Forty years ago this week ITV Daytime extended its hours and with the station staying on air in the afternoons came a host of new programming. Two were serials, one a medical saga called General Hospital  from ATV and the other a village based serial from Yorkshire Television called Emmerdale Farm.

The show was ITV’s second rural-themed soap, but not the first saga from makers YTV or creator Kevin Laffan.  An urban based saga, Castle Haven, set in a tower block in Leeds launched in 1969, but only ran for a year. In its short life it did play home to a host of soapy stars such as Kathy Staff who went onto bigger roles in Coronation Street and Crossroads, Gretchen Franklin who went onto Crossroads and EastEnders and Roy Barraclough who also moved over to Weatherfield.

Peter Willes, head of drama at Yorkshire Television, undeterred returned to the ‘soap opera’ format in 1972 when ITV expanded its broadcasting hours. Up until this point the channel had aired for only a few hours around noon, with broadcasts resuming at around 4pm. Castle Haven creator Laffan was asked to take charge of the story.

“They wanted something for lunchtime, and the idea was that it would last thirteen weeks, two episodes a week” Creator Kevin Laffan said in 2002, adding “It’s set in Yorkshire because YTV were making it and they wanted something rural, and I wanted to do something set outdoors.” He said as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations.

Emmerdale Farm launched on October 16th 1972 and was an instant hit with daytime viewers.

“I was asked to do another twenty-six episode, then another, then another. After that I started to take on other writers” Laffan recalled of those early days.

The ‘soap’ was different from all the other British serials that aired at that time, while General Hospital and Crossroads were mainly studio based, with little in the way of outdoor action, Emmerdale Farm was to produce more hours of outdoor footage than any other serial.

The story would revolve around two key locations, Emmerdale Farm with the trials and tribulations of the resident Sugden family and the central area of Beckindale Village where a host of regulars would meet and mingle, notably in the Woolpack Inn.

“It was set on a farm because the idea was to write about a rural community” Kevin Laffan said, adding, “What better than a family running a farm? …there was never any forced drama, I never thought of a story as a plot – you have characters and you see what they’re up to… …something that the viewers can get involved in.”

While daytime viewers lapped up the twice-weekly events in the Yorkshire Dales one production company’s management were far from impressed with Emmerdale Farm. Anglia Television which served the East of England launched ITV’s first rural saga back in 1966.

OB Videotape trucks had first been used on soap opera in 1965 for Crossroads, but only for some sequences. Anglia Television’s Weavers Green would be mainly set on location with only a small number of indoor studio sequences.

Weavers Green was based around a vets’ practice in an East Anglian village with a post office, shop, pub, railway station and racing stables. There was of course the obligatory church. Filmed in several Norfolk villages it wasn’t actually a flop for ITV. Viewers took to the story of the two lead vets played by Grant Taylor and Eric Flynn while it also gave recurring roles to future stars Wendy Richard of EastEnders fame and Kate O’Mara who went state-side in Dynasty.

“In a number of ways Weavers Green was ahead of its time” Anglia Television’s 40th Anniversary blurb says, continuing, “It was the first such venture of one of the smaller ITV regions and it pioneered shooting on a shoestring budget with an outdoor location mobile videotape unit.

“It was the first truly rural soap… …unfortunately for Anglia, TV schedulers of the time did not have the same enthusiasm for vets and pets as their counterparts today, and Weavers Green failed to secure two regular slots on ITV.”

Schedule planners placed one episode of Weavers Green to air on a Thursday slot, in the same slot each week. This fared well in the ratings. However the second edition was placed randomly in never-the-same weekend slots which failed to gain any worthy ratings.

“Many viewers missed the follow-up episode on a Saturday or Sunday, so after fifty episodes, Anglia decided the handicap was too great and ended the serial. Six years later a new countryside soap from Yorkshire Television was given the two weekday slots denied to Weavers Green. It was called Emmerdale Farm.” Anglia’s 40th anniversary notes from 1999 state.

The distaste over the Weavers Green fiasco would see Emmerdale left in the daytime schedules of Anglia long after most other regions had moved the saga into the late afternoon or evening.

TV critics were also not entirely kind to Emmerdale Farm, branding it the ‘sleepy soap’ – implying not a lot happened. But many viewers liked ‘not much doing’ in their serials. And while the press, and even these days ITV themselves, may believe the first 20 years of Emmerdale Farm was ‘dull’ it was actually far from it.

There were many moments of high drama mixed with the viewer-popular character lead stories of romance, rivalry and business. While retrospectives often talk of the Tate family bringing money to the village, back in the 1970s the show also had its own millionaire.

“I introduced a millionaire industrialist, Henry Wilks, whose factory had once poisoned fish in the beck.” Creator Kevin Laffan recalled in 2002.

The rich versus the poor was an early story arc of those farm years as well as old ways taking on new ideas. The Sudgens were headed up by widower Annie, with the farm family run. Her two sons eldest Jack and Joe were of the new world while Sam, Annie’s dad, was set in his very old agricultural ways.

Off-screen Emmerdale Farm was shown at regional ITV companies choice of time, like Crossroads, not initially networked at the same time across the UK. This lead to it rarely hitting the ITV Top Ten, until the late 1970s when it was noted a peak of 15 million viewers were tuning in. The show was often treated as the poor relation on the network, General Hospital was given a primetime networked slot before its YTV counterpart in 1975 and even when regions did start showing it later in the schedules it still had trouble increasing its ratings above its loyal following of eleven million.

While critics were equally insulting about Crossroads, although wobbly walls and ropey acting was its claim to apparent fame in the tabloid world, the Birmingham based soap, launched in 1964, had a higher profile than Emmerdale Farm in the press. Despite being an incredibly cheap daytime soap, it often made the front page of one newspaper or another, and despite airing up to 90 minutes earlier in the schedules it – more often than not – had 3 million more viewers than the more lavishly produced YTV countryside saga. Emmerdale Farm was just ‘there,’ but not really noticed. It plodded along in the shadow of Coronation Street and Crossroads.

Changes were needed and Yorkshire Television bosses set about boosting the profile and image of their rural twice-weekly serial.

“It got to the stage where I’d say ‘I don’t want that’ and people didn’t want to hear it. Your life as a writer on television is made up of rows, there were new people there who didn’t want to be told what to do by me.” Laffan recalled for the 30th anniversary of the show, adding “They told me [the new producers] they didn’t like what was happening, and we had a verbal punch-up.”

Kevin Laffan had worked on the show for thirteen years before he quit. He objected to showing ‘sex’ scenes in the programme and its drifting away from character lead to sensational lead plots.

“If there’s a plane crash, its ‘whoomf’ and then that’s it. But if Joe’s not come home, and Annie’s worried, that’s something where people can get involved with the story. You’re in a situation you want to see resolved.”

In 1989 Emmerdale Farm underwent its first ‘image improvement’ which saw the farm dropped from the title. Emmerdale launched a high-profile advertising campaign in the Thames TV London region in the hope to attract more upper-class viewers, it also tied in with the arrival of more apparently upper-class villagers to Beckindale. The campaign wasn’t particularly successful.

Another lifeline to Emmerdale had come a year earlier when Midlands company for ITV, Central Television, had dropped Crossroads from the schedules in order to free up their studios to make more drama production. At the time Emmerdale was the UK’s forth watched soap, the demise of Birmingham’s most famous motel moved it into third place.

With Emmerdale the pace of scenes were made faster, the farming scenes were ever decreasing and the sex, back-stabbing and conflicts were increasing. It wasn’t until 1993 however the show finally managed to get its much-sought recognition from the press, when YTV drafted in Phil Redmond of Channel 4’s gritty Merseyside serial Brookside to drop an aircraft on the village.

The sensational plot grabbed headlines, major ratings and outrage. Families of victims involved in the terrorist bombing of a plane over the Scottish village Lockerbie in 1988 were left stunned by the gimmick so soon after the real-life tragedy.

In the show it cleared out some cast, revamped the look of several interiors and took the majority of the village from working class rural to upwardly middleclass and mobile. In the past twenty years of Emmerdale its increasingly moved towards a more youthful outlook, aiming at a younger audience, the plots involving crashes, fires and accidents have certainly taken a rise, as has  the number of episodes produced per week –  six editions.

Its not just the cast that have been traded in, the village locations have too. Originally outdoor scenes were recorded in Arncliffe but relocated to Eshot due to the original village being too far away from the YTV studios in Leeds. Elshot remained as the key location until 1997 when fans turning up to watch recordings became such a problem a purpose built outdoor set was required. It was constructed on Harewood Estate near Leeds.

The original Emmerdale Farm episode opened to a sombre funeral surrounded by family unity and conflict. Tonight the modern era of Emmerdale is full of high-drama with a death, two births and two weddings – yes family unity and conflict.

On Friday we look at forty years of storylines, including rape, fire, child death and suicides – and that was just the first few years.

Emmerdale weeknights on ITV1

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