Soap operas are well-oiled machines, with storylines meticulously planned months – sometimes years – in advance. Multiple plots serving huge casts with carefully-constructed narrative arcs require precise production models that keep TV’s most prolific and robust genre able to deliver daily drama all year round – until an actor is suddenly sacked and it’s back to the drawing board.
Emmerdale recently terminated Asan N’Jie’s contract with immediate effect, following a heated altercation with Hollyoaks star Jamie Lomas at an awards ceremony, meaning his character Ellis Chapman will have to quickly disappear from the show and any future storylines he was involved with require hasty rewrites.
Sudden exits such as this, when a cast member has been forced to bow out under something of a cloud, quickly cause a domino effect: such is the intertwined nature of soap storylines, that removing one element has immediate knock-on consequences that cause headaches for bosses who have to decide how to manage and address the absence. One character may be involved with several ongoing events that impact on a host of twists which might need reworking.
Most soaps are usually about six months ahead in terms of planning storylines, and some longer-term stories may be mapped out even further.
EastEnders, for example, is known to work its big blockbuster storylines to explode at Christmas, its biggest time of the year when fan expectation is at its highest. Coronation Street has made a virtue of airing nightly alongside Britain’s Got Talent final week in late May and often saves its plot peaks accordingly to deliver to a potentially bigger audience. Emmerdale capitalises on increased autumn viewing figures and its anniversary date by going big in October, while Hollyoaks’ narrative year revolves around the autumn stunt.
Once the shape of plots is established, scripts are written between three and six months ahead, and episodes filmed usually around six weeks in advance of what’s on screen, and edited fairly close to transmission.
So an unforeseen character departure can cause chaos behind the scenes, and eventually needs to be explained to viewers – but there are various ways of dealing with it. Here are some varying examples of how soaps handled some hasty exits…
Marc Anwar (Sharif Nazir, Coronation Street)
A Twitter rant from Marc Anwar in 2016, during a time of particular tension between India and Pakistan, saw ITV leap into action and immediately axe him after three years as entrepreneur Sharif. The character had already cheated on wife Yasmeen when he mysteriously vanished, leaving a note saying he’d gone to stay with relatives in Newcastle. A few months later divorce proceedings began between the estranged couple. Perhaps Sharif’s days were already numbered after his affair was exposed?
Bruno Langley (Todd Grimshaw, Coronation Street)
In October 2017 Langley was charged with two counts of sexual assault and Corrie swiftly announced he was no longer contracted to the show. The actor pleaded guilty and was given a 12-month community order (including 40 days of rehabilitation activity) and had to wear an electronic tag, obey a curfew and pay £250 compensation to his victims, as well as appearing on the sex offenders’ register for five years.
On screen, alter ego Todd suddenly disappeared (Langley’s pre-arrest filmed scenes were still shown) which was explained as him going into hiding when the custody battle with foster daughter Summer’s grandma Geraldine got nasty. A body double and a shaky voice over sound-a-like audio was used when ‘Todd’ pulled up in a car a few weeks later and abducted Summer. It later emerged Todd went on the run after punching a police officer, and Summer returned to the street.
Chris Fountain (Tommy Duckworth, Coronation Street)
Ex-Hollyoaks star and one-time Dancing On Ice champion Fountain was a star signing for Corrie in 2011 as the recast grown-up grandson of Jack and Vera, but in 2013 the actor posted a video online as rapping alter ego ‘the Phantom’ glorifying sexual violence towards women. Fountain was quickly given the boot, wrecking plans for Tommy and Tina McIntyre (Michelle Keegan) to become the soap’s next golden couple. Jumping on a plane to the Canary Islands following a row with his girlfriend, Tommy was never seen again. Heartbroken Tina later got a call to say he was never coming home.
Shila Iqbal (Aiesha Richards, Emmerdale)
In April 2019 Iqbal was promoted to cast regular as Manpreet Sharma’s bubbly, social media-obsessed daughter Aiesha – only to be dismissed when historic Tweets using racist language were brought to the attention of ITV bosses. The actress immediately deleted her account and apologised for the posts, which had been written six years before when she was a teenager. By way of a explaining where she’d got to, Manpreet and hubby Rishi casually mentioned one day how flighty Aiesha had abruptly taken off to Ibiza to ‘help out a promoter friend’.
Melissa Suffield (Lucy Beale, EastEnders)
Another way round an axed actor is to recast the role so the character’s life can continue as hoped, as was the case when one of the many Lucy Beales went off the rails off-screen in 2010. Teenager Suffield had taken over the part six years earlier but was reportedly dismissed after ignoring official warnings of unruly behaviour and reports of underage drinking. Tearaway Lucy was dispatched to Devon to live with maternal granny Bev for a year, before returning in 2011 with Hetti Bywater taking over – remaining until Ian’s daughter met a gruesome end when she was murdered in 2014.