When outgoing Emmerdale producer Stuart Blackburn told the ITV Network Centre that he was organising a genuine rock concert at the soap’s fictional site of Home Farm he discovered “some nerves” at HQ among those bosses who feared that the soap had bitten off more than it could chew.
After all, the logistics of organising a gig, in an unpredictable summer, is not something that necessarily comes naturally to TV folk, even if it would help mark the soap’s 40th birthday.
Fortunately they pulled off a stonking event featuring bands Scouting for Girls and The Proclaimers and which worked dramatically (after all this is just how the festival-friendly modern British countryside is used these days). But it wasn’t long before he landed the same bosses another headache – how about marking the event even more spectacularly with an hour-long live episode?
Aired last night (Wednesday 17), it featured 28 cameras, a birth, two weddings and a death. The event was a taxing logistical task, given that half was filmed outside (compared with the Coronation Street live episode in 2010 which had about a third filmed alfresco). Both were overseen by Tony Prescott who won a BAFTA for the Corrie live episode marking the soap’s 50th birthday.
But Blackburn, who has recently been appointed as the new producer of Coronation Street and will take up the role in January, was keen not to copy Emmerdale’s big sister, which had a tram crash and various deaths and births when it went live.
“I was adamant from the beginning that there were to be no spectaculars. As soon as I saw Corrie’s, I knew we wouldn’t want to copy or match that,” he says. “Audiences weary of it a bit and it starts to feel a bit like a cheap trick. We wanted to focus on storytelling, the virtues, if this doesn’t sound too pompous, of Play for Today.”
For Blackburn pulling off the rock concert gave him and his team “a bit of a swagger” that they could do a live episode. And why not?
Emmerdale has come a long way since its 1972 incarnation when its slow and familiar theme tune and opening credits included sweeping hills an introduced us to Emmerdale Farm and a world where a principal focus of the characters’ attention was on rustic matters.
In 1998 the exterior moved from its base in the village of Esholt to a purpose-built village in Eccup on the grounds of the estate of the Queen’s cousin, Lord Harewood. Here filming was less likely to be disturbed by the hordes of visitors who had made it almost impossible to shoot at Esholt.
Eccup was principally meant to be a replica of Esholt but not all the sets matched up – a fact which prompted only a few complaints apparently.
“Soaps sets are not places of veneration,” according to ITV Studios’ creative director of soaps, John Whiston.
The new set comprises a series of very convincing exteriors and mod cons such as chimneys that belch smoke at the touch of a button. They were constructed under a deal which requires the producers to return it to green fields when they leave (if that ever happens). Even now, however, it is still a beautiful setting, with a stream and a cricket pitch and a real village feel.
“It may sound strange but actually it smells like a village,” says Whiston. “And the village hall has that smell of cabbage and sawdust and plimsolls that all village halls have.”
The same building is used for on set meetings, including Equity gatherings for which the union rep is John Middleton, who plays the soap’s troubled vicar Ashley.
“When I go for those meetings it feels like a real village and it is sometimes hard not to think am I actually in Emmerdale,” says Whiston with a chuckle. He adds that the writing team – who he regards as “incredible” – get so involved in their plots that they too sometimes get angry.
“For example recently some have been saying how Laurel [Charlotte Bellamy] is getting too big for herself now she has won the heart of Marlon [Mark Charnock] and that she is getting to big for her boots,” he says. “They are getting angry about a character doing things that they wrote.”
As Whiston admits, storylines like these are now common because advertisers need a younger audience. This demand for a more modern feel to the soap was initially met with a bang in the famous December 1993 plane crash in which a clutch of characters were wiped out. But even before then he believes the soap had changed – moving from the baggage of deference it started out with when most of the characters were reliant on the good grace of those who owned the farm, both for the work and the fact that they rented their houses from them. That has changed. People own their houses and there are non-white faces in the soap as well.
As Prescott puts it: “You don’t see sheep coming through the middle of the high street any more.”
For Whiston this contrasts with Coronation Street which he also is in charge of and which he says has retained its DNA from its 1960 incarnation.
“Tony Warren was there for Corrie’s 50th anniversary and he still has an input into it and could recognise it as the show he started. If [Emmerdale creator] Kevin Laffan were around he wouldn’t recognise this show but I hope he would appreciate how it has gone,” he says.
This is unlikely, because when Laffan left the show in 1985 he did so criticising its “sex, sin and sensationalism”, but still.
The cast are now much younger and the focus is on who is having an affair with who. Whiston notes that some of the broad humour has gone.
“When Coronation Street is in sitcom mode there is nothing like it,” he admits. But he adds that Emmerdale has been careful to “keep our Yorkshire old-timers like Betty and Alan Turner”.
“They are part of the life in the village and you need a chorus of disapprovers,” says Whiston, who notes that with six episodes airing a week it can claim to be the “biggest soap in the world”.
Whiston is aware as anyone of the huge amount of dedication and love that goes into the show and is aware of the snob factor all soaps have to endure. “You go to dinner parties and it is surprising how much the people who claim never to watch soaps actually know about what is in them,” he notes.
Director Tony Prescott agrees but believes that is changing, noting that many “big names” are asking to guest in Emmerdale. “Some of them are coming all the way up to Leeds for half page read throughs,” he says. “It may be the recession but you sometimes wonder.”
He believes Corrie gets more brickbats than Emmerdale because it is more urban and working class, whereas Yorkshire, where Emmerdale is set, is still a “moneyed” county.
But Whiston also notes that ITV’s own research among urban viewers provides some amusing findings. “Young people wonder where people get their cash from with no cashpoints and what the young people do at night – they ask, ‘Do they all go to the pub?’.”
For Prescott, the only staff director left at ITV, the live episode has shown that Emmerdale’s time to shine has come.
“Now it has the best cast it has ever had,” he adds, noting that the live showcase was designed to bring in new viewers and bring back viewers who may have left the soap and could rediscover it. He graduated from Saturday night entertainment to soaps and believes soap acting of all TV dramas is “the most real”.
“In a drama you can spend all day on a scene and film something where the actor has been doing something for six hours. Here you sometimes have 25 minutes to do a take – you just do it and for that reason it is very truthful,” he says.
Prescott is also such a fan of Emmerdale that he reckons if it moves to Coronation’s Streets’ peachier later slot it may bear it. He thinks the cast could cope with the new found fame and lauds the spirit on set where filming in winter can be harsh but all muck in.
“When we had the storm week in Emmerdale [in 2011], there were actors standing in a freezing river for five nights, getting hypothermia and we all did it, it was magnificent,” says Prescott who notes that during the summer, it can be glorious and he always makes a point of arriving half an hour early to go for a walk in the beautiful woods.
“As well as everything else this is also the best office in the world – I love it here and with the anniversary and the way the soap is doing, with the best cast it has ever had,” he beams. “This really is Emmerdale’s moment.”
Emmerdale is on ITV1 Monday to Friday. Visit www.itv.com/emmerdale/