£ Soap finances are as murky as any of Phil Mitchell’s business deals and shrouded in more secrecy than Norris Cole’s age. The actors’ salaries are akin to a state secret: leaks to tabloids provoke furious mole-hunts, not least because they can reveal the huge differences in cast pay.
But what do the soaps cost to make?
The cost of making EastEnders is in the public domain, thanks to a recent National Audit Office report on the BBC’s continuing dramas. At the behest of the BBC Trust, the NAO revealed that a year’s-worth of EastEnders costs £29.9 million. At 212 episodes, that works out at £141,000 per episode — or 3.5p per viewer hour.
ITV’s costs are more difficult to ascertain, but it would be fair to say that Coronation Street has a comparable budget, with Emmerdale’s closer to £125,000 per episode. (There are 260 episodes of Coronation Street annually, though at 22 minutes, an episode of Corrie is seven minutes shorter than an episode of EastEnders.)
£ About one third of a soap’s budget goes on actors’ and writers’ wages. Writers can be paid anything between £5,000 and £12,000 per episode, depending on experience. Of EastEnders’ £29.9m annual budget, £2.9m is spent on scripts, while £6.9m is spent on paying actors, extras and chaperones for child actors.
£ Across Emmerdale, Coronation Street and EastEnders, the pay structure is the same: actors get a fee per episode, which can range from £400 to £2,000, with a guaranteed number of episodes a year (as few as 30 or as many as 100) and a repeat fee.
Salaries can therefore range from £12,000 to well over £200,000 depending on popularity. For example, a middle-ranking actor on EastEnders can get 65 episodes per year at £1,100 each. Actors playing popular characters — such as EastEnders’ Jessie Wallace, who plays Kat — get a higher fee and usually exceed their guaranteed minimum number of episodes, while actors playing less popular characters can be in danger of falling short (sometimes a warning of the axe).
When some EastEnders salaries were leaked in 2006, it was revealed that Natalie Cassidy (Sonia) was on £150,000, Cliff Parisi (Minty) was on £220,000, Barbara Windsor (Peggy) and Steve McFadden (Phil) were both on £360,000 and Wendy Richard (Pauline) £370,000. But, based on the actors appearing in every episode and including the omnibus repeat fee, these figures amounted to the maximum each could earn.
£ The main difference between ITV soaps and the BBC’s EastEnders is that actors on the latter are permitted to do less extracurricular work than their Emmerdale and Coronation Street counterparts. They aren’t allowed to exploit their onscreen persona, and must seek permission to make voiceovers and personal appearances and even to do the odd panto.
What they may not do is appear onscreen in adverts. Though Barbara Windsor was allowed to do a voiceover for Tesco ads while at EastEnders, reputedly earning her £50,000 a year, it was only after she left that she could be seen onscreen in ads for online bingo. And for that two-year, three-ad deal, she earned a tidy £500,000.
£ ITV’s soap stars are freer to supplement their income, and many do. From Antony Cotton, who plays Sean, to Paula Lane, who plays Kylie, many Weatherfield residents have opened Poundland stores, from Barrow to Penzance, for fees of £2,000 to £4,000.
In 2003, Corrie’s Tracy Shaw (Maxine Peacock) famously opened a KwikSave store in Barking, east London, and was photographed in a shopping trolley clutching a pair of melons. She was reportedly paid £5,000 for that stunt, answering the age-old question: “What price dignity?”
Soap stars don’t all get vast salaries. Some are on a modest (by celebrity standards) £40,000 — though surely not so little to sell your soul, or privacy, for. But some still flog their home, wedding, christening and holiday pictures to magazines.
The salaries must also be put in the context of soaps’ value to the broadcasters. EastEnders is priceless to the BBC, while Coronation Street brings in £50m in advertising and another £8m in sponsorship every year. Making it both exceptionally valuable and very good value.