Ackley Bridge Series Five | Interview with Robert James-Collier (Martin Evershed)

Martin delivers an impassioned speech to the Trust this series where he describes Ackley Bridge as a place of learning and a sanctuary. Is that his mission statement as headmaster?

Yes, I really love that scene because it’s quite true with what is going on today. The whole education system is becoming corporate, isn’t it? I did a bit of research into this. A lot of academies are run as businesses so profit comes before education. For me personally, I don’t think that should ever be allowed into the equation. I know some people say it’s a way for private businesses to bring innovation into the public sector because it can get stagnated but I don’t buy that. I think they should be kept separate. It’s a hallowed thing the education of children. It should be vocational. That’s why that speech and what Martin says in it is bang on the money. He is sort of old school in that respect. I know a teacher who left because they were disillusioned with the executives and management teams. The businesses are getting rewarded but the school is not being run as well as it was before. We’re seeing that right throughout the public sector now, aren’t we?

In what ways does Martin find himself coming up against the school trust?

Martin has a bit of a connection with one of the students, Johnny, from the travelling community. I think Martin identifies with Johnny because he’s got a lot of intelligence and talent but he’s had a bit of a misspent youth. Johnny and his sister are without a home since his granddad died last season. So Martin takes money out of the school welfare fund and doesn’t write it down. The reason he doesn’t write it down is because he knows if he did he’d get pulled for it. But he’s doing it for great altruistic reasons. Again it’s an example of what school money should be spent on. It’s an emergency fund. You’ve got two children who are educated at the school who need help to put a roof over their heads. And they’re talented children who are giving school a chance. I can’t think of a better way of spending school money, but Ken obviously objects.

How is Martin’s romance with Jules (Gemma Paige North) going under the scrutiny of Kayla and Marina?

Martin is trying to balance that work/home life relationship. Jules, Kayla and Marina get evicted and end up living with him so there are a lot of comedic moments but there is also resentment from Marina because she is not with her dad. Martin is trying to navigate that. They are staying in his space and he is seeing their mum but he doesn’t want to encroach into the father role because he is not their father. We see that play out and there are also altercations with their dad, Dean (Andrew Knott). We also have a really sensitively plotted abuse storyline, which runs through this season. It’s about social media and exploitation through that. It really shows how kids can be vulnerable electronically. It’s great to be a part of that. It’s timely and not sensationalised in any way.

How has the school’s new English teacher Ms Farooqi fitted in?

I think in the old school lexicon you would say she is a firebrand. She brings a lot of energy, a lot of comedy and a lot of attitude. Laila plays her brilliantly. Ms Farooqi is a very strong personality in the school, and she has her back story of demons that she is dealing with. That’s interesting because of the character’s religion and ethnicity and how that could create huge problems within her community. I don’t think we’ve seen many storylines like that. So again it’s another great, bold storyline delivered, I feel, for the right reasons, not for sensational reasons. Laila is a warm addition to the cast and Ms Farooqi is a great character.

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Playing the headmaster do you like to go the extra mile to welcome new cast members like Laila Zaidi and new pupil Adam Little?

Listen, I will be having a laugh with most people I work with no matter who it is, whoever has come in, however long they’ve been there. But I think especially when you’ve got a young cast and lots of young supporting artists you have a responsibility to make the day fun for them and less procedural. A set like Downton is completely different to a set like Ackley Bridge. You can’t expect 100 kids, aged 15 to 18, to sit in a room and be quiet all day. I want them to come and have fun. If it’s wanted I’ll give advice about things like the potential pitfalls of social media – be careful what you do now because it lives forever. I also love it when a young kid comes in and they’re brilliant. Megan as Marina has been doing some fantastic acting. So I will tell them that. When I started out sometimes I would work with older actors and they just didn’t say anything to you. It’s your first job. You’re nervous. You need someone to put that arm around you. Sometimes I didn’t get that. So, I’ve made it my mission a little bit to let someone know, ‘You’re doing a great job. There’s a reason why you’re here and you are proving it now.’ I do like to be a self-appointed mentor and give them a bit of your experience. Whether or not they listen to it is another matter.

What is Ashley Walters like to work with as a director?

Ashley was an absolute joy, so chilled out. I had a Zoom call with him because I was working in Ireland on something else before returning to Ackley and I could just tell that he was going to be sound. He said, ‘Listen, I’m going to try to do different things. I just want everything to be as natural and as real as possible.’ He wanted to pull it back to the reality because of the strong, sensitive storylines that we’ve got this year. Ashley just had a calm on set that he exuded. He’s just a dude, man. Also whenever he gave a note, which wasn’t often, it was bang on the money. He’s an actor himself so he knows what he’s doing. But he didn’t deliver it in a way where it was patronising. He did it in a collaborative way. It was just always right what he said. It was an absolute privilege to work with him. It was also great to see someone I can identify with because – and I’m not knocking it – a lot of directors I’ve met are RP speaking, upper-middle-class. Ashley’s a sound guy and everything he gets he deserves.

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We see Martin donning casual sportswear in one scene. Is that the Jules affect, him making a bit more of an effort?

Yeah, I can imagine the scene that we didn’t see. He’s got up in his suit normally and Jules has gone, ‘What are you doing? It’s downtime. Just lose the suit, babe. I’ve bought you this tracksuit.’ It is quite bang on trend. When I wore it on set all the youngsters on the show were like, ‘Yes, I’m loving that tracksuit.’ I was rocking it. I think it took 10 years off me. So that was definitely the female influence with Jules getting him to cut loose a little bit.

And the funniest day’s filming?

Just any day we film outside when all the students are there. It’s madness. Ms Farooqi getting arrested by the police was a good one because there was a lot going on with Ken being there in the middle of it and Martin. It’s all going wrong and Ken turns up and storms off. Martin is like, ‘I can explain!’ One of his new teachers has just been arrested and put in the back of a police car. It’s tough work to just get those scenes filmed in the time that we have. That was hilarious that day.

Ken Weaver is the most po-faced of characters. Is George Potts who plays him more of a laugh?

Ken is po-faced but in a comedic way. He is such a box ticker, Ken. He is one of those people who needs everything to be followed but if there’s a chance to get positive PR for the school, he loves it. What George has brought to that role is fantastic. It’s so comedic and the writers and the producers have seen that and rewarded his performances. In real life George is hilarious. He is nothing like Ken. He’s very, very dry and very, very funny. That comes across in the way he can play comedy. A lot of Ken’s lines aren’t written that funny. It’s just the way that George delivers them. He’s got a real skill. I couldn’t do it. It’s great to have him in the show. So for all those Ken fans out there he has got a lot more screen time this year. He moves into Martin’s office for a while and there’s a lot of comedy there. It’s like having your dad at work.

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Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.