Yorkshire, race and class, a cast of Muslims who are no terrorists or paedophiles? Yes please.
The reason I am telling you about how the job came about is that if you stay home and do nothing, nothing happens. Things lead to other things. If I hadn’t volunteered to make the Corbyn films I wouldn’t have bumped into George. And just at that time a project I was counting on stalled because the person who commissioned it got ill and was off work for six months so I was free.
Ackley Bridge was a difficult and beautiful challenge. Although I had lots of experience directing both fiction and documentary this was my first prime-time television show and I was hoping to bring something fresh to the genre.
It really isn’t grim up North. Ackley Bridge is set in an impoverished and segregated community but people’s homes are often insanely colourful and both the Pakistani and English heritage communities are resilient and full of life. And women in hijabs – and nicabs – are very lively and very far from the submissive stereotype. Finding ways of illuminating this in the series in an inviting way was my mission. It wasn’t helped by the fact that although the school year starts in September we were shooting in freezing cold January, in the Pennines, where in a single, short day it is often sunny, foggy, snow and then pouring with rain.
Figuring out the geography of our fictional school and transforming it into a place our audience would want to spend time in was a lot of fun. There were also home locations, particularly for Missy and Nas. I had friends from Mischief Night (2005) who gave us tours of White and Asian council estate homes to inspire us with their wallpaper and furnishings. We ate meals with lovely Pakistani heritage families, balancing plates on our knees with the television on in the background and scrapped the dining room table that had originally figured in the plans! Mrs Iqbal’s twin daughters taught Lily our costume designer to tie hijabs and we found the last roll of their stunning pink and silver wallpaper for Nas’s bedroom.
We had a large cast to find. In some ways not knowing anything about prime time television was an advantage, as I met well-known actors without any preconceptions. We ended up with a committed cast who enjoyed building their characters, working out their backstories, the music they liked and their relationships.
I street cast as many of the smaller parts as I could. Generally television and film crews parachute into areas, tell people to be quiet, ship in supporting artists (aka extras) from agencies, shoot and vanish without leaving a trace. The Forge executives and my producer were supportive of Ackley Bridge doing things differently. I brought in my assistant Sana Hall and we combed the streets, boxing clubs, night clubs, youth clubs, community centres and local schools, finding young actors for speaking parts and supporting artists to populate our school and streets. This is more time consuming than making a simple call to an agency – every child had to be licensed individually– but there was method to this madness.
Crucially it makes creative sense, it introduces a level of authenticity to the series, creating a world where the people we are representing, dismissed as ‘left behind’, recognized themselves in their full humanity. A wider audience also got to see poor people from both the Muslim and the indigenous English community with rich, complex lives without caricature or condescension. There was no difference between the professionalism of the experienced actors and the first timers.
Plus if we don’t do things differently, how can we pay more than lip service to changing the hideously narrow social and ethnic composition of our industry? Young people from a small provincial town with limited opportunities were exposed to life on a film set and it was a joy to see them choosing to do work experience in different departments.
I wanted to avoid the flat lighting and predictable crosscutting of many shows. My DOP, Anna Valdez-Hanks and I spent time watching films and thinking about the look we wanted. We planned key scenes where we could get the best natural light, like the girls on the skip at the start of the series, shot at magic hour just as the sun dips below the horizon and our motto was ‘a restless camera’.
I was committed to shooting with a single camera. I know it’s as fast, often faster than a two camera shoot and we didn’t drop a scene in a tough schedule. We had two cameras for big set pieces but used very little of the second camera material. The entire two episodes were shot handheld, often on rickshaw dollies with our grip pulling Anna around, avoiding the need for rigid tracks.
I like to be organized but flexible so I would plan the day, meet Anna early in the morning on set and we would change things together, then block the scene with the actors, giving them as much freedom as possible to move around where they wanted before really nailing the shot list. I hate being stuck to a monitor so I wear a small portable monitor around my neck and a set of headphones so I can be close to the actors and my DOP. All this is about keeping the actors at the centre of the frame. Making a space for my actors to give the strongest and naturalistic performance is more important than sticking to a rigid shot plan.
You can find series one on http://www.channel4.com/programmes/ackley-bridge/on-demand/60347-001