Emmerdale at 40: are you still watching?

It's four decades since Emmerdale Farm first appeared on ITV. Its heyday may long be over, but more than six million loyal fans still tune in every evening. What's the secret to its longevity?

It was 40 years ago this month that screenwriter Kevin Laffan first introduced UK viewers to Emmerdale Farm. His vision was a "26-episode play" focusing on rural matters as seen through the eyes of a traditional, upright Yorkshire family, the Sugdens, who owned the eponymous holding just outside the village of Beckindale.

Four decades later, you won't see a sheep coming down the high street for all the parkin in Yorkshire. Jack Sugden's concerns about milking are a distant memory. Now the inhabitants of Emmerdale are more worried about whether vicar Ashley will hit anyone again, or if a fatal slab of masonry is going to fall on Marlon's next girlfriend – his former beau Tricia didn't live to see 2004 thanks to a chunk of the Woolpack.

Six nights a week, more than six million Emmerdale regulars tune in at 7pm for the soap, with its credits featuring a pair of male and female legs tripping naughtily upstairs for some illicit sex – perhaps just about right for a show that comes laden with sensationalism and melodrama.

Laffan left Emmerdale in 1985, bemoaning its move towards "sex, sin and sensationalism". Later that decade, there were dramatic highlights such as Pat Sugden's 1986 car crash and, in 1988, a fire. But it was 1993 when then-new executive producer Keith Richardson decided to deal with falling ratings with a plane crash that wiped out four villagers. Sixteen million people tuned in – but not all were universally impressed. (Not least because the episode aired at around the fifth anniversary of the Lockerbie disaster.) The stunt did, however, put a stop to rumours the show would be cancelled.

"It was driven by a need to get younger viewers, to please the advertisers," admits ITV's creative director John Whiston. "Before, the soap was very much about the posh people who lived on the hill and had a control over the people who lived on the land." Now, Whiston says, that class element has changed. "The people on the land often own their own houses. It's more modern, and less feudal."

But some viewers still think fondly of the soap's heyday; of the old, reassuring Emmerdale that attracted audiences of 14 million in the late 70s and early 80s with its tales of mutton-chop-sporting rivals Amos Brearly and Seth Armstrong. Not since Thomas Beckett and Henry II has such bitter rivalry played out – albeit, once Seth got his allotment, over cabbages.

So has Emmerdale abandoned its roots too much? Is that why it is, for some, the unloved ITV soap – always playing second fiddle to Coronation Street; marooned at 7pm and marking kids' bedtime?

Anyone who works on any modern British soap will admit that it is difficult to balance news-grabbing storylines with maintaining credibility. In the old days, with just three channels, soaps such as Emmerdale could be far more sedate – a death or divorce was really was big news.

ITV readily admits that Emmerdale has changed a great deal more than its stablemate Corrie. While the strong thread of northern humour that made Coronation Street so successful 50 years ago still beats at the heart of the show, Emmerdale retains less of its original character, even if the Yorkshire soap has retained a sprinkling of oldies, such as Betty and Alan Turner – who Whiston compares to Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals".

But Emmerdale still has its fans. I went up to the set for a visit with a group of journalists on a lovely sunny day in early September. I can see why so many people call it one of the nicest working environments: there is a young cast, the atmosphere is hugely upbeat and jolly. Yes, the show features rather a lot of bed-hopping, and some of the characters and their behaviour stretches credibility. But at least it's all rather fun. I'll be looking forward to tomorrow night's live episode, at any rate. But will you? Let us know if you're still watching – and why.


Ben Dowell

The GuardianTramp

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