To hear what the future holds for the Channel 4 soap as we head into 2012, Digital Spy recently caught up with the show's new series producer Emma Smithwick for a chat about all things Hollyoaks.
You've been Hollyoaks' series producer for a few months now. How's it all going so far?
"It's going brilliantly, I'm absolutely buzzing. I think the autumn was outstanding and I'm so happy with the material that we've got coming through now. I've been producer for a few months now, but I was here for a while before that as series editor so whilst it's somewhat of a new role, I have been heavily invested in all the storylines that are currently on screen."
What can you tell us about your overall vision for the show?
"I have a very strong idea about the show that I want to make, and a lot of it is coming through already so the viewers will have seen it. I joined Hollyoaks in May which saw the beginning of a lot of the changes that are coming through.
"There have been a lot of new arrivals and through the stories that we're telling and the way we're telling them, we want the audience to really engage with the characters. It definitely takes time but when that happens, it means you can do things with the characters and the viewers will really care. I find the worst thing is when you watch certain shows and something horrendous happens, but you don't really care or know why you should care. Emotional integrity is one of the key things that I want to drive through.
"I also want to use the audience more and get them involved, as we did recently with the Wretch 32 Invasion. I'd like to redefine the way that the viewers can watch a show."
"Definitely. I know there's been varying reactions to sixth formers and the freshers, and we tried to complement the Silas storyline by bringing in those characters alongside it. Those characters have had a bit of a 'soft launch', but certainly at the beginning of next year, we'll be doing a lot of getting to know those characters even more so that we can elevate them and their stories.
"As well as the sixth formers and the freshers, there are a lot of other characters who will have big storylines coming up in 2012. We're certainly not going to drop long-running stories just because a number of them have now culminated - 2012 is going to be a big year."
When will your first episode credited as series producer air?
"It's going to be on Boxing Day - so it's going to be the Doug special."
When do you think your full vision for the show will be reflected on screen?
"It's a tricky question to answer, because it's already started. When I started here, it was at the inception of the new characters and even Abersoch week was one of the first things that I worked on. I've also worked on the culmination of the Silas storyline. I'm so happy with the stuff that is coming through now and coming up in the New Year. It feels like everything is coming together as the show that I envisaged when I started."
"It would be absolutely ludicrous not to keep a certain amount of focus on favourites like Brendan, Ste and others - there are so many great characters and just because they're 'older' characters obviously doesn't mean that they're old! I think we have four very distinct layers of characters - we've got the sixth formers, we've got the freshers, we've got the 20-somethings and then we've got the older cast with people like Frankie and Jack. They're all just as important as each other when delivering a credible daily drama.
"Also, what we'll be doing a lot of is crossing over stories with unexpected characters. For example, we have a Brendan/Ash crossover coming up. Ash is attracted to bad boys and you don't get much more of a bad boy than Brendan! Her fascination with him will uncover more about his character than I think we have seen in a while. The minute you make those crossovers happen, you get some really interesting stories.
"Another thing I felt was that we had all these women on the show in their late 20s who are young, vibrant, fun and up for a laugh - but they didn't seem to have any friends, which I found really odd. So what we do in the episodes coming up is put them together in quite an unlikely way. Suddenly, you've got all these women who are hilarious when you put them together. I want to do more of that - putting characters together who you wouldn't ordinarily see."
Did the ratings boost for the climax of the Costello and Silas storylines affect your thinking for the type of stories the audience want to see and which characters should be prominent?
"The success of the Silas and Costello plot climaxes didn't change my mind at all, because I never discounted those characters in the first place. What it did was reaffirm to me that the characters were popular and compelling to watch. For me, it's about how we create a show which organically involves both the younger and older characters. They live in a very small village, so we want them to cross paths a lot more than they do."
"I'm definitely aware of it as I read a lot of online feedback. With regards to working on it, sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint why people have certain reactions, and other times it's glaringly obvious. I think the freshers had quite a soft entry into the show, and because Will was quite a well-liked character anyway, we came into that world with him.
"With the sixth formers, they came into the show en masse, so now it's a case of breaking them up and giving them their own stories and sub-stories in order to grow love for them. When I say 'love', you don't always have to like them - some of the best characters are people who you wouldn't want to be friends with! For me, it's all about character development. When you make them really robust characters, then people will be able to form proper opinions on them and that's what I'm hoping for."
Among the new sixth formers, Tilly, Maddie and Callum have come to the forefront more than the others. Do you also have plans for Neil, Jono and George or do you see them more as supporting cast members?
"The three of them will have their own stories but it's just a case of waiting. Different characters will peak at different times depending on what is right for them and their story.
"With Maddie and Callum, we felt that they had such chemistry together and it was time to see something happen. Jono and Neil will have their own stories, and I really love George - I'm really excited about a storyline we have coming up for him. I don't think I ever designate certain characters as 'supporting' ones, as for me, they all need to come into the show as fully-formed characters."
"Yes, we will definitely see more family-related stuff - for sure. But I think another shift in terms of the new vision for the show is recognising that when you start university, the people who you live with and hang around with kind of become your family. Similarly at sixth form - your friends are your everything.
"We want to give a lot of weight to the friendship groups so that they feel like families in themselves, but that doesn't mean to say we won't focus on the family units too. I really like Diane - I think she's great and I want to see more of her. It'll be a case of how do we bring her in, cross her over with stories and give her a place in the village. Similarly with the Osbornes, as I'm a big fan of them. I also want to see more of the Savages - the brothers, Dirk and Liberty as a family unit and how can there not be drama when the McQueens are around?!"
After so many new arrivals for the village, are there any plans to put a curb on this and concentrate on the existing cast?
"We're definitely aware of this. I wouldn't say we'd put a strict cap on it as such, as you have to bring in new people for certain storylines, but certainly September saw a lot of new characters joining and they're going to be around for a while. We need to concentrate on growing them and growing their relationships with the rest of the village. We're certainly not going to bring in a gospel choir of characters at Christmas or anything like that! (Laughs) We'll be generally keeping the cast where it is now."
With such a large cast, are you confident than you can provide a decent balance when it comes to screen time?
"In terms of scheduling, sometimes when you give characters a really strong A-storyline, you have to drop them down a bit afterwards and see other people. For me, it's all about story. You can tell when the writers are really buzzed about certain characters, as their pitches are electric, so then we work hard to make those stories happen."
"Yes, Riley is sticking around, but I don't think he's in the mental state to want to stand around behind the bar pulling pints for punters! What I can say is that The Dog has had a bit of a makeover, but you'll have to tune in and find out why! There'll be someone else behind that bar."
We know that College Coffee will soon be opening, but will there be more set changes ahead? There's been an online rumour that Cinergy will soon be boarded up…
"There are definitely set changes afoot - 2012 will see a number of new sets come in. As for Cinergy being boarded up, let's just say that Cindy hasn't been the best when it comes to her money so that would certainly be plausible!"
Are there any plans to create one set of opening titles which feature the whole cast, or will you carry on playing different versions as we're seeing currently?
"We've just recently filmed the title shots for some of the new cast, and I love them. At the moment, we need to keep alternating them with two different sets as the cast is so big. There are no plans to change that at the moment."
"The special episodes have come in quick succession but for different reasons. With Rhys, Jacqui and Gilly, there was no other way to finish such a monumental storyline - we wanted to give it the weight it deserved. With Bart and Jason, they've had such a long history and with Jason leaving, it felt like it was right to do it for them. Those two episodes were used to end stories, but with Doug, the viewers will see that it marks the beginning of something for him.
"The special episodes depend on the stories and when they really warrant it. I don't have any specific plans for more specials at the moment, but I do want stories to be so strong that we'll feel they deserve a special."
After the Wretch 32 Invasion, are you already planning another big event along the same lines?
"I think the Wretch 32 event was brilliant, because we did it so close to the wire. I was so proud of the team that put that together. It totally exceeded my expectations and now it's given me a taste for it, because I want to do more. I want to go bigger, be more innovative and get more audience involved. I can't tell you what my plans are just yet, but there are definitely plans and we're looking to do more of that."
Would you ever do a full-on live episode of Hollyoaks?
"Possibly. We did talk about it when we were discussing what we could do that was innovative. We wouldn't want to do a live episode purely as a stunt - it would depend on whether the story deserved it and whether it fitted in. The story would come first and foremost."
"It's interesting, because with the Doug special we are bringing Steph back, and I know there's been very mixed feelings about that! But what I like is that we're bringing Steph back and we're pairing her with someone who she didn't know beforehand. Straight away, that leaves people wondering what the storyline is going to be about. That's a great thing for us, because if it's predictable, it would be boring.
"As a general rule, I'm so excited about Hollyoaks' future that part of me feels like we don't need to look back quite yet. But when there are times to and the story is there, it's possible. The writers know the show so well, so they'll know the optimum time to bring someone back. But as a strategy, it's not one that I'm going to employ straight away."
Are there any stunts on the way?
"I do have plans, but I really can't talk about them! May next year will be an interesting time so you'll have to wait and see, but I can't give you any specifics!"
Do you ever read our Digital Spy forum for feedback, and if so, do you take it into account?
"I do read the forum, and I kind of feel like I know the regular contributors on Digital Spy now - I can sometimes predict what certain users are going to say! I think all producers need to listen to how the audience are reacting to the show - it's a very quick way of taking the temperature. I really enjoy reading people's views. It doesn't necessarily affect what I'm planning to do with characters all the time, because there's such varying reactions. But I definitely read what people are saying."
> Read the second part of our interview with Hollyoaks' series producer Emma Smithwick in Soap Scoop