Lola Keeley heads down to the Dales to meet Emma Atkins and Michelle Hardwick
BY LOLA KEELEY
If you haven’t been down in the Dales lately, you might want to adjust your evening viewing plans. While sapphic soap representation is increasing by the week – right now there’s also the Kate and Rana, or “Kana” storyline unfolding on ITV sister show Coronation Street – Emmerdale is doing their own thing with a relationship frantically hashtagged on social media as #Vanity.
Anyone who’s dipped in and out of the Yorkshire soap over the past decade or so will be familiar with resident hellraiser Charity Dingle, played with relish by Emma Atkins. For the past five years she’s been joined in the cast by out gay actress, Michelle Hardwick.
Last October, a drunken mistake saw them both locked in the Woolpack’s cellar overnight. Add a bottle of whisky and they were on their way to spilled smoothies, public declarations of disinterest, and a complete inability to stay away from each other. Lately they’ve graduated to calling each other girlfriend, with all the attached strings both were claiming to avoid.
Unbelievably, on a show that airs six times a week, this storyline marks the first time Michelle and Emma’s stories have interacted in a meaningful way: straight in at the romantic deep end.
“This has all of a sudden happened with Charity, like really out of the blue,” says Michelle, who plays one of the show’s three vets, Vanessa Woodfield. “It’s gone down a storm.”
Emma confirms that the first they heard of it was in the script, and despite that initial concern that they didn’t have an existing dynamic to build on, “We just thought, well, sod it. We should make the best of it, and we absolutely embraced it.”
Viewers old and new have embraced it right along with them. On social media fans are finding each other, and not just on UK shores. In a world with YouTube and Tumblr, fans have been able to catch up on the storylines from Australia, the US, and even Finland. On Twitter especially, every scene between Charity and Vanessa generates an outburst of happy tweets and grateful messages to the cast and crew.
In many cases, those messages are tales of people finally gathering the courage or finding an easier opportunity to come out to friends and family. As with all healthy representation, particularly in something as accessible as a prime time soap that huge swathes of the country watch as a family, it provides a handy example to lean on.
Michelle is the more active of the two on social media, and she’s been touched by what fans have reached out to say. “I’m getting a lot of messages on social media. I think we have helped quite a few people. I didn’t come out to my family until I was 28, 29. I just found it hard because there was nobody. I talked to my mum and dad. I think there was just like Ellen DeGeneres, that was it. And she wasn’t the Ellen that she is today. They probably hadn’t even heard of her back then. It is really important.”
It is a topic of discussion on set, and although Emma isn’t really on social media, word gets back to her. “Michelle told me the other day that somebody had written to her to say thank you, you’ve given me the courage to come to my parents. I found it quite moving. Well, it’s on in the living room, and I guess if you’re watching it, there’s that almost fight or flight moment maybe. You never know, it could be straight after the programme.”
One refreshing change with the emergence of “Vanity” is the lack of a coming out arc in the story itself. While those storylines have a great deal of merit, they’re often the only option given for how a relationship between two women should start. One or both assumes they’re straight, confusing feelings occur, multiple episodes filled with hand-wringing angst, and the inevitable, “I’m here, I’m queer” declaration.
Moving, sure, but also overdone at times. Another striking contrast is that instead of teens or characters in their early 20s, this romance is developing organically between two women in their early 40s, an age group frequently neglected even by queer narratives. As Michelle points out, it can and it does happen, even for people who have been married before.
Both characters have had their sapphic inclinations in the past. For those of us who remember Zoe Tate, lesbian soap representation that predates even Beth Jordache on Brookside, she was once the less genuine object of Charity’s questionable affections. Vanessa fell for her best friend Rhona a couple of years ago, only to be manipulated for a steady supply of painkillers.
It’s safe to say things are a little different this time around. Was it always intended to be Emmerdale’s next great romance? Or was their initial hookup last autumn more of a test balloon?
It would have been easy to leave it at a one-night stand, but even if it was a test, the onscreen chemistry and the audience reaction meant it passed with flying colours. Michelle admits she doesn’t know quite what the stakes were, but it did mean that, “a lot of it was off-screen to start with and things were like, are they seeing each other, are they not? Then Vanessa would get a little flirty text from Charity and then she’d disappear off.”
From inauspicious beginnings something quite meaningful has developed. Does it take the right woman to calm the “absolute sod” (Emma’s words) that is Charity Dingle? She’s wrecked more relationships than she’s served hot dinners in the pub, and not all of them were necessarily her own.
Emma knows all too well the reputation her character holds, and is grateful for the often hilarious one-liners that temper some of her worst traits. “She’s mouthy, full of bitterness and bile. Then suddenly there’s something quite pure about Vanessa, and it seems to just startle her and stop her in her tracks.” It’s not all purity though, and it doesn’t hurt that Vanessa doesn’t put up with any of the usual power games. “She’s like, why are you going around behaving in this way? You could just actually maybe have a decent friendship or relationship with someone. How dare she? / I absolutely love this person who’s standing up to me.”
Is that enough to make for a long-term prospect? Michelle isn’t sure, but believes her character is in deep enough by now that it’s a real possibility. “I think at the moment she’s very much enjoying it, she’s very much having fun. But I don’t think she’s closed off to the idea of you know, what if Charity is the one? I think she thinks that may be the one that she could settle down with. The longer this relationship goes on, I think she genuinely believes that.”
Not that they’re in a hurry to move in together or combine their respective children into one big happy family. After all, when the village is only a couple of small streets and some outlying farms, it takes some of the pressure off when it comes to travel time. Fans might be hoping for domestic bliss sooner rather than later, but this is a slow burn for now.
Which isn’t to say going to be all plain sailing for Charity and Vanessa. As Emma says, “In soap there’s always going to be drama, isn’t there? So the more drama attached to a couple, the more interesting it’s going to be to watch. But at the same time it is often nice to see things coming to fruition in a good way, not always a negative way. So I think people are buzzing genuinely from the fact that they make each other laugh and they get on. It’s good to see conflict, but then it’s also good to see relationships can be fruitful and happy.”
In recent press, Emma’s comments about Charity’s bad behaviour having a shelf life were sadly taken out of context, but she’s keen to reassure everyone that, “I’m still here doing what I do, and having the most incredible writing for my character.”
Whether a happy ending is how they’ll resolve their major spring storyline, based on Charity’s troubled past, remains to be seen. In the meantime, there’s been no shortage of on-screen snogging and sneaking away, perfectly balanced with the more serious challenges most couples face with a few that you might only encounter in soaps.
Of course, there’s no denying we’re still wary of the “Bury Your Gays” trope, where the woman finding love with another woman is promptly killed off, from Clexa right through to our own Last Tango In Halifax. Since soap has a higher mortality rate than one-off dramas, it seemed fair to ask about that sort of spoiler in particular.
Thankfully, neither actress was aware of the trope, so they definitely haven’t been pre-warned about it. As Michelle says, “Sit back and enjoy. You’ve got no worries there. Not yet, anyway!”
This article originally featured in the May 2018 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!