The following excerpt is from my latest book, Semi-Professional Writer, which includes a tantalising full week’s worth of reviews of this particular soap opera. It can be bought direct (and signed) from my online bookshop here or on Amazon
-Monday July 10th-
Emmerdale Farm was supposed to be ITV’s answer to The Archers. Set in the countryside and revolving around the shenanigans of one family, its storylines were going to be less spectacular than other TV soaps. Instead of murderous affairs and exploding cars, the show would touch on gentler narratives, like sad dogs, punctured tractor tyres or missing sticks.
It managed to keep itself wholesome until 1989. But the centre couldn’t hold. 1989 was the year of People Power. In Berlin, the masses demonstrated their collective force by smashing down the wall that divided their city. Motivated by Nena’s 99 Red Balloons and David Hasselhoff’s 8-week reign at number one with Looking For Freedom, the people of Germany spoke. And their voice was heard. The Wall came down, providing journalists around the world with their easiest metaphor since, well, the Wall went up. The Cold War had somehow ended without the bomb being dropped. Caught up in the swirl of universal goodwill, ITV acted fast, making the call everyone was waiting for: they the changed the name of Emmerdale Farm to, simply, Emmerdale. The farm had lost its metaphorical wall. Gone were the show’s agricultural storylines, gone were the steamed-up glasses, whistling vicars and stolen kisses behind haystacks. In came plane crashes, lasers and hand-jobs in the pub car park.
That’s where I come in.
Twenty-eight years on from the amputation of the word Farm, nothing represents the shift in Emmerdale’s dynamics more than its latest opening sequence. (For a start, the show is currently sponsored by McCain’s Microwavable Jacket Potatoes: a product that would’ve made the original residents of Emmerdale Farm write to their MP the minute they caught wind of its existence.) Although I’ve never properly watched Emmerdale, my memories of the intro involve bleating lambs and rolling hillside, accompanied by a fudged clarinet solo. The modern version was all snazzy and cinematic, more of an advert for Range Rovers than anything else. There were some wonderful shots demonstrating its ability to make light work of muddy woodland. (Muddy Woodland can be seen playing acoustic Blues sets down The Woolpack every other Sunday. Book early to avoid disappointment.) Interspersed between examples of the Range Rover’s excellent handling on versatile terrains, were the following scenes:
- A staircase in a manor house, with clothes strewn upon it. And a scantily clad young lady running to the top, presumably towards a bedroom
- A knackered old dog leaping from its rustic fireside blanket, presumably towards a bedroom
- A woman in red playing footsie with a gent under the table of a gastro pub, presumably thinking of heading towards a bedroom
All accompanied, of course, by a boisterous, orchestral rendering of the once serene theme tune.
The final shot was an aerial view of the show’s star, the Range Rover, swerving through the bustling village centre, running over a couple of cats en route. For the finale, the show’s title appeared on the screen as though stamped there by a price gun. This was what the people of ’89 fought for. Fire. Brimstone. Footsie. Dead cats.
Tonight’s opening scene involved a cleaning lady who spoke like a matron from the 1920s but was only, at a guess, in her early 40s. She was cleaning the home of a woman who’d had the face of a schoolgirl grafted onto her middle-aged zumba-enthusiast body. Why this Zumba Mum couldn’t clean her own house, I don’t know. But then, I am an Emmerdale novice. I don’t know anything. It’s all guesswork. There was probably a storyline where she got addicted to inhaling polish and now has to get a professional cleaner in to deal with it, lest she ‘hit the bottle’ again.
Anyway. The cleaning lady was painfully annoying. She bossed Zumba Mum about and then, later in the episode, berated a different client for walking mud into his own house. Like all truly abysmal wretches, she attempted to make up for her black heart by desperately pretending she was jolly. She used phrases like ‘cuptastic’ and ‘well, those tea cups won’t bleach themselves’. Rather than telling her to fuck off, the villagers bowed to her bossy whims and, if anything, were impressed with her can-do attitude:
‘How does she stay so cheerful?’ mused Zumba Mum’s husband, a dead ringer for Dracula’s podgy uncle. His wife didn’t reply, but I presumed her answer would have included a reference to all those lovely bottles of polish the cleaner had access to.
But Zumba Mum had more on her mind than a totally imaginary addiction to cleaning products. Apparently some woman called Emma (last name, Dale) had been telling Zumba’s young son, Arthur, that his mother was seriously ill, when she wasn’t. Why? Zumba was determined to find out. She collared Emma (last name, Dale) and demanded answers. Emma was too shrewd for that game. She gave nothing away. She denied everything and said that, rather than doing anything suspicious, she’d only asked little Arthur if she could watch ‘the videos of Ashley one last time’ (Ashley was, I think, Zumba’s deceased former husband). Unfortunately, whilst showing Emma the enthralling Ashley videos, little Arthur had accidentally broken the camera in a way that was true to Emmerdale’s agricultural roots: he’d dropped it in some water. All the data was wiped. Or washed. Either way, Zumba was distraught. She said that the camera contained her only remaining videos of Ashley.
‘Should’ve backed the files up, m8,’ is what Emma ought to have said. But she said this instead:
‘We tried to fix the camera. I even took it to Leeds!’
Despite her anger at the ravaging effects of moisture, Zumba Mum created her own by weeping. She knew as well as anybody that if a wet camera couldn’t be fixed in Leeds, it was end game. The facts needed to be faced: with footage so scarce, there’d be no second series of Videos of Ashley Make You Lol. It was all too much. ‘That’s all I had of Ashley,’ she cried, ‘Other than his sermons…’
Nearly every line of dialogue confused me.
Like a video camera ten minutes after little Arthur has got his mitts on it, my head was swimming. I wasn’t the only one. The situation was all so confusing to Zumba Mum that, to borrow a phrase that was once very popular on Emmerdale Farm, she went to straight to the horse’s mouth. She asked Arthur for answers about what happened to the camera and what Emma had really said to him beforehand.
Arthur was a joy to behold. He rolled in straight off the British-Soap-Opera-Child production line, shouting his dialogue and glancing down the camera whenever the chance arose. He had the exact opposite complaint than his on-screen mother: an old man’s face grafted onto a schoolboy’s body. His other quirk was a gruff voice. He sounded like somebody they send into high schools to warn children about the effects smoking can have on your vocal chords. The upshot of his discussion with Zumba was that Emma (Dale) had asked him to show videos of Ashley. There was a new bit on the video, he said, of Emma and Ashley standing near a bridge. Whilst Arthur was innocently yapping away, Zumba’s eyes darted from left to right to inform the viewers that she was thinking, quickly. Something must have happened on that bridge…
‘She’s hiding something,’ she told Uncle Dracula later, ‘and I’m going to find out what.’
Elsewhere, things were less pulsating. Uncle Dracula had his own storyline going. He visited one of the Dingles (I think) called Splat or Spodge or Tonker (I think), now a father. Splat’s daughter, another terrific child actor, didn’t want to eat the pizza he’d made because it was ‘minging’. Everyone laughed. She ran away, giggling, as someone in the production suite pressed play on the sound effect entitled, ‘Little Girl Running Up Some Stairs (Happily)’. Uncle Dracula smiled at Splat and said, ‘It’s good to see her coping so well.’ It’s hard to think of a line that could better sum up the world of soap operas than ‘It’s good to see her coping so well.’ It hints at an eternal cycle of suffering; if you’re not currently involved in a tragedy, you’re probably recovering from one. And coping so well.
Every soap has its legends. Corrie has Ken Barlow. Eastenders has Dot Cotton. Emmerdale’s closest is that white-haired moustachioed old man who hasn’t aged since 1993. He’s supposed to be a villain but has, I believe, developed the unavoidable soap opera heart of gold in recent years. Don’t ask what his name is. I’ve never known. And the team behind Emmerdale consider him such a national institution that they never bother reminding us of it. How wrong they are. Millions just know him as ‘that old man with the moustache in Emmerdale’. His appearance tonight surprised me mainly because I was sure he’d been killed off, several times over. Emmerdale’s occasional lavish-promotional-trailers nearly always seem to promote his upcoming bludgeoning at a wedding/barn dance. Clearly he’s a born survivor. For instance, in tonight’s episode, he was recovering from what must be the village’s first ever mugging. His female friend, Sharon Osbourne Lite, bought him an attack alarm as a joke. He wasn’t amused.
Neither was I.
Also getting air-time tonight was a malevolent Jake Humphrey-esque young entrepreneur who’d made his fortune doing something or other with the internet and was having problems sharing the wealth with his grouchy brother. On the other side of the village, some flabby old fool was looking forward to doing a local magic show; he’d even gone so far as to have a jacket made with the words ‘Magic Rod’ emblazoned across the back. Talking of magic rods, there was also a (supposedly) sexy storyline involving the funky new female vicar and a roughshod stubble-sporter. How do I know she was a funky vicar? She wore leather, man. And had a t-shirt with a bike on it. And, get this, she drank beer!!!!
For all the writers’ attempts to make the vicar seem rad, the most eye-opening aspect of her character wasn’t her dress sense or the fact she liked pints. It was seeing her talk to people. Nobody talks to vicars in real life. Village vicars are usually a mystery to both parish and parishioners. They’re often shipped in from the other side of the country by the C of E after the previous vicar simply disappeared whilst out in the rectory garden one night. At best, you might see one exiting the village shop with a folded copy of The Times underarm. Other than that, it’s funerals or Christmas only. They certainly don’t, like Emmerdale’s vicar, lead well-attended carol services for groups of sassy young office girls during a midweek lunch break and then confide in them that they think the roughshod stubble-sporter is something of a dish.
There was, and is, something undeniably tame about Emmerdale. Everything was sanitised. The village itself reeked of National Trust. The make-believe house interiors were so pristine and sterile, so clearly lit by studio lights, that whenever two characters sat and talked to one another, I half expected to hear a sitcom laughter track after each line. Whereas in Eastenders you might overhear the latest Radio One playlist, on tonight’s Emmerdale, the radio was playing Bye Bye Baby by The Bay City Rollers. The cast’s clothes were all ironed to perfection, even on reprobates like Splat Dingle and his dippy kid. Not a crease, not a stain. Pure, clean, loose cottons, scented with lavender conditioner that you could almost smell through the television. Each scene looked like an advert for a Unilever product.
It may have been five minutes shorter than Eastenders, but it felt ten minutes longer.
‘And don’t forget,’ said the ITV announcer, in the style of a wife reminding a husband of his upcoming vasectomy, ‘tomorrow’s Emmerdale is a double bill.’
Pick up your copy of Semi-Professional Writer to discover how the rest of the week’s Emmerdale panned out!