The landscape of soapland is littered with disasters, explosions and extra-marital affairs. But over the past two years, there’s one low-key plotline that’s taken the bulk of the popular and critical plaudits. The story of Ashley’s dementia on Emmerdale has regularly been moving viewers to tears – and earning the ITV soap a sideboard full of awards in the process.
“You want to make a connection with the audience. That’s what drama is for: it’s for holding out a hand to people and saying, ‘you’re not alone,’” says actor John Middleton. “Over six million people watch us six times a week – and if you can make a connection with that number of people, then that’s extraordinary. At the risk of sounding pretentious, you’ve smuggled art into a popular show.”
It’s also something that’s unique to soap, the one genre on television where you get to follow characters week in week out over years and sometimes decades. Middleton himself has been a staple part of Emmerdale since 1996, so fans have been able to see each chapter unfold, with Ashley going from local vicar and pillar of the community to a man now unable to recognise even his own wife and children. It’s been a moving and tender triumph of a storyline and one that Middleton was determined not to spoil with melodramatic excess:
“Because we’re a popular soap, we’re almost expected to be populist and to sensationalise a story and therefore cheapen it. If we’d gone down that road, it would have been a massive insult to people with this condition. So we were absolutely adamant about not doing that.
“After all, 850,000 have been diagnosed with dementia in this country alone. Extrapolate that out and there are millions of people affected – sons, daughters, wives, husbands. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that hardly a day goes by when somebody doesn’t stop me in the street to talk to me about it.
“Only yesterday, I was in Harrogate walking my dog and a chap came up to me with tears in his eyes and said that he’d found it very helpful to watch Emmerdale because his dad had this disease. It was evident that he found the experience somewhat cathartic. And that only happens when we’re getting something right and if there’s a verisimilitude to what we’re doing. Otherwise, it’d just get dismissed.”
And Emmerdale certainly hasn’t been ‘dismissed’ these past 12 months, having scooped Best Soap at the British Soap Awards and the National Television Awards for the first time, as well as a win at the Broadcast and RTS Awards. For Middleton, it’s long overdue.
“It’s enormously belated,” he says. “I work in a very conservative industry and it takes a long time for a reputation of a show like ours to turn around. It took us ages to shake off this image of agricultural Emmerdale Farm, something shown in the middle of the day that your auntie used to watch. And that’s now changed completely. For a long time, we were Cinderella at the ball and it always seemed to be a competition between Coronation Street and EastEnders. We’re now as big, if not bigger.”
It’s also been breaking the boundaries of what constitutes soap: one memorable example of the being a special episode screened last December that captured a day’s events from Ashley’s point of view. In order to portray life with dementia, many of the show’s regular characters were played by different actors, while timeframes kept slipping and changing as Ashley became increasingly confused:
“It had never been done before and we weren’t sure the audience would get it. But they did. And now that episode is being used as a training video by the Alzheimer’s Society, so that people can see how bewildering the condition can be.”
Now, though, it seems that Ashley’s days are numbered. Having contracted pneumonia after going missing from his care home, this week’s episodes will see him brought back to Mulberry Cottage by wife Laurel, so he can die among his loved ones: “On the day we filmed Ashley’s death, Charlotte [Bellamy] and I rehearsed it a few times before we did the take. And as Costume and Make-Up came on to do their checks, they were all crying. To the point where their tears were dripping down onto my face.”
But what was going through his head when the director called cut on his last scene? “It was very hard. There was this huge hit-you-over-the-head feeling of ‘that’s it. It’s done’. I’m institutionalised in ways I’m only now starting to understand. Almost 80 per cent of the time is spent having a chat with friends and I haven’t got that anymore. I keep storing up information for conversations at work and then realise that the only person I’ll be sharing that with is my dog.”
And what of life after soap? What plans does he have? “I’m an actor – I haven’t got plans, I’ve got hopes,” he laughs. “But I’ve had very good conversations with people high up at ITV. I think the work is more likely to come from there.”
For the meantime though, all eyes will be on Ashley’s death and the emotional climax to a story that Middleton hopes will now effect real change.
“My hope is that Emmerdale has at least been able to embed the issue of dementia into the public’s consciousness. We’re all guilty of looking the other way, but we ignore this at our cost. It could well happen to each and every one of us,” he says. “It’s possible that we could find a cure, but we need more money going into research to turn that possibility into a probability. The good news is that we’re all living longer, but because of that, we’re more likely to die of this disease. And there’s no point in living longer if we can’t live well.”
You can watch a 60-second rundown of next week’s episodes of Emmerdale below.
And visit our dedicated Emmerdale page for all the latest news, interviews and spoilers.