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Set in the fictional Yorkshire Dales village of Beckindale, Emmerdale Farm was originally just shown on Granada and Yorkshire TV and actually did involve an actual farm, with real farming incidents, unlike the present farrago which seems to have turned into EastEnders with “ey oop” accents.
Yorkshire Television had asked playwright Kevin Laffan to write a 26-part serial to be shown to housewives twice a week at 1.30 in the afternoon.
Because it was set on a farm with cows and corn centre stage it could have coasted along as a television version of The Archers, the long-running BBC radio serial; but Laffan’s creation was not about a nice middle-class family and it was not cosy or sentimental. He believed soap opera characters could have dignity.
He began with a strong Mother Earth figure, Annie Sugden, based on tough Yorkshire landladies he had known – Sheila Mercier, Brian Rix’s sister, played her as a woman who devoted her life to ironing.
Other characters were placid, neither wholly good nor wholly bad. There was no attempt to glamorise. Where Dallas had Stetsons and Dynasty had shoulder-pads, Emmerdale Farm had Ma’s pinnies and Matt, a character with less charisma than his sheep . . .
Laffan’s script started with a family funeral (Annie Sugden’s husband ) and a bitter row. He fought his own bitter row over it. His television bosses predicted it would be depressing and a switch-off, but they were wrong.
It was so successful that critics said it made Coronation Street seem flashy and Crossroads seem wooden. It was moved to mid-afternoon and then a high-tea slot by public demand so that workers could catch it too. Late-night repeats drew larger audiences in country regions than Match Of The Day.
Les Dawson called it “Dallas with dung”, and in best soap opera tradition, Emmerdale Farm has had murders, divorces, extra-marital sex, disasters and even the threat of a nuclear waste dump.
After the first series, Yorkshire TV were forced to abandon the village of Arncliffe in Littondale as their location for ‘Beckindale’, as the local residents were growing fed up with sight-seers.
The show found another village to film in, which they desperately tried to keep secret, but Esholt, near Bradford (population 359), is now a bonafide tourist attraction and thousands of visitors stop for a drink at The Woolpack – in real life, The Commercial Inn.
As the soap became a hit some of the stars developed typecast-phobia. Jo Kendall, who played Annie’s daughter Peggy, wife of Matt, mother of twins, decided to leave. Her death was arranged, and not long afterwards the two toddlers also met with fatal accidents.
Andrew Burt, who played the original Jack Sugden, the artistic elder son, wanted to do other things, so the writers dispatched him to Rome. Andrew went on to take the lead role in the BBC drama Warship, which began in 1973.
As soon as he began appearing in his commander’s kit on the bridge, Emmerdale Farm watchers began writing to Annie Sugden informing her that her boy was not in Rome but in Portsmouth. But he seemed to have done very well for himself . . .
Emmerdale Farm was renamed Emmerdale in 1989 – The word ‘farm’ was dropped to give the show a wider, more up-to-date appeal. Sheila Mercier (Annie) and Frazer Hines (Joe) were the only two original cast members to take the show into its 20th season.
But as Emmerdale was sexed up and the action shifted from the farm to the village, Annie found she was displaced as the homely yet domineering matron. She ended up in a coma and lost her second husband after a plane crashed on Emmerdale in 1993.
However, she recovered to enjoy retirement in Spain with hirsute pub landlord Amos Brearly as the series swapped matriarchs for ruthless superbitches.
This ‘coming of age’ of Emmerdale has been much lamented by those viewers who enjoyed the slow-paced pastoral pleasures of the early years. A third weekly episode was introduced in January 1997 and the series settled into a Tuesday – Thursday schedule before it finally went five nights a week in 2000.