Emmerdale: the village that won over a nation

Once, not much happened and hardly anyone tuned in. Then a series of exploding houses and dramatic deaths elevated 'Emmerdale' above 'EastEnders' and finally claimed it a place in the British psyche. Terry Kirby watches a dramatic reinvention
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By anyone's measure, this particular Yorkshire Dales village has suffered more than its fair share of tragedy. As well as the plane which plummeted into a nearby field in late 1993, killing a number of people, there have been several car and bus crashes, shootings, explosions and cases of arson, all claiming a rising toll of lives. Then there are the daily emotional upheavals: affairs, divorces, mental instability, incurable illnesses, drink and drugs overdoses and frequent rows, tears and tantrums, all requiring some kind of terrible retribution and revenge, usually fatal.

Indeed, on a normal day, it is almost impossible to walk down the main street for a quiet pint at the Woolpack or stand admiring the sheep grazing on the surrounding green hills without having to dodge the runaway tractors, collapsing buildings or a distraught inhabitant clutching a petrol can and lighter with a murderous expression on his face. Once inside the pub, safety cannot be guaranteed, since it has been blown up. And, as recently as Thursday, a show home in the village was destroyed by yet another explosion, killing three people.

This is the village of Emmerdale, which resides not in Yorkshire, but in the fictional world of Soapland, which means its occupants have to endure more trials and tribulations during their daily grind than might otherwise be their due, out in the real world.

But it is these hardships which have ensured that Emmerdale has gone from being an obscure, under-nourished daytime soap to a six-nights-a-week, peak-time slot, a serious contender to EastEnders and Coronation Street, creating a Holy Trinity - or should that be Love Triangle - at the top of the Soapland hierarchy.

On Thursday, an hour-long episode featuring one of the by- now regular Emmerdale bloodbaths, in which three characters died in an explosion at the show home of a new housing development, netted 6.6 million viewers, a 41 per cent audience share, soundly thrashing EastEnders, which registered a measly 3.9 million, its lowest ever audience. Interest had been heightened, in typical soap style, by whether this would be how Patsy Kensit, who has been playing Sadie King but has announced her intention to leave for the higher ground of Holby City, would exit the serial. She survived, as it happened.

Even earlier in the week, 5.6 million viewers tuned in for an hour-long special on Tuesday to mark its return to its normal 7pm slot - after being shown much later during the World Cup - easily beating the 5.2 million audience for EastEnders. Although the figures may have as much to do with the long-term decline of the latter - viewers are reportedly fed up that Albert Square seems to be populated entirely by latter-day versions of the Krays - it is not the first time it has been beaten in the rating stakes by Emmerdale over the past couple of years.

Incredibly, almost without the outside world realising, Emmerdale has become an indelible part of the British television landscape, clocking up more than 4,400 episodes over almost 35 years; it was going for a full 13 years before EastEnders first appeared in 1985.

And yet ... somehow, Emmerdale has not quite imposed itself on the nation's psyche in quite the same way as EastEnders or Coronation Street. It has never been seen as a social barometer or a cultural reference point, or made it as a "water-cooler" conversation topic. And it is simply not fashionable. Amid the chatterati and media folk, it is entirely permissible to confess a little light, non-ironic addiction to EastEnders or "Corrie", while the now defunct Brookside was considered by many the "thinking-person's" soap. But admitting you are a fan of Emmerdale around the dinner table is still akin to expressing a preference for Blue Nun wine, or perhaps Noel Edmonds. While Sir Ian McKellen is a noted fan of Coronation Street, Emmerdale's aficionados are said to include Wayne Rooney, his partner Coleen McLoughlin and the Liverpool striker Harry Kewell, but only because his wife, the actress Sheree Murphy, is in it. It is very big in Canada and Sweden, apparently.

Lawrence Marcus, who runs the TV Heaven website, "dedicated to classic TV", does not yet include it, although both its rivals are fully documented. He said: "I know it's been getting some very good ratings and I've been thinking for some time that we should have it there, but Emmerdale does not have the iconic status of the other two yet. It still carries the slight stigma of early afternoon television, without any cult qualities."

Perhaps, he suggests, it is something to do with the social realism of the stories and characters. "While people have found it is easy to identify with the people in EastEnders and Coronation Street, in Emmerdale they do seem a little bit larger than life."

It wasn't always about death and destruction. Emmerdale Farm, as it was then known, was first aired, with little ceremony, on 16 October 1972, as a schedule filler for afternoon television, and was the brainchild of Donald Baverstock, a former head of BBC1 - the man responsible for both Doctor Who and Tonight - who had moved to Yorkshire Television as director of programmes.

Set in the fictional village of Beckindale - in reality the village of Arncliffe in Littondale, one of the lesser-known valleys of the Yorkshire Dales - Emmerdale was seen as a sort of gently paced, lowbrow television version of The Archers, BBC Radio's much-loved rural soap. The plot-lines largely concerned rural affairs - agricultural ones, that is - and the physical focus was the village public house, the Woolpack Hotel, with the Sugden family, whose farm was the name of the show, the centre of action. So far, so safe.

But in other respects it was groundbreaking. Until then, television soaps like Coronation Street and Crossroads had always been shot in studios. Emmerdale was modelled on The Riordans, a soap made by RTE, the Irish broadcaster, which pioneered outdoor location shooting, using real animals and actors driving tractors, etc. Baverstock sent people from YTV to Co Meath to see The Riordans being shot and was convinced that the glorious Yorkshire countryside would be a suitable backdrop.

During its early years, Emmerdale, which then went out only twice a week, was more or less ignored by the majority of the population, although it attracted reasonable audiences. "I think people began to like it because it made a change from the rather depressing, inner-city scenarios of Coronation Street and other soaps," believes Marcus. By 1977, most of the ITV regions, who had noticed that it was getting decent ratings, moved it to a 7pm slot, gathering viewers for Coronation Street. Some areas of the country however, still scheduled it at 5.15pm for some time.

But still it languished for years, unobtrusively and unsensationally documenting rural life, but never setting the networks, rating or viewers on fire. "It just plodded along and began to look in danger of being axed," says Marcus.

Then, in the late 1980s, as EastEnders and Brookside began to change the traditional nature of soaps, ITV decided it was kill or cure; a new production team was installed, the rural storylines were ditched in favour of more dramatic, racy ones, as was the Farm from the title. "Suddenly, the characters stopped battling hay and began battling each other," said Marcus. And it was time for a new family, the Tates, to take over from the Sugdens, and time for the entry of a Soapland staple, the Superbitch, in this case Kim Tate, played by Claire King. Suddenly, it was more Dynasty than dales, and Tate threw herself into the role with gusto, cheating on her husband with a younger man, plotting to kill him to inherit his business, etc, etc. The red-top tabloids, used to a diet of EastEnders and Corrie storylines fed to them by the publicists, suddenly woke up to the existence of Emmerdale - it helped when King began a relationship with another actor, who played her stepson.

Ratings began to climb, but the producers had a familiar problem - how to replace some old and worn characters with a whole range of sexy new ones. Simple: kill them all off. In December 1993, Beckindale was engulfed in catastrophe when a plane crashed, killing many people and conveniently allowing the new village to be renamed, onscreen, as Emmerdale. The fact that all this was very close to the fifth anniversary of the Lockerbie disaster only added to the controversy. The January 1994 episode that covered the aftermath was watched by 16 million viewers - still a record - and marked its graduation into a serious competitor to the big two.

Since then, aided by occasional outbreaks of arson, marital strife, murder, exploding buildings, etc, Emmerdale has held its own. Marcus believes it should be credited for pioneering the extra-marital affair and the explosive deaths of several characters as staple soap-story contrivances. Extra episodes were gradually added, and by 2004 it became the first British soap to air six episodes a week.

And remarkably, it appears to have done this largely without the benefit of the slew of forgotten stars who choose to revive their careers in EastEnders (Barbara Windsor, Shane Ritchie) or fans who pop up in Coronation Street (Sir Ian McKellen, Honor Blackman). Neither can it boast a string of actors who have gone on to bigger things, as most of the other soaps can, or a raft of photogenic young starlets who fill the pages of the lads' mags. The departing Kensit is probably the only "name" to appear in Emmerdale in recent years.

But who watches it? Hellen Gardner, editor of Soaplife magazine, believes the demographic is impossible to pin down. "It doesn't have that north-south divide between Corrie and EastEnders, although I don't think that is quite true anyway. I don't think the geography matters. People from all types and classes watch it: teenagers, people in their twenties, senior citizens."

So far as Soaplife is concerned, Emmerdale is up there with EastEnders and Corrie and accorded equal space. She added: "They are the big three of soap. And Emmerdale's got all the classic soap storylines and characters: feuds, bodies in woods, tumours, blackmail, sex. By comparison, Corrie has a lot less. For such a small village, there's a heck of a lot going on."

The Plane Crash Broadcast: 30 December 1993/1 January 1994

Emmerdale is brought to a standstill when a plane crash causes devastation to the village, then known as Beckindale. Five main characters die, and the village is renamed Emmerdale afterwards. Another character is temporarily blinded, and yet another loses the use of his legs. A record 16 million tune in.

Teen Hit and Run Broadcast: September 2001

A gang of young friends from the village head into Hotton for a night out. After being wound up by his brother, and refused entry to a club, Andy steals a car to prevent them all walking home after they miss the last bus. Marc is behind the wheel when they hit something, but he drives on. It turns out they had killed Miss Strickland, head teacher at Hotten Comprehensive.

Tricia and Marlon's Wedding Broadcast: late 2002

The couple planned to marry in October 2002, but after a series of unfortunate events, including a confession of undying love from the bride's mother, (Stephanie) to the groom, they decide it isn't to be. Paddy and Emily marry instead with their consent. They finally wed in a secret ceremony arranged by Tricia.

Angie's Death Broadcast: November 2002

After a love affair with bad boy Cain Dingle, Angie gives him what he thinks are the keys to the haulage yard. Realising he has been set up, Cain flees. In the ensuing chase, Angie's colleague, DC Collins, crashes into the parked vehicle that Cain has fled from. Angie dies in Cain's arms as he begs her to tell him that she loves him.

Louise Murders Ray Broadcast: December 2002

Louise gets suspicious as she becomes increasingly aware that the stalker currently making her life a misery is actually her boyfriend Ray. After Louise confronts him, the couple have a furious argument, during which she hits him with a vase at the top of the stairs. To her horror, Ray tumbles down the stairs and is killed.

Sadie Ruins Charity's Wedding Broadcast: one-hour special, 4 January 2005

Charity and Tom King's wedding is ruined as Sadie presents Tom with photographs, taken by a private detective she hired, which show Charity and Cain Dingle in a near kiss. Sadie is victorious as Charity tries to explain to Tom that it must be a set-up, and is left at her wedding reception with no guests and no husband.

The Storm Broadcast: over two episodes, 31 December 2003 and 1 January 2004

Ashley and Louise's car leaves the road as Ashley swerves to miss a falling tree trunk. Trisha Dingle is injured when the chimney of the Woolpack, which was struck by lightning, falls on top of her while she tries to make her way back inside. Trisha later dies.

Andy, Katie and Robert Love Triangle Broadcast: late 2003 and early 2004

Katie and Robert have an affair behind Andy's back for a considerable time. The affair continues through various events, including Andy and Katie's wedding. Katie even wakes up next to Robert on the morning of her wedding day.

Debbie Gives Birth Broadcast: June 2005

After keeping her pregnancy quiet, teenager Debbie Dingle, daughter of Cain, attempts to give birth to the child alone in secret woodland hideaway. Her friend, and the baby's uncle, Daz, the only person who finds out the truth about her pregnancy, refuses to let her go through with her plan to have the child and abandon it at the hospital. The pair call for help, resulting in a very shocked Dingle clan.

House Blast Broadcast: 13 July 2006

A one-hour special, with follow-up events last night, in which the village gathers for the launch of a show home at a development built by the King family. As the celebrations are in full swing, there is a massive explosion. The house crumbles and characters are trapped by a falling ceiling, while others fall through floors. Just before the end credits roll, rescuers say they have found two bodies. Viewers must wait until next week to discover who is dead.