“It’s so important to get out of places like London, so you realise the world doesn’t revolve around people in London.”
That’s the message from Ackley Bridge director Penny Woolcock ahead of the show hitting screens next week (June 7).
As well as Halifax providing the backdrop for the show - the former St Catherine’s High School in Holmfield was transformed into Ackley Bridge College - people from in and around the area were also scouted to appear in the series.
“I think it’s so important not to just parachute into a community and tell people to shut up on their own streets, do your own thing and vanish,” Penny said.
“All of the supporting artists in the school come from local schools, and there are about eight speaking parts played by kids who we found by holding a lot of auditions.
“We did street castings, went to boxing clubs and youth clubs and schools and playgrounds, and literally sometimes met people in the street and asked them to come in for an audition.
She added: “I think it’s the right way to work, it’s an ethos that I really believe in, so the community feels it has something invested in the show.
“But also, I think it gives it a feeling of authenticity that you wouldn’t get if you were shipping in a whole lot of kids from drama school. And by going into the community and speaking to people on the ground, you learn a lot more about the world you’re trying to portray.”
For Penny, taking the show out of a city setting like London was an important way to “reflect the fact that most people live in provincial towns far away from the metropolis”.
Speaking about how she found filming in Halifax, she said: “There have been periods when I’ve filmed things, like Tina Goes Shopping, when people on the estate were very suspicious and thought I was working for the police, and wouldn’t speak to me.
“But that didn’t happen in Halifax, everyone was very welcoming. We didn’t have any aggro whatsoever, it was remarkable.
“I think it’s partly because we did the groundwork, we didn’t just show up.
“We went round and spoke to people and explained what was going on. And we’d get local people involved – for example, the street that Missy and Nas live on, a lot of the extras are the people who live on that street. That really changes how people feel about filming.”
It’s the first time Penny has directed a series. She usually works single dramas and documentaries which are shown after the watershed, while Ackley Bridge will fill Channel 4’s 8pm slot on a Wednesday.
But after reading an early version of episode one she said “she had to do it” because of its focus on issues surrounding race and class.
She said: “...It felt like an opportunity to have almost 50 per cent Muslim characters, and not a single one of them is a terrorist. I guess that was the big inducement to me.
“I was speaking to the actors who came up for the parts, and all of the men said that the only thing they ever get offered is extreme fundamentalists about to embark on violent acts.
“And that simply isn’t true, and I think it’s causing a lot of problems. So doing something that shows that Muslims are just people seemed great – if there was ever a time where we needed to do that, this is it.”