Emmerdale has undergone significant changes in the past two years, drawing in new viewers and rewarding existing fans as new faces and old favourites feature in compelling, character-led storylines. Recent achievements for the show have included being named ‘Best Soap’ at the 2011 Broadcast Awards and ‘Programme of the Year’ in the annual TV Times Awards. Here, the programme’s executive producer Steve November chats to Digital Spy in an in-depth interview, discussing recent plots and giving hints of what’s to come in the months ahead.
First of all, congratulations on Emmerdale‘s recent success at the Broadcast Awards! How did it feel to get that recognition?
“It was fantastic, especially because it’s an award that’s given by industry insiders and critics – people who know the business and the programmes very well. It’s a real honour and very, very exciting that Emmerdale is getting that recognition, which it hasn’t always had but we obviously feel it did deserve. It was really gratifying.”
How are you planning to build on that success this year?
“I think what we’ve been doing very, very well is telling big, bold stories with great characters, so we’ll be doing more of that. I think they’ll be real stories – stories that are heightened, dramatic and quite extreme in some ways, but they all come back to very real, recognisable situations and emotions. I think that’s very important to us – that we’re not doing extraordinary or fantastical situations, or very rarefied situations of guns and gangsters. We’re telling many stories about a fairly real community – how people interact, how they react to difficult circumstances and how they work together. So we’ll really be building on that – big stories, great characters but keeping the emotions and motivations real.”
Is Emmerdale‘s ‘revamp’ period now over, or is there still work to be done?
“I think it’s constant. Every year in every show – with Corrie, EastEnders and everything – every year is a revamp year in a way. You can’t stand still – you have to refresh constantly, so I don’t think there’s ever a period of revamp that ends. We had a good year last year, but this year we have to give the viewers something different again. We need to give them their familiar characters and familiar locations, the atmosphere and the community that they feel part of and enjoy watching, but we’ve got to give them some entirely new stories, scenarios and unexpected twists. The refresh and revamp is never-ending.”
With regard to specific storylines, a big talking point among Emmerdale fans at the moment is Aaron and Jackson’s story and talk of an assisted suicide. Can you tell us anything about that at the moment?
“It’s difficult to say too much about it as we don’t want to do a disservice to viewers by giving too much away, when there’s still so much story to come. But there’s definitely an enormous amount of drama on the way – there’s still a long way for Aaron and Jackson to go, but it is going to get difficult and of course it’s going to get more emotional, more dramatic and I think it’s going to be a talking point for a long time to come.”
Jackson is a very popular character but some of his fans feel that he’s been written into a corner because of the train crash. Is that a fair comment?
“It’s difficult in a way, because you think, ‘Would he have been so popular if that hadn’t happened? What would he be doing now and what would the relationship be?’ I think what we’ve loved watching, and what I’ve really enjoyed watching, is the love story – Jackson attempting to set Aaron free, Aaron trying that but realising that he can’t get beyond Jackson and that it’s Jackson he wants to be with.
“We wouldn’t have had any of that story if we hadn’t have had the train crash. Jackson is not able-bodied and that reduces the things physically that he can do, but emotionally and mentally, Jackson is still a fantastic, wonderful character and we wouldn’t be getting any of this story without the experience that he’s gone through. Sometimes it’s difficult situations that form characters and make us love them. I think a lot of the popularity comes from the two guys fighting this huge problem and overcoming it. So I suppose I disagree entirely that he’s written into a corner, because I think he’s a very effective character who’s in the middle of a great story.”
Things have been quite bleak for the Aaron and Jackson fans lately, so is there anything they can look forward to – perhaps some more heartwarming scenes?
“There is, yes – there’s a long way to go. Obviously way before Aaron met Jackson, he was a bleak character and a very troubled teenager – which is probably why he’s very popular, because just about all of us remember being troubled teenagers and trying to get on in life with all of the problems that it throws at you. So I don’t think Aaron was ever going to be a happy, chirpy, jolly or funny character – it’s just not him. Having said that, yes, there will be a lot more heartwarming stuff. We think that, over the months ahead, Aaron and Jackson’s story will be a love story – it’s about them together and inevitably, because it’s a love story, there’ll be a lot of stuff to enjoy and a lot of heartwarming stuff there.”
The Lisa and Derek story has received so much praise – you must be thrilled with the positive reaction.
“Absolutely – it’s been everything we’d hoped for and more, because you can plan the stories, write the scripts and know exactly what you want to do, but it only ever comes alive with the actors and directors. I think that Jane Cox and Steve Halliwell have been so fantastic – and you can never quite predict those bits. That’s the fun of TV, in a way – whatever you write and plan, you wait to see it on screen and suddenly it takes life. I think that Jane Cox has been absolutely outstanding. We always knew it was a good story, but we’re still delighted by the way it’s come to screen, the work that’s been done and the way that people have reacted to it.”
How long will this experience affect Lisa and Zak for?
“I think we always hope that our characters are a product of everything that’s ever happened to them – Lisa will never forget this, so we never want to forget that she’s been through this experience. Obviously she will live and grow beyond it and have a happy life beyond it, but it will affect both her and Zak quite seriously in the immediate future – over the next few months. It’s going to take them a while to make this part of their lives and learn to live beyond it.”
The decision to write out Viv Hope received quite a strong reaction from some fans. Can you tell us how that came about?
“It was very difficult to say goodbye to Deena, who’s been such a key member of our close-knit team for so long. But unfortunately, it is part of that constant refreshing and revamping process – we need to bring in new characters and that means losing some older characters. The logic of not writing out even your biggest characters at times would mean that we’d still have the original cast on screen, and the show would be what it was when it first started.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make at all, but there was a feeling that we needed to move forward – we needed to really shake up the heart of the show and some of the ‘givens’. With some of the things that people thought, ‘That is absolutely Emmerdale and always will be’, we thought we’d challenge that and change perceptions so that Emmerdale isn’t exactly what you expect it to be when you turn it on. It was a decision that was taken after much deliberation and soul-searching.”
When January’s fire episodes aired, some viewers were surprised that Viv and Terry didn’t get on-screen deaths. What did you make of that response?
“It’s interesting, because we did think about it and there was some debate about what was best. We just wanted to tell a story from a slightly different angle – we’d seen, a lot of times on TV, the inside of a fire, the flames getting higher and characters coughing and choking and burning, which is not always that pleasant or entertaining to watch!
“But what we hadn’t seen was almost the truth – what would you see if you were Bob or Brenda, the characters who were most affected? You’d be on the outside wondering what was going on, waiting and waiting before getting that terrible realisation that your loved one is not coming. So it was a dramatic choice to see it through Bob and Brenda’s eyes – I liked it, I thought it was successful and I thought it was a good dramatic choice. I guess not everybody did, but not everybody likes everything, unfortunately. But I don’t think it would have been any better to see Viv and Terry in awful and terrible pain as they burned to death!”
Are you pleased with the aftermath of the fire storyline?
“Yes, I think the measure of the story and its significance is the aftermath and what it leaves. We’re still seeing a village that has been rocked by the fire and the absence of Viv and Terry. I think that the funeral and memorial service were very affecting, and through Brenda in particular, we’re still feeling the absence of Viv and Terry. It’s a story that might not have put a lot of Viv on screen in her final moments, but it’s a story that meant Viv’s departure had a lot of impact on the village and on the show, which is what we wanted. We wanted her exit to be felt by everybody, and I think it was.”
Are you happy with where Emmerdale‘s viewing figures are at the moment, or are you always striving for further growth?
“I’m absolutely delighted with where they are – it’s fantastic. But of course, I don’t think there’s ever a time where we don’t think we could do a little bit better. We’ve achieved our aims so now we’ll set new aims and we’d like to grow that audience even further. And I do think that’s possible – we know there’s an enormous TV audience and that people still like traditional drama in a fairly traditional format. We know that people are liking Emmerdale and I think that we can continue to build our audience if we get the mix of characters and stories right.”
Gavin Blyth, Emmerdale‘s late series producer, did tremendous work in revamping the show. Is there anything that you’d like to say about his legacy?
“I think that his period as series producer was an extraordinary time for the show, and that was very much due to Gavin’s vision, energy and commitment. Every show ebbs and flows and has its high times and low times – you can’t be on screen for so many years and not have that – but Gavin just brought a particular and peculiar energy to it and Emmerdale had never quite ridden so high before, even with its natural ebb and flow. Gavin brought something above and beyond and really took Emmerdale to new heights, and I think he showed people – both on the inside and viewers – that this show really could grow and be more than it had been before.
“It’s gone from being firmly the third soap to snapping at the heels of the other big shows. I think Gavin brought something very, very unique as a producer in galvanising the energy of the show and taking it up a level. That was rewarded with the Broadcast Award, which was fantastic, and the TV Times Programme of the Year award in 2010 – some really high accolades for a show that was absolutely as good as it had ever been.”
James Sutton is a really popular actor with our readers but many of them felt that he never had the big storylines or screen time that he deserved. What are your thoughts?
“I’ve heard that and I find it quite odd, because we almost felt like we’d worn his character out with too much story. He arrived, he discovered his long-lost father, had an incestuous relationship with his long-lost sister, was accused of a murder that he didn’t commit, was framed by his half-brother who he’d only recently met, went to trial, went to prison. You think, ‘My goodness – what more could anybody have done?’
“That amount of drama is quite remarkable and there’s not many people who can do all that in the space of six months! Being in the family that he was in and losing other actors around him meant that his story didn’t stay at the absolute fore for as long as it might have done, for various reasons, but he was in the middle of our biggest story of last year at every stage of it and did some fantastic stuff for us. But I don’t think he was under-served, no.”
Have you got anything special planned for Emmerdale‘s 6,000th episode?
“We haven’t, but we hope that every episode is special in some way. We have 312 episodes in a year and it’s difficult to make them all stand out, but that’s our aim and we wouldn’t particularly want to say that the 6,000th is any more special than episode 5,999. We’ve got a lot of great stuff planned but we won’t be marking any particular episode – we’ll just be hoping that every episode in every week will bring something to the viewers that they can enjoy.”
Would you ever consider a live episode of Emmerdale after seeing how well it worked for Corrie and EastEnders?
“We would, absolutely! We’ve got a particular production difficulty, though, as both Corrie andEastEnders are shot in the same place inside and out, while Emmerdale isn’t and we’ve got eight miles between our village and our studio, which means you can’t quickly get from the inside of The Woolpack to the outside. So that would create some very interesting logistical problems as we’d have two productions going on eight miles apart, and we’d have to consider where the director would be and where the cast would be. But I think that because we’ve thought of those problems, you can see that we’ve considered it and it hasn’t been ruled out.”
Is there any update on new opening titles for Emmerdale?
“Yes, that’s all happening. It’s been quite a lengthy process involving audience research and talking to the viewers. We really wanted to update the branding in a way that reflects what we think of the show and what we want to say about the show, but also in a way that reflects what the viewers think of the show. So we’ve been working on the brand and we will see new titles – significantly new titles – hopefully half-way through the year.”
Will the theme music change?
“The theme will be the same, but probably reworked a little. But maybe not even noticeably – we haven’t worked on that yet. I think the theme is very important as it’s more recognisable than the pictures. It’s absolutely unmistakable that the music is Emmerdale, so we don’t want to change it too much but we might revamp it a little.”
We’ve heard that the Macey and Barton families will soon be coming to the forefront of the show…
“Yes, there’s a couple of things coming up for them. We like to see the Bartons in big drama – they do very well with that, when they’re tested. Adam Barton will be getting a very big storyline. We saw Holly bringing trouble to the family last year, and now it will be Adam’s turn when he becomes the object of desire for one of our women, who really won’t take no for an answer. His relationship will have a huge effect on him, the Bartons and the Maceys. Also, John and Declan’s antagonism will grow and reach a peak as the year goes on. Declan’s obviously the landowner and landlord of John, but they’re both alpha males and John won’t take kindly to being patronised by Declan.”
The Maceys have been quite a slow-burn family so far – has that been deliberate after the Wyldes’ high drama at Home Farm?
“It has been very deliberate. I think people, naturally, always go back to the Tates who were so big and so defining at Home Farm, and since then we’ve gone through various new families who’ve ruled the roost. The tendency has been to have big characters, big villains, big situations and big plots almost from the outset. This time, though, we wanted to bring in somebody who has money, influence and affluence but we felt it would be too predictable to have a family come in and wreak havoc, be the villains or have a big plot almost immediately. We wanted a slower-burn so it wouldn’t be quite as obvious what was going on with them.”
Debbie Dingle and Cameron have also been tipped for a big storyline – can you give us any hints about it?
“I can’t give you any hints, but it will be a big story for this year and through into next. Debbie has taken some time away, come back and been fairly quiet, but it won’t remain quiet for her for very long at all. She will absolutely be at the thick of it for a long time to come.”
Cain and Charity had a brilliant episode at the hotel recently. Is it all over for them now?
“I don’t think it’s ever quite over! Charity seems to be moving on with Jai, and obviously she’s found someone who’s slightly easier to live with and more successful than Cain, and that’s all good for her. But I think the question is always whether Cain can ever move on. They’ve now had almost a 23-year obsession with each other, and I don’t think it’s going to go away that easily. Charity might think that that she’s moved on, but Cain very much hasn’t – which probably spells some sort of disaster! Cain has almost become a bit domesticated with being a granddad, so the question is whether he’s settled – and of course he hasn’t, so we’ll be seeing the best and worst of Cain in the months to come.”
You’ve also got Kelly back – will she be an out-and-out villain, or will there be hidden depths there?
“I hope very much that there will be some depth there. She made a mess of her relationship with Jimmy last time she was on screen, but she loved him and I think that’s always quite redeeming. She loves Jimmy and there’s nothing wrong with that. If she’s doing it for love, we’ll probably see some depth and we might even sympathise with her a little. So she might not always do the right thing or always be popular, but she’ll be doing it for love and I hope she won’t only be villainous.”
Will Doug definitely be back?
“He isn’t definitely coming back, it’s something that is currently unknown. Duncan’s off doing some theatre which he wanted to do, but the door’s very much open for Duncan and for Doug. We’ll keep talking to him and hopefully he’ll return, but we haven’t got a definite plan yet.”
After their big Christmas storyline, will Chas and Carl move forward separately or still have storylines as a pair?
“I almost think that, not unlike Charity and Cain, Chas and Carl have got unfinished business and they’re somewhat star-crossed. Carl certainly knew that he’d made a mistake with Eve – he’d had a bit of a dalliance, but it wasn’t a patch on Chas! He probably lost the woman he really wanted, so I don’t think it’s over for Carl yet and I think he’ll be interested in Chas for a while to come, so that will mean more stories for them.”
What’s ahead for Alicia and Leyla?
“Obviously there’s a big secret in there, which is that Jacob is Leyla’s son, and I think that we’re seeing that Leyla has always regretted giving him away. Leyla is a character who is burdened by regret because of that and now she’s watching him grow up in close proximity, we have to wonder how happy Leyla can be with that, especially as her sister is somewhat flighty and not always making the right decisions. So does Leyla still think that it’s best for Alicia to bring up Jacob? Or it time that Jacob knew the truth? I think that’s the big question. There’s definitely a lot more to come – they’re two sisters who won’t agree on many things.”
We’ve seen Marlon, Rhona and Paddy preparing for the challenges of raising a child who has Down’s Syndrome. What’s ahead for them?
“We don’t want it to be too challenging for them. I think it’s easy to say that Down’s Syndrome is bound to be a challenge, and we actually want to do exactly the opposite in a way. We’ll be showing that Paddy, Rhona and Marlon are three grown-ups – they’ve had some trials and tribulations along the way, but they are great friends and what’s at the heart of that is three good people who want to do the right thing, make sensible decisions and look after each other.
“Above anything else, they’re excited about and committed to raising a child. It’s a story that’s more about friendship and parenthood rather than being specifically about Down’s Syndrome – we don’t see that as an ‘issue’ or a negative. It’s something that brings different elements, cares and concerns, but – as you’d want from those characters – it’s going to be a very positive story.”
We saw with the Wyldes’ storyline that Emmerdale can do big, long-running, intriguing storylines very well. Is there anything like that on the horizon?
“There is, yes – definitely. There’s a lot of big stories this year and hopefully we’ve got a very broad range – some very big issues, big questions, some real-life human drama. And also a very big thriller towards the end of the year!”
Are there any new signings you can tell us about?
“Just about to hit our screens is Kurtis Stacey, playing Alex. He’s a young guy, a working-class farmhand who arrives in the village. He’s not unattractive by any means, so he’ll be a bit of a heart-throb and romantic lead, break a few hearts, and provide some great stories for our younger women and girls. As for other new signings, there’s nothing definite yet but there will be new people coming in through the year.”
What’s ahead for the Sugdens?
“The arrival of Alex will really bring Victoria Sugden back to the fore – she’s had quite a quiet time, but she will leap back into the thick of it with Alex, along with the Sugdens in general. Andy has got an exciting time ahead with Alicia – his new and rather troublesome girlfriend.”
Who else should we be watching out for in the months ahead?
“Debbie’s story will be huge and I think it’ll be a big talking point. It will really challenge the characters and challenge the viewers – it’s a fantastic story that will really touch Debbie and everyone around her. Aaron, Jackson and Hazel are all in big storylines. Also, Laurel and Ashley have been very quiet for a while but will be in the centre of a very big story!
“I think there’s plenty, plenty more to come this year. I think there’s a long way to go – we certainly haven’t seen everything that Emmerdale can do. We’re certainly not going to rest on our laurels or think we’ve done it all – we’re going to give the viewers something even more exciting and engaging this year.”