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Managing a crisis

14 December 2012

THEY have had three vicars in the past 25 years - the last one left the priesthood after punching his dad. They are a rural community, but have moved away from the farm. So which parish am I describing?

Emmerdale, the ITV soap opera, used to be called Emmerdale Farm. But even a national institution has to move with the times; so they modernised the theme tune and dropped the "Farm", to make clear that it is not just for those with cow-dung on their boots.

Characters, though, must take the ups and downs of life, particularly the blonde go-getter Katie, who recently fell down a disused mine-shaft, and ended up in a dark tunnel - so cut off from life that not even her mobile worked. Waiting at the top of the mine is her husband, Declan, with whom she had just had a huge bust-up. But now, in the cold light of day - and it is cold on those Yorkshire Moors - he regrets what he said, and realises that he really does love her. But, with a danger of underground flooding, will he ever see her again?

Sudden emotional U-turns are essential in soaps. They are a popular art-form because they portray one emotional drama after another - "just like real life", we are told, only ten times more intense, and, crucially, with much quicker healing in relationships. If this were real life, none of the characters would be talking to each other after ten episodes, which would be a problem for the scriptwriters.

For this reason, soaps need the dramatic U-turn, where a person such as Declan suddenly realises that the wife he hated he now loves, and the sister he tried to destroy is now "family". Three lead characters all talking again: job done.

And, although Ashley, the former priest, did punch his father, there were extenuating circumstances, and religion is not treated with unkindness in the series. Ashley stayed on in the village without his collar, and is now one of Emmerdale's more emotionally stable residents. Meanwhile, the new vicar arranged a vigil for Katie in the pub, a "non-denominational setting", as he said. His intentions were good, but the candlelit silence suffered from certain drinkers talking loudly about the day's shopping spree. There can be value in using the church occasionally.

Soap art does not so much mirror life as accentuate it, and magnify it. Everything is a drama on its way to being a crisis. Take Katie, for instance. Two weeks after an ecstatic honeymoon, marital matters have nose-dived. Declan has said he doesn't need her, and after a terrible row, she is now dying in an underground tunnel. Soap characters, like the rest of us, learn quickly that life is a fickle mistress. So what happens next? She is found! Theme tune and closing credits, please.

Simon Parke is the author of Pippa's Progress (DLT, 2012)


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