Can steamy affairs in soaps still work now actors can’t kiss?

The lack of physical contact is a big challenge for producers in the new normal.

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Soaps are slowly getting back to business after lockdown and while safety of cast and crew is top priority for the production teams, social distancing rules will inevitably impact the way continuing dramas tell a story – especially when it comes to intimate relationships.

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How can you convincingly portray a passionate, forbidden affair between two characters when the actors are not allowed near each other?

It’s one of the numerous challenges facing producers as the soaps return to filming within strict new government guidelines. Navigating the complete absence of intimacy in the new normal means no kissing, no cuddling, in fact nothing that requires anything other than the requisite two-metre distance between cast members. Does this mean the end of the affairs that soap are so famous for?

“We’ll have lots of looks of intent, people edging towards each other but backing away, and scenes starting off with shirts being tucked in,” reveals Emmerdale‘s executive producer Jane Hudson, speaking this week about how the ITV soap is adapting to changes in the age of coronavirus.

“It doesn’t mean there won’t be affairs, although it’s fair to say some stories we might hold back on slightly for the moment. We wanted to do a big, steamy affair later this year and we have got one coming up that we’re too far down the line with to change, we’re too committed.

“Yes it is going to be a challenge how we make it work, but our job is to come up with ways of telling stories. But tackling scenes where there should be intimacy is our most challenging area now, that’s for sure.”

emmerdale jamie belle

Hudson talks of a two-metre retractable pole that has been employed on set to maintain the necessary distance, and also reveals a ‘smoke and mirrors’ approach to make actors playing characters living in the same fictional household look as if they are closer than they actually are.

“You’ll be amazed by the lockdown episodes as you won’t notice the two metres,” she enthuses. “There are clever camera tricks you can do. There is a lot of choreography on set, our director Ian Bevitt is a genius.”

Producer Laura Shaw admits there will be less initial focus on moments requiring charged physical intimacy, be it hot hook-ups or an angry bust-up, and that the six lockdown scripts have a stripped-back feel focusing on life’s minutiae rather than big blockbuster material.

“It will be interesting for the audience to see these characters going about their day-to-day lives, struggling to navigate the uncharted waters of this situation as they themselves are.

“Fans are used to seeing them playing in bigger storylines, but we’ll see how they cope with the day-to-day ups and downs, discovering more about each other and themselves and how they deal with this massive change of landscape.”

Australian counterpart Neighbours was the first English-speaking soap in the world to resume filming within the global pandemic, unintentionally providing the blueprint for the rest of the world.

A recent set tour conducted by the cast and released online showed on-screen couple April Rose Pengilly and Tim Robards showing how shooting one half of a two-way conversation in a full-length mirror can give the illusion characters are kissing, possibly one of the tactics Hudson has nabbed for Emmerdale’s upcoming scandalous fling.

neighbours virtual set tour

“We haven’t scrapped any major storylines,” insists Jason Herbison, Neighbours’ executive producer. “But we are approaching filming differently. We’ve reimagined scenes that include intimacy, so viewers will start to see the occasional creative camera angle.

“So we have adapted our style, but the hardest part about filming under the guidelines and the biggest thing to overcome is that non-physical contact with the cast.”

Lucy Addario, series producer of Neighbours’ Aussie rival Home and Away, says storylines were reviewed in light of government guidelines upon reopening the Sydney set at the end of May, but also echoes Hudson’s comment on how embracing the restrictions may lead to more inventive methods of communicating passion without anyone locking lips.

“We have some of our most exciting and inventive storylines coming up,” says the soap boss. “The way we have approached bringing these stories to life has been reworked and modified for maximum protection of our wonderful cast and crew.

“They have all been involved in the process of creating safety solutions and forming boundaries the work for everyone.”

So necessary plans are in place, but it remains to be seen how soap’s next big fling may or may not suffer. The meticulous but flexible production model means the genre can easily adapt to changing circumstances, the question is whether viewers will invest in furtive glances in the absence of a huge, slobbering snog.

The moment where two people give into a secret mutual desire, usually behind their respective partners’ backs, and seal a build-up of sexual tension with a kiss is a key plot driver – there’s no coming back from a smack on the lips and it officially declares the affair is on.

Here’s hoping soaps can still successfully deliver our fix of betrayal, infidelity and doomed, destructive romances. Provided it’s from a safe distance, of course…

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