An unforgettable week is just the beginning (Picture: Lime Pictures)
It’s fair to say that everyone is talking about Hollyoaks right now – and it’s for good reason.
Where previously, discussion has erred on a less positive note in recent years, a cautious excitement is stirring among fans as a new team at the top has showcased a spectacular episode in a recent trailer, as well as confirming big name returns such as Emma Rigby as Hannah Ashworth, Claire Cooper as Jacqui McQueen and Charlie Clapham as Freddie Roscoe.
I was lucky enough to be treated to a screening of a big hour long episode landing next week, a pivotal airing that the Hollyoaks team are considering the beginning of an explosive new era, one that will take the show back to its roots.
I’m not about to drop any big spoilers to ruin surprises, but I gasped several times while watching, and I consider myself pretty hard to shock having been doing this job for nearly nine years!
So much importance and pride was placed on the episode that the screening was packed with more cast and crew than I could name and, with the vibe of ‘we’re back!’ the team wasted no time in promising Metro.co.uk a big year ahead off the back of the hour long.
Having worked on and off Hollyoaks for many years, including a pivotal role in the golden era of the early to mid 2010s when the show was landing waves of awards, Hannah Cheers is the new co-executive producer of Hollyoaks, alongside seasoned director Angelo Abela.
Faces old and new will be part of some huge stories (Picture: Lime Pictures)
Taking the opportunity to sell her vision for Hollyoaks, Hannah, who also served a recent stint at Emmerdale, said: ‘Hollyoaks has always been a show about firsts and we are delighted to be at the front of Channel 4’s digital first strategy. The year ahead will see a lot more firsts, as we continue to tell more agenda setting, issue based storylines.
‘Excitingly, we also have some familiarity in the welcome returns of some much loved characters. We really decided to invest in our big hour long special to kick off the year ahead, and the fallout from that will see secrets in abundance and stories that will throw forward ripple effects through the village for a long time to come.
‘There has been so much passion and hard work that’s gone into creating that episode and everyone is so proud of it. The stunt was filmed in freezing cold November weather, it’s Sienna and Mercedes’ wedding but – spoiler alert – neither actually end up going ahead.
‘Tragedy strikes on the journeys and the fallouts will shake the futures of some of our biggest characters next year.’
There’s no denying that there has been a testing time for Hollyoaks. On the back of soaps such as Holby City and Doctors being dropped from schedules, viewers were cautiously concerned, particularly when there was a sudden sweep of changes that saw three top bosses on the soap leave.
The hour long special kicks off a big new era with one heck of a bang (Picture: Lime Pictures)
Sienna’s wedding is just one part of a packed episode (Picture: Lime Pictures)
Many storylines and even characters have been instantly and boldly changed, and it can already be felt on screen. It’s just the beginning and, as Hannah told Metro.co.uk, the team aren’t resting on their laurels and are striving to bring the show back to where it belongs.
‘Working on this show is a privilege for all of us, I personally was brought up on soap, my mum passed on her love of soap onto me – my childhood was shaped by being a complete soap nerd,’ she smiled.
‘We know that Hollyoaks still helps conversations between generations – we place huge importance on this. We also know that soap is at its best when it makes you feel something. Hollyoaks has a unique ability to make you feel a huge range of emotions.
‘Intrigue and suspense, and really heightened moments, what Hollyoaks can deliver is special and it is complemented with joy, sadness, humour and empathy that soaps are so expert in eliciting.
‘At Hollyoaks, I always talk about it as an ecosystem. We have to balance all the different elements – and when it’s right, it’s really right.’
Addressing the explosive episode which sees a colossal stunt, two non-weddings and some mega twists, she continued: ‘With the hour long, the opportunity presented itself to showcase all these uniquely Hollyoaks elements, we’ve got weddings, dastardly Dilly and Rafe in the basement, but all balanced with our teens of our much loved families, caught up in the madness of their parents’ lives, and epic love stories.
The stunt will set in motion some major new storylines (Picture: Lime Pictures)
‘We want the audience to feel something and everything – that was the starting point. While we knew there had to be a spectacle, we also wanted it to be about emotional truth, and focusing on reality.
‘Soap is about everyday lives being intercepted by event, circumstance, luck and tragedy, so staging a multi-vehicle collision allowed us to explore the opportunity of a number of lives de-railed in a specific singular moment and to look at what they were doing the moments before, and how it affects their lives afterwards.
‘The Mercedes/Felix/Warren story was primed and ready to go bang and it became the natural starting point in the motor of this story.’
The cast are just as enthusiastic!
Ashley Taylor Dawson (Darren) told us: ‘Our producers now are fantastic. Hannah was here in the heyday when we were winning all the awards, including the first Best Soap in 2014. And Angelo Abela [co-executive producer] has been here throughout the years and has been a director here too, so it’s really helpful having someone here on the floor who knows the visions and is able to put them into practice, as it isn’t always that easy.
‘So we have the perfect balance up there, it’s the happiest I’ve been here in a long time. The show is going in the right direction, with the right stories and so many good characters – and they are making very bold decisions and a show like this needs that. So it’s exciting!
‘Purely because I understand the people behind the beast, Hannah’s a massive advocate of the show, it’s her baby as well. I have top confidence on what she believes and how she tackles it and, with Angelo, it’s a perfect yin and yang. It’s a big job, a lot of pressure so it’s helpful having two people there.
‘The show has been through a lot of ups and downs but I definitely feel that it’s on a big up now and I am excited for the future. And these decisions, storylines, characters coming back – they’re being made overnight like, bam, we’re doing it, let’s go. That’s the way soap should be, it should have that pace and I think that sometimes gets lost. It’s kind of going back to basics – but doing it even better.’
Charlie Clapham (Freddie) told us: ‘I’ve got every faith, especially with Hannah as she cultivated that very first coming together of the Roscoes. That first full year of that – not that I am drawing any correlation – but the show won Best Soap. It’s because it was focusing on relationships – brothers, mother and son, couples, marriages and you do need that as well as the explosion stuff. I have every faith they are getting this balance right.
‘The show always has some comedy, backed by some really dark drama, backed by a really important topical story supported by charities – we’ve got all the right ingredients and, like Ash said, we have people to implement them and make them work.
‘It’s like a football team really, in that you just want all the right people in the right positions. Hopefully not Man United right now…
‘But yeah, walking around the building, there’s a really nice buzz, it feels like everyone is really happy to be here and that’s what you want. They can be long days, so you want to be in the trenches with people who you get on with.’
When Channel 4 made the announcement that Hollyoaks would move to E4 and a first look stream online, some were left uncertain – in the climate of tricky ratings and budgeting cuts in the industry, fans are very protective of the shows they love.
However, far from being a death knell and nudge into a graveyard for Hollyoaks, it’s a move that is intended to showcase a wider change that other programmes will follow and, according to Channel 4 Commissioner Ben Wadey, it’s already paying dividends.
‘It’s going to be a really big year for Hollyoaks, not just because of the quality of the show but also as we have just moved into our streaming first model,’ he told us.
‘You may know that Channel 4 has been really prioritising the digital first strategy and Hollyoaks is leading the charge of that. We’re already seeing good success and we also have the third window of new episodes landing on YouTube, which is responding to how young viewers are watching the programme.
‘In the first half of last year, we saw 556 million minutes of the show being streamed, Hollyoaks was up 27% on streaming last year, year-on-year, and over the Christmas period, Hollyoaks was consistently one of the most watched shows on Channel 4 streaming.’
The hope will be that this will continue to increase after next week, with viewers old and new drawn into the massive storylines and events about to explode.
Ben enthused: ‘That episode is amazing, I can’t wait for everyone to see it and for the audience reaction as well. It does that thing in soap that is so hard to do, which is exploding a number of stories and then confidently setting up a load of new stuff to throw us forward.
‘The results of this stunt episode continue paying off for months and months into 2024 and beyond, it’s a very confident start to the year for the show.
The beginning of a blockbuster year, bosses promise (Picture: Lime Pictures)
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‘What viewers will see in the episode and beyond is the result of a phenomenal amount of work from this team. It’s going to be a properly blockbuster year, there are genuinely shocking moments that are going to make you scream, there are mysteries that will keep you guessing.
‘There’s also the return of fan favourites, some we are announcing soon but others that will be eked out across the year. Also we’re back to telling stories that other soaps wouldn’t dare tell. They are stories we will announce in the coming months where you’ll go “oh my God, I can’t believe Hollyoaks is doing that”.
‘I am really excited that we are in that space of doing that and making those brave decisions. This is a show that’s made by a team that love Hollyoaks, understand Hollyoaks, and understand the audience. The audience are in for a real treat this year.’
If the episode I have seen is anything to go by, I can quite believe it…
Hollyoaks sets it sights on being back to its best as the show kicks off a year to remember.