Emmerdale boss: Let’s make soaps get real again

"Do viewers feel they’re being presented, not with their favourite soap, but with a stunt-laden, half-charred, half-drowned, disaster movie? Have we forgotten about the emotionally spectacular?"

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A few months ago, I found myself in a room with the producers of the four other British TV soaps: EastEnders, Hollyoaks, Coronation Street and Doctors. This doesn’t happen very often and, knowing how these things can sometimes go when we nemeses get together, our hosts wisely withheld all alcohol and sharp objects, in the hope that blood would remain off the walls.  

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The discussion was predictably heated, as we argued (among other things) over whether the Soap Awards category for Most Spectacular Scene had had its day. You know the kind of thing: tram crashes, stately homes ablaze, even the odd fatal rooftop fall. We wondered: do viewers feel they’re being presented, not with their favourite soap, but with a stunt-laden, half-charred, half-drowned, disaster movie? Have we forgotten about the emotionally spectacular?

Then something so utterly unnatural happened that I can hardly bear to tell you about it. We all agreed. United in the belief that, sometimes, it pays to go back to character-based brass tacks (or, in Emmerdale’s case, grass roots), we stopped arguing. It was weird.

The truth is, we are all aware of the allure of the big stunt. They grab headlines, attract the casual viewer for a rise in ratings and, hopefully, tempt them to stay longer. They look great. They challenge us as a team, and demonstrate that our skill-set and ambition can rival any Hollywood film. As a result, they’ve become increasingly complex, expensive… and competitive.

And that’s part of the problem. Our rivals do them – so if we don’t at Emmerdale, do we risk getting left behind? Will we appear dated, or (worse) boring? It’s a difficult one to call. One of the nice things about having between six and nine million viewers each day is that your audience is diverse. That’s when soap works best: your auntie is engaged with one story, your kids with another, and you just wish one of the Bartons would take their shirt off again. But you’re all watching it, together. (And by “together” I mean one in front of the TV, one upstairs via their tablet, and one via catch-up two weeks later.) Everyone enjoys different aspects: while some yearn for Kitchen Sink, high octane stunts definitely appeal to certain viewers.

But it’s not just diversity of expectation that makes the debate tricky for me, and my Friendly Rivals. (I was joking about the blood on the walls. We save that for the Christmas Day episodes.) With the pressures of making six episodes of Emmerdale every week, time to reflect on what soap has become, and how it should continue to develop, is a rare luxury. I want soaps to be current; to keep pace with the increasing spectrum of multi-platform, international, visually stunning dramas (House of Cards or Breaking Bad) we enjoy alongside our daily fix. But the thought of losing the Every Day identity leaves me cold.

The bulk of my training was on The Archers, where its mantra of occasional disasters rather than as regular fare has served an audience well for 64 years. By contrast, at my first Emmerdale story conference we plotted Jackson crashing his van, being hit by a train and becoming tetraplegic. With Lynda Snell’s latest panto still fresh in my mind, I needed a lie-down… but I’ve since got into the stride. In the past two years alone, we’ve pulled off coups such as Gennie’s car crash, the Woolpack siege (a week at Pinewood in the studio usually reserved for 007), the Home Farm fire and the death of Donna at a multi-storey car park.

That roll-call is where I take comfort, because any “spectacular scenes” were earned. And that’s the key. They were part of a long-running story for a well-drawn character, showing truth and emotion, not just showing off. I’m glad we five soap producers took time for a health-check on any potential reliance on sensationalist stunts. The fact that Hayley’s death in Corrie (by her own hand after cancer) swept the board at this year’s Soap Awards matters. But as a viewer who enjoys a sprinkling of spectacle with my soap? I’ll keep my dynamite within reach, should I need it.

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Kate Oates is series producer of Emmerdale, on ITV 7pm tonight, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 7.00 and 8.00pm on Thursday