"Soap audiences are a sophisticated bunch", says Emmerdale's Iain MacLeod

"Soap audiences are a sophisticated bunch", says Emmerdale's Iain MacLeod

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Monday, 20th March 2017

Iain MacLeod has not been afraid of pushing Emmerdale audiences to their limits since he first joined the soap as series producer just over a year ago.

After jumping ship from Hollyoaks to Emmerdale, MacLeod explains his excitement at bringing new ideas to the Yorkshire-based soap.

“I’m always looking for ways to do something differently or surprise the audience with something they haven’t thought of before,” he says.

And that he did. During a week-long storyline, which was ten months in the making, the small village turned to chaos when a multi-car pile up left viewers guessing who would exit the soap, with central characters at the heart of one of the biggest disasters in Emmerdale history.

He compares the moment before the episode was broadcast to the iconic scene in Back to the Future, when Marty McFly plays rock-n-roll music to the 1950s audience, “they love it and then at a certain point he starts to wig out and go completely crazy, and everybody ends up staring open mouthed in astonishment and horror.”

Comparing the stunt to McFly's famous words, MacLeod was concerned, “is there going to be a case of 'you guys might not be ready for this now but your kids are going to love it."

Despite his reservations, the week was a resounding success, creating a frenzy on social media as fans tried to guess who would be in the coffin at the end of the week, "never underestimate a soap audience, they’re a sophisticated bunch.”

Emmerdale’s profile on social media has certainly skyrocketed during MacLeod's reign as the series producer, and he’s embraced the influx of new voices.

He laughs when I mention the popularity of the hashtag #Robron, the portmanteau for the newlyweds Robert Sudgen and Aaron Dingle, saying, “I love how vocal and passionate [fans] are on social media, even when they’re saying things that I might not agree with or sometimes they might not agree with the decisions we’re making.”

Although the explosive car crash storyline was a huge success, he is cautious not to alienate any of his loyal viewership with anything too extreme, “if you sprint screaming over a boundary then you might just leave your audience behind," he warns.

Another major storyline of last year was long serving character Ashley Thomas' battle with vascular dementia.

MacLeod and his team experimented with a non-linear form of storytelling to convey Ashley’s confusion and distress in one creative episode.

“We shot the whole episode through the lens of his experience so he was meeting familiar characters and going to familiar places but we saw them through his eyes as transfigured into strange and foreign things, so that was quite an out there conceptual piece."

To approach the sensitive subject, the editorial team and John Middleton, who plays Ashley, did an extensive amount of research to ensure that the character was portrayed realistically.

MacLeod recalls “[there] have been very personal stories about how Ashley’s narrative relates to [viewers'] mum or dad or uncle or friend...if there was any anxiety about offending people I think so far we’ve got it really right, which I’m really proud of.”

He describes the next chapter in Ashley’s dementia story as “desperately sad but really kind of beautiful and uplifting.”

The continuation of the character’s hard hitting storyline is not the only thing the soap has in story for the year, as MacLeod reveals the family at the centre of the devastating car crash storyline, the Bartons, have not been forgotten, “we’re doing something that’s a bit non-linear again…less stunt driven…something really kind of quirky and original.”

But have his experiences on TV soaps ruined his enjoyment of the genre? “I try to watch things as a fan but all too often end up watching them as a critic," he admits.

Despite playfully confessing that his immediate friends and family want to “throttle him” if he tries to analyse rival programmes as a viewer, his wife is no stranger to the world of soap.

He reflects on the “friendly rivalry” with his Coronation Street script editor wife at home, although he jokes, “sometimes in our house it spills over into sulking.”

MacLeod has also had his turn on the cobbles. After starting out as a broadcast journalist, he landed a job he claims he was “hopelessly under qualified for” on Coronation Street and worked his way up through storylining in pursuit of his passion to work in soap.

He is humble about his position as series producer, reflecting “It’s the sort of dream you’d never even dare to dream because it seems so entirely unreachable when you’re [young] and now that I’m here it’s kind of a dream come true really.”

He credits his predecessor Kate Oates for raising the show’s profile and “making it a real sort of contender in the soap market”, yet his influence on the show with last year's captivating storylines has propelled it into the mainstream.

The soap sits among the nominations for Soap and Continuing Drama at the RTS Programme Awards 2017, something MacLeod sees as, “hugely flattering and not something we take for granted.”

MacLeod attributes Emmerdale’s long running success to its “recognisable visual flavour...the village feels very much like a part of the family."

He adds, "[it is] a seductive thing, that air of familiarity.”

Emmerdale welds the ingredients from all the other soaps seamlessly into one hole so that you kind of get every 'itch scratched'…rather than having to visit three other shows to get your fix of all of those things.”

What lies at the heart of MacLeod’s passion for the soap, however, is the dedication of the viewers, “as soon as people stop caring, then we’re in big trouble.”

Emmerdale has been nominated for the Soap and Continuing Drama Award at the Royal Television Society Programme Awards alongside Eastenders and Hollyoaks.

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Iain MacLeod has not been afraid of pushing Emmerdale audiences to their limits since he first joined the soap as series producer just over a year ago.