Jo Joyner: 'I wanted to ask why my character is so driven... now I know'
It scored top marks last year and now lessons are resuming at Ackley Bridge as the school drama returns for a new term.
When Jo Joyner upped sticks and waved goodbye to Walford in 2013, she did so with family in mind. The former EastEnders star, who'd played fan favourite Tanya Branning for a total of seven years, had made the decision to set aside her soap star status in order to concentrate on home life, starting with a move to the countryside.
"In years to come, I wouldn't be going, 'Ooh, great, I've got lots more money in the bank', I would be saying, 'Wow, where did my children go?'" she reportedly said at the time of what might have been had she stayed on the soap.
Fast-forward five years and, while the London-born actress has relocated to the leafy market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, her flourishing career has showed little sign of slowing.
The mother of twins Freddie and Edie Rose (8) has gone on to star in the likes of Ordinary Lies, Marley's Ghosts, Porters and Shakespeare & Hathaway, to name but a few. She has even reprised the role of Tanya on some short-lived occasions - EastEnders' 30th birthday and on Christmas Day - much to her fans' delight.
Reflecting on whether she's working more than she intended, Joyner (41) confesses: "A little bit. I am. But you know what? You'll never hear an actor say it, will you? I said it to my husband the other day. I said, 'I just want to come home' and he went, 'You're not allowed to say it' and I went, 'I know, I know I shouldn't'."
She adds: "I'm really lucky and they're all lovely jobs. But I think maybe next year I might have a bit more of a pause."
Today, she's on set filming for Channel 4's critically acclaimed series, Ackley Bridge. Back for a second term and a bumper 12 episodes, the high school drama, set in the a fictional Yorkshire town, will once again follow the trials and tribulations at an academy made up from two formerly isolated comprehensives situated amidst a largely divided white and Asian population.
Joyner will reprise her role as driven head teacher Mandy Carter and other regular characters will return, too, including Steve Bell (played by Paul Nicholls), Missy (Poppy Lee Friar), Nas (Amy-Leigh Hickman), Emma (Liz White), Kameez (Sunetra Sarker) and Sadiq (Adil Ray).
How has she enjoyed her time back in the power suits?
"Good. We're doing twice as much this year, which is great, because we're getting to really look at lots of other characters and go into their stories. It's always nice to get a chance to go back after a first series, because by then everyone has a better idea about what they're making, who they're playing and you get a second chance to put your stamp on it."
For those in need of an update, we last saw working-class-girl-made-good Mandy in a world of bother, as her professional and personal life collided after her affair with Sadiq was made public.
This time around, viewers will get more of an insight into who Mandy was before embarking on her career in education.
"I remember saying to (the writers) last year, before we came back, 'I'd really like to know why she's so driven and why education means so much to her'. So, that's exactly what they've done.
"They've looked at that and they've looked at where she's come from and how hard she's worked to get out of her own home environment, which wasn't particularly fabulous. It reasons as to why she has a soft spot for these troubled kids - and also why she doesn't accept excuses from them."
Education is simply a means of escape for her character, Joyner expands.
"She can appear quite fierce and has really high expectations of her students, which might look a little bit unsympathetic up until this point. So, it's nice to understand why she's marching about giving everyone orders and give it a bit more depth."
Then there's the representation of diversity in Ackley Bridge - a theme that struck a chord among the cast from the get-go.
"It's one of the reasons we all wanted to be involved," Joyner admits. "It's definitely of the climate; it's certainly a time when we need a bit more understanding, to find the things we all have in common and to learn a bit more about different cultures.
"What's lovely about this and being able to go back and do it again, is we can be more confident about focusing on the Asian families. We can know that the audience are happy to go in and watch episodes that are predominantly Asian, rather than white. You're not being so careful about this appeasement, because our characters are so great."
Ackley Bridge, Channel 4, Tuesday, 8pm