In British parlance, Emmerdale spent the first 13 years or so of its existence as a “bog standard” series. It had never achieved the ratings success others enjoyed but it didn’t do bad enough to warrant cancellation.
Then, suddenly — though perhaps imperceptibly at first — the story of farmers, publicans, and business owners in a Yorkshire Dales village began to evolve.
Although glimpses of farm life remained, the scenes were now shorter and more numerous, characters were dying (sometimes horrifically), engaging in adultery, violent altercations, and every few months a nail-biting stunt was enacted.
And just like that, Emmerdale became the talk of the soap opera press and now reigns beside Coronation Street and EastEnders as Britain’s “Big Three.”
Master and Creator of Emmerdale
In the early 1970s, actor-turned-playwright Kevin Laffan was approached by executives at ITV and his interest in creating a “tea time” serial for the network was gauged.
Laffan already had one serialized program under his belt and feared writing another would damage his standing as a respected author of stage shows. As a result, he declined.
But, in time, he was persuaded. It was the promise that he could write about farming and life in a village that began turning him around. He was sold on the notion that the series would actually be filmed on location in the real Yorkshire Dales.
Original Title and Premise
Getting to work, Laffan crafted a family saga entitled Emmerdale Farm that followed the Sugdens, who owned and operated the eponymous acreage. Down the hill from the estate was Beckindale — the village proper — which contained the area’s most popular destination, The Woolpack.
Premiere Date: Monday, 16 October, 1972
Jacob Sugden, family patriarch and The Woolpack’s best customer, is dead. His coffin is prepped for transport to the awaiting grave and his widow, Annie, has waited as long as she can for eldest son Jack to make an appearance.
Daughter Peggy admonishes her for holding out hope – Jack hasn’t returned home in all the years since he scampered off for parts unknown. But still, “He ‘ought to be here for his dad’s funeral.”
Annie gives the go-ahead for the funeral procession to proceed — “Take it slow. I don’t want Jacob bumped about on his last ride” — and enters the family car alongside Peggy, youngest child Joe, and son-in-law Matt Skillbeck.
Unbeknownst to the family, as they bear witness to the casket being lowered into the ground they are overseen by Jack who then heads off to the homestead. On arrival, he sees the fruits of his layabout, spendthrift father’s non-labor — the farm is in dire straits and he’s unsure if they can ever get out from under the trouble that Jack has landed them in.
In its early days, Emmerdale (nee Emmerdale Farm) was an oddity among the present-day soap operas it aired alongside. Originally, it aired twice a week in an afternoon slot much like the soaps in America.
Furthermore, it was not “networked” — meaning that the time you did see it on your TV screen depended on your local ITV affiliate — and it was a seasonal series that disappeared for up to eight months every year.
As its popularity in the daytime slot increased, it was soon decided that it should air in peak viewing hours. Following a “full networking” it was shown in all regions beginning at 7 p.m. It currently airs every weekday at that time plus a second episode on Thursdays at 8 p.m.
Over the next decade, Emmerdale was a rather sedate program with only the occasional shock death or stunning revelation. However, in the late 1980s, under the stewardship of new Stuart Doughty, the tide began to change.
With him came the fabulously wealthy Tate family, who moved into the village’s stately manor house, Home Farm. Among their number was Kim Tate, a new breed of character to UK audiences but familiar to viewers in the U.S. — the super bitch.
Subsequently, Emmerdale (having dropped Farm from the end of its title) became far more glamorous, more willing to push boundaries, and perfectly capable of holding its own against any and all competition.
There have been well over 100 deaths, 43 births, and 74 weddings since the pilot episode. The first dispatch, hatch, and match respectively were Sharon Crossthwaite, twins Sam and Sally Skillbeck, and Frank and Janie Harker.
Chris Chittell is the soap’s longest-serving actor — he has played scallywag Eric Pollard since September 30, 1986.
Jane Cox, who played Lisa Dingle from 13 August 1996 to 24 May 2019 was the longest-serving actress. With her exit and Lisa’s subsequent passing, the character of Victoria Sugden (daughter of Jack and Sara) became Emmerdale’s veteran female resident.
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