An interview with Barbara Emile
In an exclusive interview, Ellie took the time earlier in the year to interview Barbara Emile, Producer and later Series Producer in the 1990s.
Barbara Emile joined EastEnders as a script editor back in 1992. Shortly afterwards she became a regular producer on the show. In addition to her continuing commitments as a producer, Barbara took up the post of Series Producer in 1994 giving her overall artistic control over the show. She remained with EastEnders until 1995 when she chose to step down from the role. Ellie caught up with Barbara recently to talk EastEnders...
The role of the Series Producer has changed a great deal over the years. Can you tell us how it worked for you, and how you coped with such a demanding role while also remaining as one of only three regular producers?
I am not sure how much the role of Series Producer has changed in reality. The biggest change is the number of episodes per year you are actually responsible for. It was possible for instance for me to continue producing my own episodes whilst doing the job of Series Producer when the show went to three times per week. Now it would be impossible.
How were storylines for the show devised when you took over as Series Producer, and what did you do to change this?
It was an amazing system that existed when the show was only two episodes per week. The writers provided all the major storylines featured in the episodes. Every three months the shows main writers plus the shows editorial team decamped to a local hotel for a crazy weekend where we came up with six months worth of storylines.
Back at the office, a senior writer (either Tony Jordan of Hustle and Life On Mars or Tony McHale, former Exec Producer and Main writer of Holby City) and myself would literally plot through all the storylines discussed over the weekend into 26 weeks worth of episodes. I loved that aspect of the job.
Some truly memorable storylines came out of that collaboration, not least of all ‘SharonGate’. However when the program moved to three times per week it became impractical to continue working that way. In order to produce a third episode, we needed to create a number of new characters with their own storylines. So I introduced the role of ‘Story Editor’ to take charge of ensuring that we had enough story material to make one and a half hours of drama per week. Louise Berridge was the first Story Editor on the show and she did a brilliant job.
Looking back now, do you remember any personal highlights from your time with the show and what is your lasting perception of your time there?
I had the privilege of helping to create the characters Sanjay, Gita and Meena. The writers went on to write some excellent storylines for the trio not least the love triangle. Casting the Jackson family was also a highlight of my time on EastEnders. Taking the program to three times per week was possibly the biggest challenge of all.
EastEnders is a national institution and having the responsibility for ensuring the programs continued success is a really big deal. It’s both thrilling and terrifying knowing that millions of people will be watching episodes that you have produced without the added responsibility of ensuring that any changes made to the show did not result in ruining it!
I guess my greatest personal highlight was actually taking the show to three times per week and seeing the audience figures reach 23 million. It was like having a vote of confidence from our audience in the third episode. It was a real gamble at the time, taking a successful show and expanding it. I am happy to say the gamble paid off and the show has continued to go from strength to strength ever since.
It’s been widely reported that there was no longer any time for cast rehearsals when the third weekly instalment of the soap came about in early 1994. Was it tricky making that transition from 2 to 3 weekly episodes?
With regards to the rehearsals, we all adapted very quickly to rehearsing on set before we shot the scene rather than having the extra time allocated for rehearsals in a different location.
The Mandy and Aidan storyline was topical at the time with Cardboard City in Waterloo receiving a lot of press. Do you feel it’s important for the show to reflect reality sometimes?
Yes I do. Indeed, the audience expects it. EastEnders has always had an edge. It has a tradition of telling great stories and I think the audience expect nothing less.
The show touched ever so slightly upon the theme of incest with David being attracted to Bianca. Were you worried about the reaction to that storyline?
No. I was confident that the story would be told responsibly and truthfully. At the end of the day, that is what is important.
Ricky and Bianca quickly became a very popular couple and their relationship formed part of the show’s 10th anniversary storyline when Bianca discovered Ricky’s affair with her friend Natalie Price. Can you tell us a bit about why you thought those two characters would be a good combination together?
To be honest, it was a collective decision taken by the writers together with the editorial team and myself. We all thought Ricky and Bianca would be a great couple. They were trouble together and even greater trouble apart. A perfect dynamic. We all believed they were destined to be together and guess what? Fifteen years later that relationship is still going strong.
One of the most memorable episodes during your time as Series Producer was the reveal of Sharon’s affair with Phil in the Queen Vic. Those brilliant reveal episodes gave the show its highest ratings for a long time and the script by Tony Jordan was superb. Were you pleased with the outcome to this storyline?
The Sharon, Grant and Phil love triangle remains one of the most memorable storylines in EastEnders history. Tony Jordan intended the storyline to be told over a period of a year and was confident that the audience would remain gripped throughout. He was absolutely right. I loved producing those episodes. The acting was superb and the writing brilliant. EastEnders at it’s best!
Under your tenure we saw the first EastEnders lesbian kiss between Della and Binnie. Do you remember much about the response to their storyline?
Oh yes! How could I forget? We had a fair amount of letters of complaint over that storyline.
The storyline that eventually took Arthur out of EE was begun in your time. Did you know then it was to be final, and how did the show work to accommodate that?
Yes I did know that eventually Arthur would leave Albert Square but I didn’t know the exact date. As an original member of the EastEnders cast, Arthur was a very important character in the show and much loved by the audience. In order to tell his exit story properly, we decided the storyline needed to be told over a long period of time.
Louise Berridge, who helped storyline Arthur’s exit, adds
Bill Treacher was the most lovely man to work with, and could not have been more professional in the way he approached his exit. He was very flexible with his dates, and gave us a full year’s notice to craft the story such a significant departure deserved. I still hoped he might feel like returning one day when he’d had a well-deserved rest, which is why I came up with the idea of sending him to prison in the first instance, leaving the death open for someone else to deal with if it arose. I also wanted his exit to reflect who the character was and take account of his history, so I constructed it out of the old Christmas-Club scandal and channelled it through his well-established love of gardening and the need for ‘green space’ in an urban environment.
Having time to build the story properly was a godsend. Something so big needs very careful preparation of the ground, and I was planting little tiny seeds of it very early in my time there. Our viewers, however, are scarily perceptive, and I remember the need to hide every single move as I went. For instance, for the scam to work I needed to establish Arthur paying the money regularly into the bank – but if I’d included a scene in which Arthur just pays in money everyone would have known at once there was a reason for it and been onto the scam in a second. So I disguised it by adding another story on top – a silly, rather trivial story about forged fivers in the Vic, which would come to light when Arthur took money to the bank. The viewers saw the bank scene had a clear story purpose, and (hopefully) never looked to see the real one lurking underneath...
That’s the real joy of storylining a major soap. Soaps work on the long time-scale, and it’s tragic when they lose that advantage. It’s desperately frustrating, for instance, when actors leave suddenly without time to finish their story properly. The emphasis on ratings can also make it very tempting to go for quick spectacular hits in a storyliner or producer’s own lifetime on the show, but I still think the best approach is to do what Barbara had the courage to do - to forget one’s own profile and lay seeds for someone else to bring to bloom, to lay mines for someone else to explode. ‘EastEnders’ is like a relay race. Each producer in turn can explode the mines left by their predecessor’s (as I was fortunate enough to be given the Little Mo/Trevor explosion) but they also need to lay down their own for those who comes after (as I did with Den’s murder). The show (I hope) will outlive us all...
How does EastEnders reinvent itself when cast move on?
EastEnders is very much about all the residents of Walford and as writers and Producers your challenge is to come up with great stories for each individual character. Therefore, you are always working on new storylines for characters and when those storylines have run their course the focus shifts onto another group of characters. As a consequence, the show always copes with the departure of individual characters no matter how popular.
Inevitably, beloved characters will leave the show for a number of reasons and of course they will be missed by the audience. However, there are always exciting storylines and intriguing characters to engage the audience and so the focus is inevitably shifted away from the character who has left and on to the latest big storyline. Frankly, that is the test of a truly successful long running series.
Louise Berridge tells me it was your inspiration to cast Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell. Did you meet any opposition over recasting a part which had already appeared, or casting an actress who was already such a familiar face to British Television audiences?
No I didn’t meet any opposition to the casting of Barbara Windsor but it was made clear to me that if it did not work, it was my job on the line! After all Barbara is an icon. I don’t think anyone as famous had appeared in a long running series before and so there was always a risk that the audience would not accept or indeed believe in the character. I was instructed to make sure the press did not get wind of the fact that Barbara may be joining the cast of EastEnders. That was quite a challenge! How do you organise a casting session with someone that famous and keep it out of the press?
Everything had to be arranged with the greatest secrecy. Tony Jordan wrote a script secretly especially for Peggy, Grant and Phil. The set was locked down so no one could enter or leave whilst we were casting. We managed to get Barbara in and out of BBC Elstree Studios without anyone knowing except myself and a handful of EastEnders personnel who were involved in the casting process. Of course Steve McFadden and Ross Kemp were in on the secret and were very excited at the prospect of Barbara Windsor playing their screen mum. They generously agreed to come in on their day off to do a screen test with Barbara. I was a nervous wreck on the day (but hopefully I hid it well). However, the moment Barbara, Ross and Steve started reading the scene where the Mitchell brothers were reunited with Peggy, I knew it was going to work. The rest, as they say, is history!
EastEnders is renowned for having strong family units and you mentioned before being proud of casting the Jackson family. Did you face any challenges in casting the family?
It’s always a challenge when a family is introduced into a long running series. The family have to work as a unit and be totally believable but the characters also have to work as individuals. So in the case of the Jackson’s, each member of the family had their own story, even Wellard the dog! Once the editorial team were happy that the characters worked individually, we discussed how the Jackson’s as a family would relate to the other residents of Albert Square. It was decided that the Jackson’s would be the family from hell - the neighbours that no one would actually want to live next door to.
The next step was casting Carol and Alan Jackson, which was so important to the success of the family. We had to make sure they were believable as a couple and then we set about casting their children and of course the family pet.
I loved casting the Jackson’s but it wasn’t easy. Introducing such a large group into the square was a gamble that could have easily backfired. If one character doesn’t work you can write them out, a whole family is a very different proposition.
Fortunately the Jackson’s were a great addition to the square. Bianca and Carol are still creating mayhem, which is brilliant!
How much of an impact could off-screen events have to the production process?
To be honest, a cast member suffering ill health has the most impact on the production process. In my experience, the cast are all amazingly professional and so rarely do issues in their private lives affect their ability to do the job.
Do you still watch EastEnders? If so do you have any thoughts on how the show has evolved over the last fifteen years?
Yes of course! I was a fan before I worked on EastEnders and I still am. Unfortunately, I don’t watch it as often as I would like because of the other demands on my time, but I try and catch up whenever I can.
EastEnders is still an amazing program that continues to entertain millions of people every week. After twenty five years, that is an amazing feat.
What have you been up to in the fifteen years since leaving EastEnders?
After leaving EastEnders I joined the BBC Drama dept. as an Executive Producer overseeing a number of drama productions. It was a very different way of working as I was based in Television Centre in an office instead of out at Elstree on the lot of EastEnders. I missed the cast and crew very much and the adrenalin high you get on a daily basis working on a busy show like EastEnders.
I left the BBC and went on to work for an established Hollywood producer who decided to set up a production company in London. It was a really challenging experience as making movies is very different to making television. Lots of power lunches at the Ivy, lots of Hollywood Stars and high powered business meetings, which I found fascinating but somewhat unreal.
After my brush with Hollywood, I took time out to have a family, which is something very hard to do if you are producing full time on busy shows.
I have recently begun producing drama again and returned to the BBC to produce Holby City, which I absolutely loved. Holby City is filmed out at BBC Elstree Studios where EastEnders is made so it was great to see so many of the cast of EastEnders again. Producing Holby City was a real challenge and thankfully the skills I acquired producing EastEnders really helped. I loved working on Holby City despite being an absolute hypochondriac! Once I got over the fact that my working days involved discussing rare medical conditions, watching prosthetic hearts being transplanted and being surrounded by fake blood and various pieces of sophisticated hospital theatre equipment, I was fine. It is a great show to work on and I was privileged to be part of the team to win the first BAFTA award for the show, which has pride of place in my study together with my very own ’Albert Square’ sign!
Is there anything you learned from working on the show that affected your approach to subsequent jobs?
Where do I begin? I learnt so much during my time on EastEnders.
The discipline of working at such a fast pace is something that has held me in good stead throughout my career in Television.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Barbara!