Emmerdale’s Emma Atkins on whether Charity survives epic crash stunt
The star speaks exclusively to Johnathon Hughes about the explosive love triangle and why she loved being dangled off a cliff.
Attempted murder, prostitution, fraud, theft - there’s very little the incorrigible Charity Dingle hasn’t done during her 23 years in Emmerdale, but astonishingly the chaotic character has never been at the centre of one of the soap’s legendary stunts.
At long last, the sharp-tongued Dingle diva faces life-threatening jeopardy in this year’s much-anticipated 'super soap week', the annual autumn event when ITV pulls out all the stops to showcase their continuing dramas and brings a long-running storyline to a spectacular crescendo.
The love triangle between Charity, Mackenzie and Chloe reaches a climax that will literally have you on the edge of your seat as the trio end up in a car dangling off a cliff - and nobody is more excited than Charity herself!
"Filming the stunt was thrilling and felt like a fairground ride; I was turned upside down in a gimble, which is basically a car stuck to a giant hamster wheel. It was just so brilliant. No one believes this is my first big stunt. I was in survival week a few years ago when David and Victoria went into the waterfall, but I was just in a dinghy - so I got out of that one."
Charity ends up in a car with her estranged husband and his current love (and mother of his child) after her car breaks down and Chloe and Mackenzie offer her a lift.
What Charity and Mack don’t realise is that Chloe knows they slept together, for old time’s sake, the day before their baby boy Reuben’s christening.
Despite the old flames firmly drawing a line under their toxic union so Mackenzie can focus on a new life with his new family, Chloe is convinced they are having an affair and plans to punish the pair. Then her driving, and behaviour, becomes dangerously erratic…
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"It’s very exciting and stylised," enthuses Atkins. "Chloe talks as if she doesn’t know what’s gone on between Mackenzie and Charity, but the audience will hear another voice in Chloe’s head which intensifies the jeopardy of what is happening. I loved that; it takes it out of the comfort ozone of the genre and makes it more filmic.
"Chloe overheard a conversation between Mackenzie and Charity but got the wrong idea, as Charity has genuinely let him go so he can put Chloe and the baby first.
"It’s a strong, empowering act of selflessness on Charity’s part - she doesn’t normally put others before herself. She is still in love with Mackenzie, but Chloe and Reuben have to be taken into consideration."
Due to her paying more attention to her rage than the road, distracted Chloe smashes into another car, sending her vehicle careering towards the edge off a cliff. As the car teeters over the edge, Charity and Chloe are both about to plunge to their deaths and hold out their hands for Mackenzie to help them - faced with an impossible moral dilemma, who will he save?
"Everyone’s been saying he has to choose which one of us he wants to be in a relationship with, but this is very tricky," observes Atkins. "As an outsider, and from an audience point of view, I think he should save Chloe - because he has a child with her. Mackenzie’s responsibilities, morals and principles should come into play, but we’ll have to see what happens."
Mackenzie’s deliciously dark dilemma is an ingenious twist, and no matter what he does, it will no doubt divide the audience - something Atkins knows all about, thanks to her character’s notoriously naughty antics.
"For once, Charity is not the bad guy in this situation, which feels quite unique. Let’s remember Charity and Mack were 'on a break', he got drunk, him and Chloe were both at their wits end and ended up in bed together. He got back with Charity then Chloe fell pregnant.
"It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just a very unfortunate set of circumstances. Mistakes get made and things like this can happen, which makes it a very human storyline. It creates more interesting layers and gives the story way more scope."
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Since exploding into the village back in 2000 as a rebellious rabble-rouser, Charity has consistently caused outrage with her endless scheming, cheating and all-round dodgy Dingle-ness. Atkins was still a drama student when she started on the show, and for the first six months was completing her degree while making a huge impact as a future soap icon.
"I’d been with an agent for a short time and she told me about this new regular character on Emmerdale," she recalls. "We weren’t sure how it would work with my studies, but I went for it anyway.
"I didn’t hear anything and I put it out of my mind, then eventually my agent called and said she had bad news and good news. The bad news was, I hadn’t got an Asda commercial I’d gone for… The good news was, I was officially a Dingle!
"I started screaming, I couldn’t wait. University allowed me to continue and I ended up getting a First, which I still can’t believe, to be honest!
"I looked up to everyone. Jeff Hordley (Cain) became like a brother, I felt him and his wife Zoe Henry (Rhona) were my family. I was in awe of Steve Halliwell (Zak), and Jane Cox (Lisa) was this matriarchal figurehead and so gorgeous. I really loved working with the late Leah Bracknell (Zoe), we miss her dearly.
"Instantly, it was like a family - it still is. I loved Charity and Cain’s original rebellious days, stealing cars. The character was so flawed and damaged from the start, I knew it would be complex and interesting to play."
Over the years, Emmerdale has slowly peeled back the lairy lady’s layers to show the damaged soul cowering inside. In the great tradition of soap anti-heroines, we forgive Charity for anything - because we understand her.
"She puts on a hard exterior but is very insecure and vulnerable deep down. Due to the abuse in her childhood, a lot of PTSD has never been dealt with - Charity’s not the sort to meditate or go to a health retreat, so she carries this trauma in a bag with her.
"Every so often it all comes out, and things can turn toxic and self-destructive. Unfortunately, that’s why she often seeks out broken, wounded people similar to her, like Mackenzie.
"I think she was at her happiest with Vanessa, who wouldn’t stand for Charity’s self-sabotage. Vanessa offered a level of support and loyalty that was priceless, especially when Charity confronted her past with Bails (the corrupt cop who forced her into childhood sexual exploitation).
"But when something becomes too happy in soap, people suggest there needs to be conflict for it to be watchable. Also, Michelle (Hardwick, who played Vanessa) had to leave because she was having a child so we needed to find a reason to break them up."
Despite her questionable choices, which have seen her lurch from one disaster to the next, we always root for Charity to come out on top. It’s a testament to how Atkins and the writers have shaped the role over almost 25 years that the audience rarely loses sympathy for someone inherently reprehensible.
"I am so grateful she’s liked, but I honestly don’t know why!" grins the actress, whose serene, calm nature is in complete contrast to her spiky, aggressive alter ego.
"The writers have always given her such sharp wit, and when I read the lines, I can’t wait to say them. That humour is maybe what makes the audience warm to her; even in life’s darkest moments, you have to find humour - otherwise you’d go mad. Humour breaks the intensity of things that are impossibly painful."
Whether Charity has much to laugh about after super soap week remains to be seen - that’s if she even survives. Atkins is candidly philosophical about what the future holds, and if it all ends with Charity tumbling into a quarry while Chloe gives her a smug wave from above, then so be it.
"I love my job, but I never take it for granted. I left in 2005 and was a jobbing actor, then was asked to return five years later. As soon as I got back into it, I thought, 'I’m so lucky to be here again.' It really made me value the bigger picture.
"I never want to be complacent, otherwise you’d get the biggest shock of your life if it did suddenly come to an end. No one is invincible."
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