by Louise Gannon
She left EastEnders at the height of her popularity as scene-stealing Tanya to bring more balance to her life. Now JO JOYNER is set to stir up more controversy in gritty new school drama Ackley Bridge. She tells Louise Gannon why taking risks is in her DNA.
Jo Joyner is a firm believer in taking risks. As a teenager she took a gamble to follow her dreams of becoming an actress and then, having secured a career-making role in EastEnders, she walked away from the show at the height of her fame.
Now she is about to star in a new Channel 4 series, Ackley Bridge, as a tough, career-driven headteacher, tasked with merging two divided communities – Asian and working-class British – into one ground-breaking academy school in a fictional northern town, Ackley Bridge. ‘I’ve never felt more committed to a part,’ Jo says. ‘It’s real, it’s relevant; it’s about living in Britain today and celebrating all the cultures that make up this country. I absolutely love it.’
It is, however, a world away from the role that made Jo, 40, one of the most popular stars of the small screen. As beauty-salon owner Tanya Branning in EastEnders she made an indelible mark, lurching from one high-octane crisis to the next – including divorce, cervical cancer, near-bigamy (she was about to walk down the aisle when she discovered her fiancé was still married) and an affair with her husband’s brother Jack, played by Scott Maslen. ‘EastEnders was always nonstop,’ she says. ‘I loved being part of it.’
In her seven years in Albert Square, Jo garnered four television awards and was caught up in the criticism that hit the BBC over the storyline in which she drugged her cheating husband Max Branning (played by Strictly Come Dancing semifinalist Jake Woods) and attempted to bury him alive with the help of her lover Sean Slater (Robert Kazinsky).
Even after Jo left the series in 2013 (and a one-off return in 2015), die-hard viewers have refused to believe that the whirlwind that was Tanya will not return. Then in February, Jo sent social media into overdrive with a cryptic tweet to a fan who had told her he missed her on the show. She replied: ‘I miss them all too! But I’m up north filming at the moment. I’ll tell more when I’m able.’
Her tweet was met with an onslaught of media speculation that she was on her way back to the Square. ‘That was all my fault,’ she says. ‘There had been a mention of Tanya from some of the other characters on the show and my Twitter feed was full of messages from fans thinking it might mean something. I was in the midst of filming Ackley Bridge but couldn’t say at that point so I posted something cryptic and the whole thing blew up in my face.’
By Jo’s side as we talk is a small suitcase, and I can’t help wondering whether she is ready to start packing for a return to Albert Square now. She sips her tea and raises an eyebrow.
She is not, then, about to return? Jo shakes her head. ‘I am not.’ She has moved on. Since leaving EastEnders she has appeared in TV programmes from Sky’s Mount Pleasant and Trying Again to the BBC’s The Interceptor and Ordinary Lies. Plus, Jo is happily settled in the Warwickshire village where she grew up, which she moved to so that her seven-year-old twins Freddie and Edie could go to the school their mother went to as a child.
Whereas Tanya’s life was all about chaos and crisis, Jo’s is all about the calming pleasures of country life: gardening, cooking and hanging out with her family, including parents Peter and Anne and elder brother Dan, who together run First Line, a company that supplies components to the car industry worldwide.
As an actress Jo has spread her wings to take on a whole new series of issues. In Ackley Bridge, she is going from the sharp end of kitchen-sink drama to a politically controversial series about the nature of modern schooling, culture clashes and racial integration.
Made by the creators of the phenomenally successful Shameless, the show – which was filmed in Halifax – was made using scores of local teenagers, many of whom had never acted before.
‘It was an amazing atmosphere,’ Jo says. ‘We were completely immersed in the community and that made the project very special. It’s about schools, kids, families and relationships, and it represents Asian culture in an entirely natural way, using a mix of British and Asian teenagers’ slang. The issue of integration feels really important in this country right now.
‘Before I started working on Ackley Bridge, my mum became involved in a community group that is a sort of knit-and-natter, with local women integrating with Pakistani women through chats and cups of tea. It was something I spoke to my mum about before I took the role.’
In the six-part series, Jo plays super-head Mandy Carter, whose determination to make a success of Ackley Bridge Academy puts an unbearable strain on her marriage to PE teacher Steve Bell (played by fellow former EastEnder Paul Nicholls). Mandy has no desire to have children of her own, opting to deal only with the issues caused by the several hundred schoolchildren in her care.
For Jo, who is married to drama teacher Neil Madden, the idea of not having children was ‘never an option. I was fending off broodiness at the age of 16. Neil and I got together when I was 25 and when we were 28 we started trying for a family. But it didn’t happen.’
Within three years, Jo and Neil made the decision to go for IVF. ‘We tried everything – acupuncture, fertility diets, reflexology, but nothing worked. We had tests and knew there was a slim chance anything [natural] would work, and that was when we made the decision to try IVF.’
At the time Jo was also spending long hours working on gruelling scenes for EastEnders, including Max’s burial, which was filmed at 3am in the freezing cold, leaving Jo terrified that she was ‘putting myself through something so stressful that my body wouldn’t take to the IVF’.
She and Neil had made an agreement that they would try three attempts and then, if none worked, look into adoption. ‘I have always been very clear about what I want,’ Jo says. ‘I wanted kids and I had a plan, but in a way that makes me understand Mandy more because she knows that she doesn’t want kids and her plan is to get on in her career. We went into IVF with a plan. I researched everything: I also understood that IVF is a business, with different clinics offering different options. I knew that I wanted to go for a short protocol treatment.’
In IVF a long protocol treatment involves daily injections of a medication to shut off ovarian function, followed by follicle-stimulating hormones that can produce around 15 eggs. Short protocol treatment involves lower dosages of the medication over a shorter period of time (and is often deemed a less failsafe option).
‘I’m a control freak and I knew the symptoms would be less extreme,’ Jo says. ‘You produce fewer eggs with short protocol treatment but as you don’t go into a sort of menopause you don’t have such extreme emotions and for me it just felt the better way to go. Incredibly, it worked first time. From that point on my whole focus changed.’
Jo continued to work on EastEnders until Freddie and Edie were three, but it is clear as she talks that it was not an easy decision: ‘When I was pregnant with the twins I’d be doing scenes where I was shouting and screaming, rowing with whoever was my partner at the time, going at it nonstop because that was my character. It was difficult. As an actress you want to give everything to the part, but as a woman I was pregnant. I had these two little lives inside me and I was horribly aware that on some level they would be conscious of the screaming. I’d go off in my breaks and talk to my bump and tell them this wasn’t me and they had a mummy and daddy who loved them. I’d try to keep things calm, but with Tanya that wasn’t possible.’
Jo’s decision to leave her well-paid, high-profile part on the show was entirely tied into her desire to have a more balanced home life, as well as to avoid being typecast. ‘Leaving a huge show is always a massive decision,’ she says, ‘but it had become too much. I felt I wasn’t doing a good job in any part of my life and I needed to make some big changes, get balance in my life.’
She pauses and smiles. ‘But there’s always the thought that I could go back. The really huge EastEnders fans know that when people leave for good they play a slowed down, more classical version of the theme tune, which is known as “Julia’s Theme”, after one of the show’s creators Julia Smith. They didn’t play it during my last episode and I remember thinking, “Why didn’t they play ‘Julia’s Theme’?” It’s something the fans talk about and is why they think I’m coming back.’ Clearly the producers were keen to leave the door open for Jo to return at any time.
It is, as she admits, a risk for an actress to ditch a career-making role. Fortunately, Jo is known for her versatility. She has starred in period drama (North & South), won a Rose d’Or award in 2006 for Best Female Comedy Performer for the Channel 5 sketch show Swinging, battled the Daleks in Doctor Who as 200100 Big Brother contestant Lynda Moss (they eventually killed her) and – bar Tanya – is often recognised as money-grabbing nurse Beth from the Channel 4 comedy-drama No Angels.
Jo laughs as she recounts how she turned down the opportunity to shadow a real-life super-head for Ackley Bridge thanks to her experience with Beth. ‘When I was preparing to play Beth I spent a week shadowing a young NHS nurse,’ she says. ‘I was with this really gorgeous girl who was so devoted to her job, so wonderful with the patients and so completely professional. When I left her she told me she was looking forward to seeing me on the show, and then I discovered that Beth was this lazy, careless little baggage who didn’t give a monkey’s about her patients. All I could think of was what on earth that lovely nurse was thinking.
‘I know a few teachers and a family friend is a well-respected head, but I decided to go with the script. As an actress you don’t have much control of what the character is like and I’d hate anyone to think it was me basing it on them.’
Jo is good company. She talks easily about her drive and the solutions she came up with to juggle work and motherhood, and her firm belief in equality, which makes her refuse to fall into a trap of body anxiety. ‘I don’t worry about my weight,’ she says. ‘I’m not into stressing about how I look. I’ve never worked with an actor who has talked about how he should be thinner, so I don’t see why I should put that on myself. I’d hate to think the parts I get are based entirely on my looks. Hopefully it’s about my talent, not my dress size.’
Her position as the main breadwinner is a pragmatic one. ‘When the kids were tiny Neil [then an actor who appeared in Silent Witness, Heartbeat and Doctors] became a stay-at-home dad,’ she says. ‘That’s what made it work for us. I had a good job so he didn’t need to work and I didn’t have to worry about who was with my babies.
‘As they got older things changed. After leaving EastEnders and deciding to move out of London, I adapted my schedule. Now I work for six months, then take six months off to be a school-run mum. Neil retrained as a drama teacher and I turn down work so I can be with my family.
‘It can be hard to turn down jobs. You could make more money, you miss out on opportunities, but I’d rather have that time with my kids and my husband. I had IVF because I wanted to be a mother and I am lucky to be able to have that time with my children.’ Is it a risk as an actress to have a six-month-on, six-month-off policy? She nods. ‘Everything about being an actress is a risk, but I love what I do and I’m not frightened of risks. I never have been.’
Jo’s is an attitude that comes from her parents (her dad is self-made: he set up his own company after working in the auto industry for decades) and the fact that she grew up in the recession of the 1980s. ‘I remember lots of dads losing their jobs because of the recession,’ she says. ‘It made me think there was no such thing as a job for life, so it was worth the risk of following your dream – which, for me, was becoming an actress.’
After graduating from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (where she met Neil) in 1999, Jo worked in theatre and television before winning the part on EastEnders. ‘As a graduate I did house painting to make money while I went for auditions,’ she says. ‘I always believed it would happen. If you believe in what you do, things will work out.’
As her children have grown older, they have become used to their mother packing her trusty suitcase and leaving for work. ‘I never do more than a few days away and I always try to bring them with me on set,’ she says. ‘But the most important thing I have learnt is to let them see that I’m happy to be going to work. I hate leaving them, but if they thought I was unhappy it would send out the wrong message. It’s something another actress told me when the twins were babies and is very good advice.’
Last month Jo turned 40. When playing Tanya she says she always worried that all the screaming and frowning would ‘make me need Botox’, but ‘thank God she didn’t make her mark,’ she laughs. ‘I have a great husband, a lovely family, beautiful kids and a job I love. No life is perfect but I have a lot of boxes ticked and I’ll take that and be very happy. Life is good.’ Tanya Branning, take note.
JUST FOR JO
WHAT DO YOU HAVE FOR BREAKFAST? Granola and yoghurt or avocado, chilli, lime and a poached egg.
LAST BOOK YOU READ? Amy Schumer’s The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo.
ON YOUR IPOD Bruno Mars.
THE SECRET TO A HAPPY RELATIONSHIP? Talking, laughing, sex.
MOST TREASURED POSSESSION My house.
IN THREE WORDS YOU’RE… Thoughtful, talkative, happy.
WHO WOULD PLAY YOU IN A FILM OF YOUR LIFE? Lorna Fitzgerald, who played my daughter in EastEnders.
STARSTRUCK MOMENT Stephen Fry congratulating me on winning my Rose d’Or.
RECURRING DREAM? I’m in the wings of a theatre, holding the complete works of Shakespeare, about to go on stage and find out what play I’m in.
CAN’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT… My suitcase.
SECRET AMBITION To do more costume drama.
MOTTO Who dares wins.
TELL US A SECRET I love Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time.
Ackley Bridge will be on Channel 4 on Wednesday at 8pm
Styling: Alex Reid at Frank Agency. Make-up: Michelle Campbell at Frank Agency using Mac cosmetics. Hair: Heath Massi at Frank Agency using Schwarzkopf got2b