Emmerdale 40th anniversary: "There's an element of insanity about it"

Series producer Stuart Blackburn talks to David Brown about the changing face of the soap and the pressures of going out live

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Emmerdale 40th anniversary: "There's an element of insanity about it"
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David Brown

When you look back at the first-ever episode, do you recognise it as the same show?
Yes and no. I’ve always said that the most important and central character of this show is the village and the location. And it sounds pat, but I genuinely mean it. It’s a location that I’m really proud of and it’s what makes Emmerdale unique among its peers. 

Stylistically though, it’s worlds apart. It’s a different universe. Every single part of that creative process is light-years away from what it was – the pace, the look of it and the nature of the storytelling. 

For about ten minutes, it’s just Jack Sugden walking round an empty farmyard. If you did that today people would be switching over to The One Show in droves, wouldn’t they?
Absolutely. But what was unique at the time was this rural idyll and it did draw viewers in. That kind of landscape wasn’t on mainstream television at that time. There’s a real gentility to it, but that’s not for audiences today at all. 

So when did it change? Was it when Phil Redmond was brought in to drop a plane on the village in 1993?
That was the catalyst. The plane crash was where things really started to rev up in terms of storytelling and the pace and the sexiness. I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing anyone who was in charge before, but for the show to have existed for 40 years, it had to evolve. ITV isn’t stupid – they don’t keep anything on air that’s dead in the water. 

The other key period of change was when my predecessor Gavin Blyth took over [Blyth was Emmerdale producer from March 2009 until his death from cancer in November 2010]. He started to look again at the show and think about its relevance, what it was that’s unique about it and how it related to the 21st century. 

Just because it’s set in the countryside doesn’t mean that the concerns and problems are any different to those in an urban environment. In fact, sometimes they’re magnified. If you think about Aaron’s ‘coming out’ story – it’s possibly easier for a young lad in the centre of Manchester knowing that there’s a massive gay community and plenty of role models. For a character like Aaron, there are none. 

So for me, the show is now as relevant and modern as any on television. Making it so has been the real mission these last two or three years. 

But in the process do you feel you have to make it more sexy and deadly?
Well, what it can’t be is indulgent. The days where it was enough to open with a long, lingering look at the hills are long gone. Having said that, Cain Dingle standing in the middle of a moor when it’s thundering and raining gives us drama that no other show can give. So it’s all about using what we’ve got, but using it dramatically. 

In terms of the 40th anniversary week, yes, it’s going to go at a frenetic pace, but it isn’t about sexing it up or chucking everything in bar the kitchen sink. It’s about making it different from the other live episodes that there have been [both Coronation Street and EastEnders have done live specials in recent years]. So that meant I wanted to stay well away from stunts and huge set pieces. 

For me, it’s about trying to encapsulate, in one week of television, the entire soap experience. And what soaps do best is reflect life: the births, marriages and deaths. It sounds very grand and pompous, but it’s what we’re aiming for. These are the key things that we hang our collective memories around, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to look at the whole of human life. And to see if we can dramatise it in one powerful, and hopefully honest, week of drama. 

Plus fans of soaps are always heavily invested in the characters, so a week like this always has a built-in drama, don’t you think?
Absolutely. We’re part of millions of people’s lives and rituals. They’re the ones who own it. So soaps can absolutely look at these key experiences and tell great stories. And yes, we’re soaps. But there’s no reason why we can’t aspire to be the best dramas on television as well. 

Is there always a danger though that, because you’re in five nights a week, you burn through storylines too quickly and the audience ends up thinking of Emmerdale as too dramatic?
That’s the alchemy of soap that we’re all trying to find. The pacing is incredibly difficult and there’s a constant tension because there are so many entertainment choices nowadays. What’s imperative is that, at the end of every episode, there’s got to be a “what’s next?” moment. 

The danger is that you over-sensationalise it so much that an audience stops recognising themselves in it. You don’t want them saying to themselves: “oh, they’re only doing that because they think we’ll come back and watch” or “that wouldn’t really happen”. 

So it’s finding that balance between genuine dramatic hooks that make people want to come back and avoiding going so over the top that people think it’s gone silly. 

Are soap audiences cannier today than they’ve ever been before?
They can spot it if they’re being manipulated. And there’s so much hype and publicity about soaps now – the invisible soap gods who pull the strings are now very visible. So yes, people do understand the storylining process to an extent and they know what you can’t do. 

From my point of view, if I don’t believe it, then I don’t want it going on the page, and I certainly don’t want to see it on screen. Because if I don’t believe it, my mam won’t. And if my mam won’t, then she’ll be really upset with me. 

Most Emmerdale viewers have been attached to this show longer than I have been or will be. Their sense of ownership is really powerful. Take liberties with a story for a cheap gimmick and they will see it coming a mile off. And they’ll punish you by turning off. 

How long have these 40thanniversary episodes been in the planning?
Twelve months in terms of production because we knew the number of episodes we had to shoot in order to have two weeks clear. We also knew that the stories leading up to it has to be paced properly and have integrity or the rest of the year would suffer. 

I mean, wouldn’t it have been good if the Ashley and Sandy elder abuse story, that searing piece of social realism, could have broken in the 40th anniversary week? It would have been a real statement of intent, saying, “yes, we’re fun, we’re warm, but by God we’re dramatic as well”. It was tempting, but it would have stretched the story and ruined it. 

So, with the whole of the live episode unfolding on location in the village, are there any contingency plans in case of bad weather?
There are none. We’re going out live for an hour, in a field, on a hill, in Yorkshire, in October, at night. There’s an element of insanity about it. 

But our crew and cast work in these conditions day in and day out, so I’ve got complete and utter faith in them. Obviously, it’d be nice to avoid a semi-hurricane, though. There was a point where we were going to bring in a storm machine because the village is at its best when it’s dark and raining and the lights are flickering in the background. It’s stunning. But then we thought that it might be tempting fate a little bit too much. 

And, obviously, you’re not going to tell me who dies in the episode, but who should we be keeping our eye on?
Chas. Keep your eye on Chas. Chas and Dan, actually. Keep your eye on those two.

The live episode of Emmerdale airs on Wednesday 17 October at 7pm on ITV1

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