Tuesday, April 20, 2004 by

There was a delicious sense of irony apparent as the cast of Coronation Street collected their BAFTA t’other night. Battling it out for the newly renamed Best Continuing Drama against such heavyweights as Holby City, Casualty and The Bill, there was no doubt whatsoever that Corrie was, indisputably, the best of a bad bunch.

With no EastEnders to compete against (thankfully, one of the few decisions the Academy got right) Corrie was crowned King of the Soaps after a year in which it has been anything but. After the high jinks and gloriously compelling camp pantomime drama of Richard Hillman, it’s been all downhill – and at an alarming rate – for the grim Northern soap with only Fizz, Tyrone, Kirk and, latterly, Chesney, bringing any light relief to a rancorously bad run of form. Both Emmerdale and Hollyoaks (to a lesser extent) can lay claim to the unofficial crown of Britain’s Best Soap but, as usual, the “rich history and glorious tradition” of The Street won the day. Go figure.

Emmerdale, meanwhile, continues apace and maintains a far higher standard of acting and writing than its more venerable Lancashire rival. The performances of Mark Charnock as Marlon Dingle in particular have been a revelation; his portrayal of a grief stricken man has been, arguably, the most accomplished turn in a British soap in recent years and towers over anyone down Weatherfield way in the last year. Factor in the best youth cast in soapdom (by a country mile) and a wonderful corps of Silver Surfers and it’s frankly laughable that the turgid mess that is Corrie could win any award let alone a BAFTA.

Whilst EastEnders has ground to a shuddering halt after the marriage of Alfie and Kat (and indulged itself with a ludicrous storyline at New Year featuring the yoofs of Walford surviving a savage mini-bus crash in the inhospitable badlands of the Scottish Borders) and Corrie has stalled post-Hillman, Emmerdale quietly produces episodes and performances that are, individually and collectively, superior to their main rivals. If only Hollyoaks could lose its fixation with nubile, flexible young women and the aching desperation to be hip, it too could seriously rival the major players.

Tonight’s episode was a wonderful case in point. The use of a ventriloquist’s dummy was inspired (had it appeared in EastEnders you’d have struggled to differentiate between it and the cast) and deftly handled. The performances of those involved were uniformly excellent and the narrative build-up was subtly executed. Clive Hornby, as Jack Sugden, managed to walk the line between frustration and anger very well and Elizabeth Estensen provided a wonderful fulcrum for the storyline to hinge upon. Indeed, Estensen is one of the great revelations in this show. Her character has been beautifully written and allowed to mature at the right pace. Her performance was wonderfully judged and she delivered the bad news/good news to Jack with a palpable sense of incandescent understanding. Quite magnificent.

Another aspect of rural life that the writers have managed to convey with considerable aplomb is the role of the vicar. Whilst EastEnders has particularly struggled with God and his employees since its inception and Corrie only ever sees religion as an extension of Emily’s character, Emmerdale has managed to be the most inclusive soap in terms of religion and its depiction with regards to everyday life. John Middleton’s turn as Ashley has been sensitively written and Middleton, in turn, has repaid the writers with a string of superb performances. The recent addition of Liam O’Brien as Ethan Blake has altered the dynamics of a number of relationships and it should be interesting to see how this character, and the villagers’ reactions to him, develops. For once it is a pleasure to watch serious religious and moral issues be dealt with in a mature, rational manner rather than the usual Norman Stanley Fletcher approach of other soaps – ie. I’m in trouble so I think I’ll pray and discuss the nature of God, religion and existence with a cartoon canon in 60 seconds flat.

Emmerdale also scores high on the comedy scale. The on-screen pairing of Deena Payne and Anthony Audenshaw as Viv and Bob remains not only one of the small screen’s greatest couplings but a hidden gem that deserves greater praise. Utterly over the top performances can be instantly altered to encompass profound depths with scandalous ease and Viv and Bob are the best pairing in soap, no question. Whereas the characters of Laurel and Sam can veer to the caricature of the village idiot occasionally, Viv and Bob remain on the right side of stupidity to greater affect. The writing is also sharp and loaded – witness Marlon returning to work alongside the slutty Val in the kitchen with the immortal line, “I’d better get back on the old bike then”. Lovely stuff and brilliantly played.

Dramatic tension in the Dales tends to be two-speed; rhythmically slow or frantically fast but, in either case, it always seems to be imbued with a healthy dose of reality. Tonight’s show built up the Robert/Katie affair quite nicely; Jack simmered soporifically as the truth dawned, Jarvis decided to rage against the machine and Ashley and Ethan clashed over the welfare of their flock. Factor in a dummy called Alfie and you have another convincing slice of everyday life in a not-so quaint northern village. More tea, Vicar?


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