A live episode has become a fashionable soap anniversary present, a gift to fans, the equivalent of a steak dinner and a romantic mini-break. It’s Emmerdale’s 40th this week (tonight 7pm ITV1), so maybe we can all get a bit tiddly on a couple of glasses of Harveys Bristol Cream, too.
Over the years I have struggled to like Emmerdale, even when I wrote the soap column for Radio Times. Maybe I was haunted by the memories of when it was on at lunchtime, was called Emmerdale Farm and featured a woman in a pinny. My mum was a fan, until it went all modern and weird.
Even working in Leeds near Emmerdale’s location never stirred my girlish heart, I never visited the set with a teddy bear for my favourite character. But in fairness 40 years is a notable landmark, and it was time to take another look. So I got comfy in my dressing gown and slippers and watched a recent Saturday-morning omnibus. I came away feeling as if I’d been coshed. What an emotionally illiterate, misanthropic view of humanity. I know this is common to all soaps, but there’s something particularly bleak about Emmerdale, everyone grasping and hard-done by, whinging, moaning and lying and everything conducted at high volume, like teenagers shouting at one another on the top deck of a bus.
You’d think its rural setting would maybe cheer everyone up just a little bit; after a soap slanging match there are surely opportunities for characters to get out into the fresh air to think things over while giving the audience the chance to see some fields, and perhaps a country pathway. But no, it's just a lot of pained-looking people having arguments in a succession of living rooms. It’s Hogarthian, but with better sofas. I know it has to be churned out five nights a week, an unenviable task, but does the dialogue have to be so deadly? Here’s an example from that omnibus: “Selfish cow”; “Hard-faced cow”, “Tragic slapper”; and, my favourite, “Even though I can’t stand ya, ya still me mam.” Oh, and everyone was “gutted”. I HATE that word.
I need to know why people watch this stuff. It can’t be a yearning for rural escapism, surely, because there’s hardly a glimpse of a tree. It could be any soap set anywhere, so why do episodes get audiences of six million or so? Emmerdale routinely figures in RT audience’s top 20, but very low down, well below Coronation Street and EastEnders. Maybe it’s habit? Is it switched on because people need something to watch at tea-time? Maybe it’s gratifying to see people living somewhere pretty yet STILL having miserable lives?
I have a soap habit. I listen to The Archers, which is currently in one of its hectoring and didactic phases (Mike and Vicky Tucker are expecting a baby with Down’s syndrome), so it’s like reading the posters in a doctor’s waiting room while being shouted at by a self-righteous receptionist. But I still feel it‘s escapism - that notion of a small rural community with people chatting in the village shop or organising the Christmas show in the village hall.
But Emmerdale? Surely you want to escape from it, rather than to it?
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