The accolade came at the annual British Soap Awards in London. The show, produced in Leeds, beat off competition from last year’s winner EastEnders, as well as Coronation Street, Doctors and Hollyoaks, for the public-voted prize.
There was a further victory for Emmerdale’s Danny Miller, who plays Aaron Livesy, as he won both best actor and best male dramatic performance.
At the ceremony at the Hackney Empire in London, to be screened tonight on ITV, Miller said: “Soap actors and soap actresses, we’re the hardest working bunch of actors in the business as far as I’m concerned, we come in at seven, we go home at seven and we do 60 pages a day.”
He added, disparagingly: “And we’re paid *****.”
Though the soap awards date back only to 1999, Emmerdale began life 44 years ago as Emmerdale Farm, a serial devised by Yorkshire Television for the ITV network’s new afternoon schedule.
It became an instant hit, with early dramas centred around the Sugden family and the Woolpack pub, whose staff included the heavily-whiskered barman Amos Brealy.
The show’s main competition in its first decade came from Granada’s Coronation Street, but it was not a level playing field: ‘Corrie’ went out at peak time whereas Emmmerdale Farm was confined to early afternoons and was not screened all year round.
Even after its promotion to the evening schedules, it was many years before Emmerdale gained full network status with simultaneous transmissions across the country. By then, the BBC’s Eastenders had entered the fray.
ITV itself never referred to the show as a soap, believing the term to be derogatory compared to the more upmarket ‘serial’.
Exterior scenes were originally filmed in the hinterland of Otley and then in the village of Esholt, near Bradford. Today, a production village has been built at Harewood, with interior scenes filmed at the old YTV studios on Kirkstall Road, Leeds.
Emmerdale’s cast and producers were presented with their award by Dame Joan Collins, who starred in 80s’ American soap opera Dynasty.
She said: “It is a real, real honour to be here because having worked on a few soaps myself, I really know not only how hard you work, but how truly talented you all are.
“And I also know how difficult it is to be able to turn on the waterworks at the drop of a hat, and most of you do that so brilliantly, so it’s really, really impressive.”
EastEnders’ actor Steve McFadden, who has played Phil Mitchell for 26 years, received an outstanding achievement award.
Appearing in a pre-recorded message, he said: “Wow, wow. What can I say. I don’t know what to say, because I don’t really get awards - but I’ve got one now.”
After thanking his parents and the cast and crew of the BBC soap, he gave a special mention to Dame Barbara Windsor.
Dame Barbara played his on-screen mother Peggy Mitchell until earlier this month, when her character died of cancer.
McFadden said: “Last but not least, I must mention Barbara Windsor, who has been an absolute pleasure to work with, and a wonderful, wonderful person and friend in my life.
“Thank you Barbara for everything.”
Others to win awards included Coronation Street’s Connor McIntyre (Pat Phelan) and Patti Clare (Mary Taylor), Sally Dynevor and Joe Duttine (Sally Webster and Tim Metcalfe) for best on-screen partnership, EastEnders’ Bonnie Langford (Carmel Kazemi) and Hollyoaks’ Ruby O’Donnell (Peri Lomax).