Soap stars often say that it's like one big happy family on set, but in Melanie Blake's new novel Ruthless Women, it's a very different story. The deliciously scandalous new release tells the tale of a fictional soap called Falcon Bay, which is failing in the ratings and needs an urgent shake-up.
Scriptwriter Farrah, actress Catherine and producer Amanda are the ambitious dream team working to keep the show on the road, but with ageism and sexism rife behind the scenes, cast and crew are beginning to turn on each other. So begins a story of scandal and betrayal, where only the most ruthless woman will survive.
In real life, Melanie Blake worked her way up from soap extra to Queen of Soaps, as the no-nonsense agent of popular stars like Beverley Callard, Gillian Taylforth, Claire King, Gaynor Faye, Amanda Barrie and Patsy Kensit among many others.
Melanie recently spoke to Digital Spy about her new novel and how the world of soap has influenced its jaw-dropping storyline. And yes, she shared a few insider secrets along the way...
Can you tell us about your close connection to the soap world over the years?
"I started out as an extra and made it all the way up through the soap ranks. I was working as a camera assistant on Top of the Pops and met Gillian Taylforth in the car park of EastEnders. We struck up a conversation and she suggested that I should do some work as an extra. I took that on and would appear in the background of scenes in the Queen Vic.
"I also did extra work on Coronation Street and met people like Sherrie Hewson and Gaynor Faye, who I went on to represent. Then I went over to Emmerdale and met Claire King. It was Claire who said to me: 'You should be my agent and publicist'. I ended up running a company that turned over £30 million.
"So when I started out, I was paid to sit in the background of the Rovers Return. Within six years, I was representing the landlady of the Rovers Return and would be upstairs in that building at Granada, battling it out with the bosses. I had that power-trip journey – and nobody had seen what I'd seen along the way."
How has your journey shaped the book?
"Along the way, I saw what goes on behind the scenes of a soap opera, and it ain't pretty. That's why they're calling this book the 'Devil Wears Prada of soap', because I've seen it all – from the break-ups to bankruptcy.
"In the opening of the book, the male producer of Falcon Bay wants to fire someone and he says he doesn't want 'mutton', he wants 'lamb'. That is how the men still talk. If you are over 50 in a soap, chances are that the bosses don't think you are sexually alluring. That's wrong, but ageism is endemic.
"So in Ruthless Women, the reason the female characters fight back is because soap women have to fight so hard against the system. Essentially, it's designed against them."
Can you tell us about the kind of pressures they face?
"Once you're in a soap, you're famous forever. There's no way back and you never become a civilian ever again. You belong to the history of entertainment, but that trade-off comes at a very high price of self-esteem, confidence and the way you feel about yourself, because constantly people are watching you.
"So these women are amazing and they have to be so professional. Imagine someone asking you for a selfie at a funeral? It would happen!
"They also have to be nice all of the time. If a new producer comes in, decides they don't like them and ruins their storylines, or gives all their parts to someone else, they have to take it. They have to smile and they still have to turn up.
"If the cast member was in the show years ago, audiences of 20 or 30 million used to watch them. That would make them so famous, but they're not rich, so they still have to go into the shops. They live in the normal world, but the world thinks they own them."
The story contains numerous examples of the female characters facing sexism and ageism, while there are also instances of women not supporting other women on the set. Has the soap world improved at all over time?
"I'd say it's got better by about 10 years. You used to run into trouble at the age of around 40, but now you run into trouble in your 50s. So they've been given a period of an extra 10 years where they get less scrutiny.
"In your 50s and 60s, that's when they will start looking at you slightly differently. It will creep into the scripts, it'll creep into the wardrobe, it'll creep into the storylines."
There's a memorable scene in the book where one of the male cast members of Falcon Bay gets axed, bursts into tears and begs for his job...
"That's actually a true story. There's an actor on Coronation Street right now that literally begged a female producer. When she called him in to fire him, he literally begged her on his knees and sobbed hysterically. It was so awful that she actually ended up not firing him – and he's still in the show to this day.
"It's funny because I knew that story and then a few people who I know have read the book and said: 'Oh, that's him!'"
A number of well-known soap stars who you've represented over the years have given you glowing testimonials for the book...
"Which really shocked me. If you were an actress on a soap and you relied on that soap to pay your bills, would you endorse this book? I thought that every single one of them would say 'no chance'. They obviously want this story told.
"Obviously this is fiction, but it calls upon my experiences. Beverley Callard's quote is amazing, because it basically says this is her life. I obviously haven't shadowed Beverley on set, but I know what it was like for her. So what is she saying set life is like, because in this book they're backstabbing murdering bitches!"
People may not realise but you've had a big impact on our soaps over the years...
"Yes, I personally brought Gillian Taylforth back from the dead as Kathy Beale in EastEnders. I brought Danniella Westbrook back to EastEnders after her role as Sam Mitchell had been recast.
"I suggested Claire King could come back to Emmerdale and I put Beverley Callard back into The Rovers. I've had some amazing power play experiences playing the soap roulette game. I don't think people understand how powerful agents are."
Can you tell us what your day-to-day involvement with the soaps entails when you're an agent?
"If someone isn't in a soap anymore, it's your job to get them back. That's what I was known for in my day. I was the comeback queen. Actresses leave soaps and do other things, but then they might decide they want to come back.
"Obviously because I'm a writer, I can come up with ideas. So with EastEnders a few years ago, I contacted Diederick Santer and John Yorke and I pitched Danniella Westbrook coming back into the show. I got them to take her back after she hadn't been in the show for ten years. It was my idea.
"I also pitched Gillian Taylforth's return from the dead as Kathy Beale to Dominic Treadwell-Collins at the Soap Awards and it happened.
"We pitched Claire King's Emmerdale return several times. I didn't come up with the storyline, but we pitched her return. Eventually it landed in the room at the right time.
"You have to contact the soap executive. You have to have the nerve and the power to think you have the right to contact the executive of a soap – who's really bloody busy – and say: 'Your show is really good, but it'd better with my actress in it!'"
Are there other challenges that crop up as an agent?
"You have to deal with an actress's pain if she's not being respected and her character isn't being respected. The actress has to go out and play those scenes, knowing that someone on social media will say: 'That was shit'.
"You have to mop up the tears and the pain from them, and then mop up the problem with the network. It's a very difficult job.
"Being underused is one thing, but being underused with rubbish is another. If you've been in a soap for years as a matriarchal figure, and then you're given stuff to do that undermines the fabric of what your character is, you became paranoid. You start to think: 'Oh, they don't want me anymore'.
"In that instance, they're just not being thought about – that's often ageism. It's weird because if you're not known for being a femme fatale, it doesn't really affect you in the same way. If you're more of a character actress in a soap, age doesn't really affect you. But if you're a soap sex symbol, the clock is ticking."
Are you expecting the book to cause a stir in the soap world?
"Oh definitely, it already has. There are already several people that have kicked off about it because they don't want people to know it's like this, but I'm not scared because I've got nothing to hide. It's a fictional story but based on my experiences. They say write about what you know and I did."
How did you get Danniella Westbrook back into EastEnders in 2009? By that point, Sam Mitchell had last been seen in 2005, played by Kim Medcalf...
"In 2009, a mutual friend of mine was a make-up artist and suggested that Danniella would be great for me. I hadn't heard of her for years, but she was living in the countryside. She had been clean and sober for years and had kept out of the spotlight.
"We got together by phone and we got on. She was basically just doing the school run and baking. I met up with her and she was so beautiful. You would never know what she'd been through and she took my breath away.
"I asked: 'Do you want to come back? Are you ready for everything fame can do?' I asked if she was really sure and she said yes. So we decided to bring Danniella back.
"I decided to do a photoshoot of Danniella in a limo with hay and jam, to show that she was a country bumpkin! We put it in the tabloids and that day they printed it, saying that Danniella was happy in the country.
"I put in an email that day to Diederick Santer, who was at EastEnders at the time, and I sent him a link to the article saying: 'Look who's back. I just want you to know that Danniella is really well and in a really good place'. Then I put 'dot dot dot' – just like a soap script – 'and she wants her job back'. I was as ballsy as that.
"Diederick sent me an email almost within the same day and said: 'That is really interesting to know'. We didn't hear anything for a little bit, but a phone call came in to Danniella and we knew the interest was there."
How about Kathy's shock return to EastEnders?
"Getting Gillian back was very difficult. It took years and about 12 different attempts to do it. Bryan Kirkwood, who I love, nearly went for it but I think he was overruled and it couldn't be done.
"Bryan actually went on to create a whole family and character for Gillian in Hollyoaks. It was only afterwards that EastEnders realised what they were missing and they went for her. So she kind of dumped him in it! She's the nicest woman you could ever meet, but that's showbiz."
You've mentioned on Twitter, in a chat about Ronnie and Roxy from EastEnders, that agents should immediately pull their talent from the soap if they're being controversially killed off. Have you ever tried that tactic?
"It's never happened to me, but if it had, that's what I would do. Any agent that hasn't done it should be ashamed for letting it happen. As their agent, I would not have let them go in. I'd have said: 'Sue us!' Then the producer would have been fired and they would have got their jobs back.
"But agents don't do it because they don't want to rock the boat, they want to get more people in the show and they're frightened of the networks. I was never scared.
"It's not easy to go head-to-head with the bosses. With Beverley, there were many times where I would go in and we would have big showdowns with the bosses. You might think that'd mean I wouldn't get anyone else in that show, but you've got to support that woman.
"Lots of other agents don't because they're frightened. I'll do whatever it takes for them because I've got their back. And have I got their back by writing this story, because it's a bit of an exposé? Judging by their quotes, I think I have."
Shop Now Ruthless Women by Melanie Blake.
Ruthless Women by Melanie Blake is published by Head of Zeus on February 18 in hardback, £12.99.
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