We only ever talk when you’re holding people captive, I say to Chris Bisson. He’s on the phone line from the Emmerdale studios in Leeds and I’ve made this my opening gambit, mainly to make heads turn here in the Radio Times office. But he takes it in good part.
“Well, this is part two of Jai’s caging fetish,” Bisson laughs, referring to the fact that the last time we spoke back in October, his character was holding ex-wife Charity prisoner in a shipping container. Those who’ve been watching Emmerdale this week know that scheming sweetie magnate Jai Sharma has been up to his old tricks again, locking Rachel Breckle in a freezer until she did his bidding.
A couple of despicable acts there, to be sure, but such scenes have to be more fun than just barking orders at his cowed employees at the factory, right?
“Definitely. I’m glad they’ve made him nastier” he agrees. “For a while, it seemed I had lots of scenes where I was shouting and telling people off. And that got tiring. Now, it’s taken a darker turn and he’s become more manipulative. I actually feel like I’ve got some of Emma Atkins’s lines, now that she’s not on the show at the moment. The stuff I’ve been shooting has certainly ramped up the rhetoric.”
Indeed, Jai does now seem to have morphed into a JR Ewing of the Dales, a bon-bon baron rather than an oil baron maybe, but no less conniving and slippery. I can even remember a Dallas plotline in which JR tried to wrest custody of his son away from Sue Ellen – a battle that mirrors Jai’s own current fight. Perhaps he should watch some old episodes for tips?
“I’ll take the JR comparisons all day long,” he says. “I like Jai as a villain, but I don’t think he’s out-and-out bad. He does have some redeemable qualities, even if they are thin on the ground.”
Thin to the point of transparency at the moment thanks to an upcoming plotline that will see Jai scheme to get Rachel arrested for assault as he grows increasingly determined to get full control of son Archie’s life. “Jai’s never liked Rachel, let’s be fair. He thinks he’d be much better off with her out of his life. In fact, at one point he even calls her ‘scum’. Jai’s definitely losing some of his class!”
And with actress Gemma Oaten – who plays Rachel – set to leave Emmerdale later this year, surely Bisson knows who will win this particular power struggle? “I honestly don’t know how it’s going to end,” he protests. “The only thing I suspect is that it’s not going to end well for Jai. I think that’s fair to say. He’s being so nasty and you can only get away with it for so long on a soap before you’re brought back down to earth.”
But Jai shows little sign of being stymied just yet, in fact he looks set to mix villainy with infidelity when he’s tempted by Leyla. A recent promo shot of the cast looking poised and preppy hinted at love triangles over the summer months, so will Jai end up reigniting his affair with Leyla behind Megan’s back?
“I think we’ve always wondered why Jai was with Megan,” admits Bisson. “It looked like a marriage of convenience on many levels. First of all, it was Megan and Jai versus Declan and Charity. Then it became convenient for Jai to be married to push his custody agenda with Archie. But there’s always going to be temptation on Jai’s part where Leyla is concerned. The bottom line is that he can’t resist her. But there is something genuine between Leyla and Jai and we will see that play out.”
But surely all this lying, cheating and manipulating is a worry? Soaps exist in a very moral universe and villains often have a shelf life. Carl King, Cameron Murray and Declan Macey have all exited in recent years after their actions tipped over into lunacy. So I ask Bisson if he’s concerned about being written out should Jai become too infamous?
“I think there’s a clear distinction between an actual murderous villain and the JR Ewings, Mike Baldwins and Cain Dingles of the soaps,” he says. And he has a point. After all, where would these shows be without the backstabbers we love to hate?
And then he finishes by displaying a canny sense of how to succeed in soapland: “You always need people who are going to mix things up. So long as people have an opinion on the character, then that’s a good thing. Whether they like or dislike you. When you’re on the middle ground – that’s when you’re vulnerable!”
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