As school drama Ackley Bridge returns to our screens, its stars Jo Joyner and Sunetra Sarker talk exclusively to TV Times about being firm friends and what's facing their characters this term...

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Jo Joyner and Sunetra Sarker reveal the secrets to lasting friendship and what’s in store as Ackley Bridge opens its doors for a new term…

“I don’t know what to do with my hands,” exclaims actress Sunetra Sarker, as she poses alongside her Ackley Bridge co-star Jo Joyner for TV Times’ exclusive ‘Back to School’ photoshoot, quickly realising the solution to her problem is to give her long-time friend a massive hug.

Jo and Sunetra have been firm friends since meeting at the audition for C4 comedy drama No Angels in 2004 and, while their jobs have taken them in different directions – Jo became a household name as EastEnders‘ Tanya Cross, and Sunetra donned heels and a stethoscope as Casualty‘s Zoe Hanna – they’ve never lost touch.

Jo Joyner Sunetra Sarker having fun at desk

Last year, however, Jo and Sunetra got to reunite on-screen in Ackley Bridge, a drama centred on the merger of two schools, bringing together the largely segregated white and Asian communities in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Ackley Bridge returns for a second 12-part series next week – hence the reason for our photoshoot – and the ladies are grateful to TV Times for giving them the chance to have some fun behind the scenes…

“We’ve filmed nine episodes so far and we haven’t had a single scene together. So it’s nice getting to do something like this as we’re often not on the same schedule, so we really miss each other,” says Jo, who plays head teacher Mandy Carter, with Sunetra – aka dinnerlady Kaneez Paracha – adding: “Yeah, this is a real luxury for us just to be together.”

Once the pair has finished getting up to all manner of mischief in front of the camera, TV Times sits down with Jo, 40, and Sunetra, 44, to chat about why they’re still the closest of friends…

What were your own school days like? Did you always know what you wanted to be when you ‘grew up’?

Sunetra: “My mum wanted me to go to the best school in our area, so I was the only Hindu in the convent! I wasn’t a very academic kid, however, I found my place in being the class clown. It kept me out of trouble.”
Jo: “I went to the same village school that my kids go to now. I always wanted to be an actor but I’ve also always been interested in medicine so, if I hadn’t been an actor, I’d probably have gone into medical research or something.”
Sunetra: “As far as I was concerned, I was going to be the next Alan Sugar. I wanted to be a computer analyst and, when I was really young, I wanted to be a candy-floss seller – I couldn’t believe it was an actual job. There’s a real businesswoman in me who’s desperate to get out!”

Jo Joyner Sunetra Sarker desk photo two

Had you known each other at school, do you think you would have been friends?

Jo: “Yeah, without a doubt. I think we knew when we first met we were going to know each other always. I’ve got a shocking memory but I remember that first meeting with Sunetra at the audition for No Angels vividly. We were hanging out of a window, having a cigarette during a break and I thought: ‘I’m gonna know you forever’.”
Sunetra: “There was something that just clicked. There was a sisterhood instantly and, actually, the four of us on that show – myself, Jo, Louise Delamere and Kaye Wragg – all became really good friends.”

No Angels Sunetra Jo Louise and Kaye

Why do you think you’ve remained friends all these years?

Jo: “Across the three years of making No Angels, we all had significant relationships and Sunetra had her first baby – her son Noah was the first nappy I ever changed! We were all going through such instrumental periods in our lives, like you do between the ages of 25 and 30… first houses, first loves, first marriages, first babies… so they were bonding times. Two weeks ago we all went out for dinner with our husbands and kids…”
Sunetra: “I booked a table for 18 of us. To think we’ve gone from just the four of us back then to 18 of us now is wonderful.”

What would you say are each other’s best qualities?

Sunetra: “Jo is so non-judgemental and the easiest person for me to talk to about anything, which is a real gift. I can tell her anything and I know she won’t look down on me. She’s also a real champion of making you feel, when you’ve got a good idea, like you’re a genius.”
Jo: “Well, you are!”
Sunetra: “See what I mean?! Jo’s also really kind and that’s probably one of the most important qualities you look for in a friend.”
Jo: “Sunetra always knows the right thing to say. Whatever your problem is, she’ll have a million ideas on how to fix it. She’s also incredibly thoughtful and she tells an amazing story…”
Sunetra: “Except Jo’s memory is so bad, I could tell the same story twice and she won’t remember until halfway through that I’ve told her that story before! I think it’s that ‘opposites attract’ thing. We’re really lucky that our strengths and weaknesses complement each other.”

Kaneez (Sunetra Sarker) and Mandy (Jo Joyner) in Ackley Bridge

So, what’s coming up for your characters, Mandy and Kaneez, in series two of Ackley Bridge?

Jo: “As the series begins, we discover Ackley Bridge is very low on Year 7 applicants; without an influx of students, it looks like the school’s failing. Mandy sets her mind on getting a better intake, so she comes in with quite a fierce policy. She’s not everyone’s favourite person at the start, let’s put it that way.”
Sunetra: “This is a very liberating series for Kaneez. After kicking husband Iqbal out of the house last series she’s found her wings and is trying to fly a little bit now. There’s a big secret about Kaneez’s family that comes out, which causes a rift between her and daughter Nasreen (Amy-Leigh Hickman), who came out as gay last series and has agreed to her mum’s idea of marrying a boy who’s also gay.”
Jo: “Also, after last term’s goings-on, Mandy and husband Steve [played by Paul Nicholls] are separated and not living together. Mandy’s under a lot of pressure in her personal life as well as from the school, it’s a very intense time for her and there’s not a lot of joy. Although, there is potential joy later in the series…”
Sunetra: “As Kaneez opens her eyes to life’s possibilities, she learns how to drive. I’d say I’m a good driver, so it’s really hard to play a really bad one – and I certainly wouldn’t get in a car with Kaneez behind the wheel. Kaneez, however, thinks she knows it all and should be on Top Gear!”

Ackley Bridge opens its doors for a new term on Tuesday June 5 at 8pm on Channel 4.