Soaps are back in business, proving they are still TV’s most enduring format

Emmerdale's lockdown episodes remind us how soaps cope in a crisis, says Johnathon Hughes.

Emmerdale BTS lockdown

Today we found out that Emmerdale are the first UK soap to resume filming after lockdown, with six new episodes in production as part of a phased return focusing on characters coping in isolation.

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New measures are in place at the programme’s Leeds studios to ensure safety of cast and crew, with strict social distancing protocols forcing the soap to find new ways to carry on – while continuing to tell compelling stories. Was there ever any doubt they’d rise to this challenge?

Much like the characters whose lives they portray, soaps as a format are tough, resilient and can handle any crisis thrown at them year after year.

While the coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly an unprecedented situation, forcing our continuing dramas to unexpectedly pause production for the first time in decades, ITV’s announcement proves the soaps can adapt, keep calm and carry on.

Producing up to six new half-hour episodes on a weekly basis means the hard-working production teams are used to delivering the equivalent of a feature film every seven days in terms of content length.

Sometimes, things go wrong, and the machine must grind to a halt and regroup: an actor might get sick or be suddenly sacked, usually at the most inconvenient point of their alter ego having a big storyline, necessitating frantic last-minute rewrites, or a story might be too close to home to a real-life event and has to be ripped up and rethought. Location filming can be scuppered by the elements, and any number of external forces may interrupt the well-oiled production model. But there they are, regular as clockwork in the normal time slot.

emmerdale

Such is the genius of the teams making soaps, it’s taken the first pandemic in 100 years to knock them off course for a few months. But if any genre can surmount a mountain of unforeseen logistics and government workplace restrictions, it’s our soaps.

They remain incredibly important to audiences, who regard them as members of the family or close friends they’ve grown up alongside and shared their lives with. Hence their place in the network’s hearts as they are consistent ratings-winners – BBC and ITV have directly referenced EastEnders and Corrie in discussions on bringing back programmes disrupted by the lockdown, and they even got a mention in a Downing Street briefing this week by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (he’s clearly worried about Yasmeen and Geoff).

In an ever-changing landscape of stylistic dramas trying to outdo each other with experimental genre-bending, soaps aren’t averse to the odd flash-forward, flashback and point of view episode to mix it up a bit and compete with the shiny streaming TV hits.

Emmerdale, along with the rest of the soaps including radio drama The Archers, confirm they will acknowledge the pandemic from now on, while not foregrounding it at the expense of the character-based drama. But episodes taking place in lockdown and the impact on our beloved village residents will hold up a mirror to loyal fans, and may help them make sense of the world’s ‘new normal’.

Coronavirus is the biggest issue soaps have ever faced, on and off screen, but it won’t beat TV’s unstoppable genre.

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