The Emmerdale Plane Crash, 25 years on!
On the 30th December 1993, the residents of Beckindale were struck by an event that changed the village and the ITV soap Emmerdale forever. As 2018 marks 25 years since the Emmerdale plane crash, we look back at how the story unfolded…
For a lot of more recent viewers, the Emmerdale plane crash will be just another soap stunt but back in 1993, when word got out that just five years after the Lockerbie disaster, an ITV soap was going to tackle a similar subject, the media was up in arms.
As Emmerdale was moving away from being a daytime drama about rural life, dropping the ‘Farm’ out of its title in 1989, Yorkshire Television and ITV wanted to follow the success of its other serial drama Coronation Street. Rumour has it that viewing figures were falling, regions thinking of dropping Emmerdale from their schedules or worst still – the show was going to be axed altogether.
In order to put Emmerdale on a different and more secure footing for the future, the makers needed to do something big so they brought in Phil Remond, creator of Channel 4’s Brookside and Grange Hill, to work with producer Nicholas Prosser and Exec producer Keith Richardson. The Emmerdale plane crash was the culmination of their work and some might say, saved the show for future generations.
The Emmerdale Plane Crash On-screen
It was a usual night in Beckindale with couples on the verge of splitting, arguing, plotting, etc. Annie Sugden (Sheila Mercier) and Leonard Kempinski (Bernard Archard) were getting ready for son Joe Sugden (Frazer Hines) to take the to the airport but he was arguing with step-son Mark Hughes (Craig McKay) about returning a borrowed vacuum cleaner!
Elizabeth Pollard (Kate Dove) had accused husband Eric (Chris Chittell) of attempted fraud and threatened to go to the police, while Nick Bates (Cy Chadwick) and Archie Brooks (Tony Pitts) had stormed out of the Woolpack where a charity event is happening after someone suggested they were gay. Up at Home Farm, Kathy Tate (Malandra Burrows) was getting ready to leave husband Chris (Peter Amory) while Frank Tate (Norman Bowler) struggled with alcohol after splitting from his adulterous wife Kim (Claire King). A usual night!
The first sighting of something happening was when Frank Tate saw a ball of fire hurtle from the sky, hitting the Home Farm stables. As debris and gases filled the air, Nick and Archie were blinded by fluid as they walked home and suddenly Archie was engulfed in flames so strong that his body vaporised. In The Woolpack, villagers froze as they heard a rumbling sound before the windows suddenly exploded and everyone was knocked to the floor by the blast.
Driving his family to the airport, Joe was forced off the road and crashed as he tried to avoid hitting a burning plane wing as it hurtled towards them, leaving Leonard, Annie and Joe unconscious. Nick blindly searched for Archie while Frank narrowly saved Kim from an explosion as she attempted to save her horses.
The culprit was an Eastern European passenger jet that had exploded over the village, showering Beckindale with debris from the plane and engine, burning jet fluid, and the bodies of all that were on board. The impact saw the phone and power lines down, gas mains exploding, and the main access bridge into the village destroyed.
As well as Archie Brooks, Leonard Kempinski, Mark Hughes and Elizabeth Pollard were killed, with Leonard dying on impact from the crash and Mark caught in an explosion at Whiteley’s Farm. How Elizabeth died was not revealed for many years, with some believing that Eric had killed her. But in 2010, when her son Michael targeted Eric in a revenge campaign, it was discovered that she too had been struck by falling debris and killed.
Jack Sugden (Clive Hornby) and Frank Tate became heroes as they created a bridge so the emergency services could get into the village, saving many lives including baby Alice Bates and Chris Tate, who was left paralysed but wife Kathy stayed with him out of guilt. Villagers feared for local legend Seth Armstrong (Stan Richards) but he took refuge with an old flame – one Betty Eagleton!
The village was renamed Emmerdale shortly after in memory of what happened and in thanks to the Sugden family for all they did to help.
The Off-screen Reaction
With a rumoured budget of £1million, the episode was met with praise by TV critics who appreciated the drama, acting, and the chance to reinvent the show. With a reported viewing figure of 18million, it did its job in terms of getting Emmerdale noticed by a wider audience.
However, the show, Yorkshire TV and ITV were slated and received many complaints from viewers because of the links to the Lockerbie disaster and faced media backlash. Within a few days of the episode airing, Emmerdale stars Clive Hornby and Madeline Howard (Sarah Sugden) were interviewed on ITV’s breakfast news programme GMTV by Lorraine Kelly and Eamonn Holmes.
Both actors looked uncomfortable as they were questioned and it was clear Madeline had her own reservations about the story, saying “We all had certain worries that we voiced at the original meeting but we don’t have script control. So, what the cast has done is tried to play it as truthfully as possible.” She also added that while there were similarities to other disasters, that wasn’t the aim of the story and it wasn’t based on any previous events.
When asked how the village recovered from the disaster and ‘went back to normal’, Clive explains that was the point. He said: “The point of the tragedy is that it’s not about the air crash in that sense. It’s about the community and how they deal with it,” and encouraged viewers to give the show a chance to witness the longer effects.
However, Eamonn did accuse the show of being ‘grossly insensitive’ in its timing and while he didn’t want to take anything away from the acting, special effects, etc, but claimed it was a ‘cynical, callous way of boosting ratings’ and that ‘Yorkshire Television would be judged accordingly by people.’
In the interview, Madeline also mentioned a quote from someone from the Lockerbie committee about how a drama can sometimes highlight an issue more than a documentary can, something that still resonates 25 years later with recent storylines including Ashley’s dementia, Ross Barton’s acid attack, and the grooming of Jacob Gallagher.
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