Emmerdale: Show that’s still alive and kicking

Emmerdale cast back in 1980 and Tony Prescott, below.
Emmerdale cast back in 1980 and Tony Prescott, below.
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Emmerdale is celebrating its 
40th birthday in style, as former script supervisor Amanda Wragg finds out.

Tony Prescott should look a lot more nervous than he does. Some time during October, to mark the soap’s 40th birthday, he’s directing a live hour of Emmerdale entirely on location at the purpose-built Hotton village on the Harewood Estate.

Here are a few reasons Tony, pictured inset, shouldn’t be smiling: 27 cameras will be used; 70 crew members will be working – double the number of a regular shooting day; 61 cast members will be involved, with 350 supporting artistes. Actors will have four minutes to change and move between sets.

There will be two babies born, two weddings and a funeral. (One major actor will meet his or her maker). Twenty rain deflectors will be on standby and seven replacement wedding dresses will be waiting in the wings in case it rains. In case it rains? In October? Give me at least a faint frown of worry please, Tony.

“I was listening to Danny Boyle talking about the Olympics opening ceremony. When he was asked about the weather, he said ‘What we get is what we get.’ That’s a great reply because it’s the way it is. We’ve just got to trust that the Soap Gods are kind.”

Prescott has previous. He’s responsible for both Coronation Street’s live hours, including the 50th birthday episode featuring the extraordinary tram crash which saw two major characters perish and change the face of the soap for ever.

“For me, a live episode is a fantastic celebration of the skills and crafts of the cast and crew. These people are working day in day out to deliver one of ITV’s biggest soaps. The biggest challenge for me is managing the anxiety! But by the time we’re on air my job’s done. By then I will have described on paper every single shot, probably around 1,500. The vision mixer will follow the camera script and pull the whole thing together.”

“Basically what we have for the 40th birthday episode is a magnificent play, set on the world’s biggest stage, in the middle of the Yorkshire wilderness.”

Live television drama has had mixed fortunes. Once the mainstay of Saturday night viewing it was phased out due to its inherent risks. The most shocking incident involved an actor dropping dead with a heart attack during Armchair Theatre. More recently and less dramatically (but still horribly compulsive), Quentin Tarantino directed a live hour of ER which went pear-shaped after 10 minutes and became a must-see event.

No pressure then, Tony.

Emmerdale Farm first hit our screens on October 16, 1972, in a hidden lunchtime slot and was hard-hitting from the off. Patriarch Jacob Sugden was dead and the first episode featured his funeral. The glum Sugdens stood around the grave in driving rain. This was our introduction to a family who were to be beset by tragedy for the next 20 years. Shortly after Jacob was dispatched, his son Matt’s young wife Peggy met a sudden end, dead from a brain hemorrhage just after the birth of their twins.

Just in case you remember it just as sheep, cows, more sheep, Toke Townley ruminating by the gate, cups of tea and doorsteps of white bread and dripping in ma’s kitchen, the Sugden family horror didn’t abate and the death count doubled with the deaths of the twins and Matt’s Auntie Beattie, hit by a train in a stalled car at a level crossing, followed swiftly by his brother Joe’s father-in-law shooting himself.

In fact there have been 95 deaths down the last 40 years including 10 murders, eight suicides (including the assisted variety) and six fatal shootings. Four regulars were rubbed out in the 1994 plane crash masterminded by Brookside’s Phil Redmond. Three deaths have never been bottomed, 38 have been accidental and at least four people have attempted to kill Cain Dingle.

In a previous life I worked at YTV and in 1983 I was a Script Girl (now Script Supervisor for the sake of political correctness) on Emmerdale Farm. Kevin Laffan was the producer and baby directors and writers cut their teeth on it. The farm was real and in Esholt.

An entire Outside Broadcast unit was transported down a single-track road to the remote village, and ten tons of equipment had to be hauled into position through proper mud and, not to put too fine a point on it, manure.

There were no mobile phones or even computers. We all went to work in wellies and there was a hose-down at the end of the shoot. Happy days.

It took two people to lift one camera back then; today of course it’s shot digitally, cameras are light-weight and often hand-held. Just two camera people shoot all the scenes in the village. The director and his team sit in souped-up transit vans bristling with technology.

A million miles away from the tempestuous tantrums witnessed today in the Dingle’s den, Home Farm and the Woolpack, in the early days it was the mutton-chopped Amos Brierley and blustering Mr Wilks bickering behind the bar like the Two Ronnies. Stan Richards, the former Barnsley club comic with an accent thick enough to lag a boiler was a hapless yokel and even Max Wall put in a cameo playing Arthur Braithwaite. Silent Walter stood in the bar with his pint night after night; no-one ever knew who he was.

Pedestrian though an average episode sounds, the ratings as far back as 1978 hovered around 14 million when the show wasn’t fully networked at prime time. Of course there were only three channels.

Emmerdale’s always had a streak of comedy running through it and today it’s provided by, amongst others, former rep for Naughty Nylons Bob Hope and his hopeless marriages. He’s been hitched six times to four women and fathered seven children. His twins Heathcliff and Cathy with wife Viv (who he wed for the second time after her affair with Paddy. Keep up) were born in a shed on the moors.

Down the years there’s been a schizophrenic, arsonist lesbian vet, abductions, rapes, runaway brides, sham marriages, a cot death and an armed robbery. Sieges, storms, high-jacks, house fires, explosions and a kidnapping, love triangles and abortions.

Blackmail, cross-dressing, knee-capping. sperm-freezing and testicular cancer. Rustling, bare-knuckle fighting, abandoned babies, a sectioning, car crashes and a gay kiss. Joy-riding, a hit and run and numerous miscarriages.

You couldn’t make it up.

It’s a tricky job pulling off enough interesting and relevant storylines to keep us entertained and tuned six times a week and not stray to the competition. A team of twenty-two writers are locked in a windowless room until they deliver.

Down the last 40 years Emmerdale’s continued to evolve, growing into a show telling stories about modern dilemmas and we care deeply about the fate of the characters. Given his track record, Prescott’s got every chance of pulling the current labyrinth storylines together on the night into a Grand Guignol, rain or no rain.

Has he got any advice for the 350-strong cast? “Forget about the audience at home, play to your colleagues and crew. This is the normal way you would play this scene. Forget the millions. If you start bringing that into your head then you’re lost. I know they can pull it off, they’re at the peak of their game.”

Assuming Prescott survives, what’s next for him? “Soaps seem to be my life now, which is fine. But it’s not enough just to pull this live hour off; we’ve got to make sure the subsequent episodes are as good. What I pray and hope is that we do Emmerdale justice. I’m a huge fan and I really want this to work.”

I think you’ll find the viewing figures will speak for themselves Tony. It’ll be alright on the night. Just don’t do a Tarantino.