Soaps are synonymous with Christmas Day TV, when discerning fans expect to be served the biggest episode of the year where stories peak and secrets explode. So how do the creative teams behind the most prolific of TV genres go about delivering something that doesn’t disappoint?
In an exclusive look at the essential elements that go into planning soaps’ biggest time of the year, RadioTimes.com speaks to four giants of continuing drama:
Iain MacLeod (Producer, Coronation Street, who has also produced Emmerdale and worked at Hollyoaks), Bryan Kirkwood (Hollyoaks’ executive producer and former executive producer at EastEnders, who started his career on Coronation Street). Jon Sen (EastEnders’ executive producer) and Kate Oates (BBC’s Head of Continuing Drama who has helmed EastEnders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale).
EastEnders ensured soaps became a festive schedule cornerstone back in 1986. The iconic moment when Den Watts served wife Angie divorce papers as revenge for her faking a terminal illness (to stop him from leaving her for another woman) is still one of the highest-rated TV moments of all time, delivering a payoff of a long-running storyline that had captivated the nation.
“Den and Angie wrote the rules,” acknowledges MacLeod. “Since then people have been trying to achieve that impact with Christmas episode – it’s still the holy grail.”
“EastEnders is up there with all the great Christmas traditions of sprouts and family annihilation,” laughs Oates. “We are aware the show needs to be really strong at that time.”
Thanks to Angie and Den, soaps’ creative teams are all too aware of fans’ sky-high expectations come 25th December for twists, turns and high drama.
“The pressure is extraordinary on the EastEnders team to deliver at Christmas,” recalls Kirkwood. “All the eggs are put in that festive season basket. There was a feeling of dread when I was there when we found out we would be up against ITV’s first Downton Abbey Christmas special.”
Oates acknowledges the burden of expectation, but sees it as coming from within to ensure the show is top if its game. “I think we put pressure on ourselves as it is such a tradition for the audience. The channel is incredibly supportive and want to facilitate us to give our best.”
“EastEnders tend to prioritise Christmas Day and time big story peaks to land there,” says MacLeod. “On any soap you certainly don’t think of it as just another episode.”
Does that mean EastEnders feels the weight more than the others? “I’d say there’s slightly less pressure on Emmerdale, which is why I did the slightly bonkers Robert Sugden Christmas Carol episode in 2017. Corrie normally has to feel fluffy and cosy and to some extent we conformed to that the last few years. For 2019 we’re trying something huge and different with the siege.”
Soaps are obviously planned very far in advance, with storylines usually pinned down six months ahead of what’s on screen. Is it hard to imagine Christmas trees and turkey dinners when holed up in a conference room during a summer heatwave?
“When we were planning the Christmas storylines this year the Wimbledon finals were on,” says Oates. “That felt a bit weird!”
“It extends the Christmas period in a way as you plan it in summer and shoot it in autumn, so the set is dressed with festive decorations before they go up in the shops,” comments Kirkwood. “It does become discombobulating.”
“There is a method approach to storylining Christmas,” reveals MacLeod. “We’ve put decorations up and had festive music playing in the office which helps, it’s like the equivalent of a footballer having lucky pants, but is not beneficial to your level of sanity. People hear me humming Jingle Bells when I’m making a cuppa in the height of summer and think I’ve lost my marbles!”
Sen fully embraces this tactic to get the team in the mood: “We all wear Christmas hats and it’s the middle of July, but it gets you in the spirit. You’ve got to feel Christmassy, haven’t you?”
The captive audience
With most of the country slouched in front of the telly from the minute they polish off the last mouthful of Christmas pudding, soaps can reach an even bigger audience than they do for the rest of the year, as MacLeod points out.
“You definitely get more casual viewers who are basically forced to watch it because other members of their family do! It’s an opportunity to catch intermittent, or non-soap viewers and intrigue them with something to tempt them back. I suppose there is a bit of added pressure in that but we don’t try and think too strategically generally we just try and tell the best stories.”
“Hollyoaks is at a slight disadvantage as we’re out of our normal slot and don’t transmit Christmas Day or New Year’s Day,” explains Kirkwood, “but we have the fantastic platform of having two double episodes across the fortnight and are thrilled we’ve been able to release them early as part of a Christmas and New Year boxset on All4, which is a first for any UK soap.
“All soap fans deserve special surprises at Christmas, and even though we don’t air on the day itself Hollyoaks works hard to give our audience a big festive treat during the period.”
The next one
The moving train of soap narrative means the teams are always looking to the future, and an old adage dictates next Christmas should already be broadly mapped out as the current one is signed off.
“We kind of broadly know on Corrie,” says MacLeod, “but not the specific content of the episode. It’s harder to work like that now we make so many episodes. It is helpful to have a vague idea about next Christmas so you don’t repeat yourself, but I’d be surprised of any of the producers know with any high level of detail exactly what Christmas Day 2020 will already look like.”
It will probably be full of the usual arguments, deceit and misery – which is just what every soap fan wants…