LONDON — After weeks of shutdown, British soap opera "Emmerdale" is back in production, leading the way when it comes to resuming regular filming during the coronavirus era.
New health and safety methods were tested during a series of special lockdown episodes that showed the fictional family dramas of the rural Yorkshire village played out during the pandemic. These episodes are airing now.
During production, there were temperature checks, the crew lived together in isolation, the cast did their own hair and make-up and there were individual prop trolleys. A pole was used to make sure people stayed 2 meters (6 feet) apart.
It went so well, that they began shooting regular episodes Monday. Now other soaps are contacting them to learn how they were able to get back on the set. TV and movie production around the world shutdown nearly three months ago after the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 400,000 people worldwide.
"We felt very, very determined to get it back," executive producer Jane Hudson said. "I always reference my nan, she watches all the soaps, and she's 86 and she's on her own, and none of us can visit her. There's lots of nans out there, who want to see the soaps."
"Emmerdale" has been on screen in the U.K. since 1972 and was in danger — like many serial dramas — of running out of episodes after the production halt.
Rival London-based soap "EastEnders" runs out of fresh episodes June 16. Producers will broadcast special programming and iconic shows until the soap can begin production.
At "Emmerdale,'' Hudson's willingness to embrace ways to implement government guidelines on social distancing meant a minimal team of cast and crew returned to work on the Leeds set on May 20.
"I consider us to be pioneers going back, we're the first show back to production in continuing drama," said actor James Hooton, who has played soap's Sam Dingle on and off for 25 years.
"We've gone for the gold standard of health and safety, because obviously there are a lot of people at this time that are extremely concerned about going back to work,'' Hooton said. "And for me, to see what everyone has done to make people feel as protected in that working environment as possible, has been amazing."
The most useful addition to the set is the 2-meter (6 foot) pole. Not seen on screen, but constantly used, the pole measures the distance between people.
Actors do their own hair and makeup while being monitored by technicians from another part of the studio. Jeff Hordley, who plays brooding Cain Dingle, got off lightly with "covering a couple of spots and putting some hair product in," he said.
The environment is controlled with taped out areas, no location scenes or extras and specially cleaned prop trolleys — each set up individually.
For example, a scene between newlywed characters Sam and Lydia involved the reading of a letter. "We had two copies of that letter as it's classed as contamination if two individuals that are socially distancing on set touch the same thing," Hooton explained.
"It's bestowed a bit more responsibility on us all so we have to make sure we have everything we need for our working day on that (props) trolley," he adds.
For Hordley, the weird thing is reuniting with the crew after months away and, as the technical team are all in isolation together, he can't greet them properly.
"It's just strange because we are such a huggy bunch being actors, as I'm sure everyone in the world right now could do with a hug. That's the weird thing is, seeing them and not naturally going towards them," he said.
The lockdown episodes are much more like a play than a normal "Emmerdale" episode, which would feature village locations and plenty of socializing scenes in The Woolpack pub. There's a maximum of three characters on an indoor set, with no extras involved.
And the story lines mirror that of the audience — stuck at home over the past three months because of the coronavirus, worrying about family, missing friends, panicking about food supplies or taking stock of your life.
Hordley's Cain Dingle is not a caring sort and being trapped with his heartbroken nephew Aaron leads to amusing moments and poignant scenes.
"I'm sure there will be lots of people in lockdown having revelations about how to live their life because it really makes you quite introspective, having this time to yourself," Hordley said.
Showrunners from around the world want to speak to Hudson about how production was resumed. She's talked to "Neighbours" in Australia, "Shortland Street" in New Zealand, and "Coronation Street," down the highway in Manchester.
"Rating figures are so important. Right now, we can just put them to one side for the moment and let's get us all back working safely. I think that's the priority," Hudson said. "The soaps are one genre and we rise and fall together and I don't want to see any soap failing during this. I want us to all come back strong."
"Emmerdale's" lockdown episodes are showing Monday and Wednesday on ITV in the U.K.