Resuming production in the age of coronavirus has presented huge challenges to the UK’s soaps, even with their notoriously well-oiled production models that are able to churn out the equivalent of a feature film every week.
But it’s not just the logistics of social distancing and ensuring a safe working environment for cast and crew to consider, there’s also the impact on the storytelling itself: how do soaps start to reflect a world that is going through its biggest crisis for a century?
The pressure was on for the first continuing drama to acknowledge the pandemic on screen, and the first of the nation’s soaps to go back to work, but the team delivered the goods as we followed newly-weds Sam and Lydia Dingle through the first month of lockdown in Wishing Well Cottage.
Ticking off all the references that have become cultural touchstones in the last three months – clapping for carers, home haircuts, furlough confusion, click and collect substitutions, fearing your elderly parents are spending too much time outdoors – the episode felt strangely comforting. Seeing these familiar faces voicing thoughts and fears to which we could all relate, it was a well-executed two-hander and built up to become the proverbial roller coaster of emotion.
My personal fears were the concept would feel like an well-meaning novelty, and that half an hour with a couple often relied on for kooky comic relief may become cloying, but my mind was put at rest on both counts.
The feeling of creeping anxiety for your loved ones as lockdown progressed rang true, as did the references to life carrying on outside their door and mentions of seeing other characters on their ‘panic walks’ through the village.
Lydia eloquently articulating how the situation had made her count her blessings and re-evaluate life, and simple Sam opening up about his dreams and ambitions for the first time in 25 years gave moments of genuine depth and emotional engagement I wasn’t expecting.
Importantly, the episode also had a clear plot purpose, as Sam begged his wife to take the test for Huntington’s disease, the genetic condition she may have inherited from the biological mother she tracked down last year.
The stark issue of mortality being foregrounded at a time like this naturally plays into Lydia’s ongoing refusal to find out if she carries the gene of the life-shortening illness. Maintaining a commitment to plot development stopped the episode from being in danger of feeling like an anomaly, placing it firmly in the ongoing Emmerdale universe.
When you boil it down, this was soap opera stripped back to its purest form: spending time with characters you know and care about, eavesdropping on their intimate conversations while they navigate as best they can through the tough times. Isn’t that what this most consistent of genres has always done?