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The queen of soaps is back and more outrageous than ever. One year on from securing a Sunday Times bestseller with her novel Ruthless Women, soap agent Melanie Blake is releasing the shocking sequel Guilty Women – a tale of scandals, sex and murder behind the scenes on a long-running soap.
Set a few months after the first book, Guilty Women sees the leading ladies behind fictional soap Falcon Bay pushed to their limits as they wrangle with dark death cover-ups, tabloid storms and the pressure of keeping a struggling serial drama on air.
Full to the brim with bombshell twists and building to a showstopping finale, Guilty Women is a soap fan's dream which eclipses the original novel. And with a third book still to come, the rollercoaster ride is far from over.
In real life, Melanie is a true soap insider after 25 years representing some of the best-loved female cast members, including Coronation Street star Beverley Callard, Emmerdale's Claire King and EastEnders' Gillian Taylforth.
Digital Spy recently caught up with Melanie for a chat about Guilty Women, the book's real-life inspirations and the current challenges facing the soap genre.
When you wrote Ruthless Women, was it always your plan for it to be part of a trilogy?
"No, I've literally just been taken over by these characters. It all started when we went into lockdown in 2020 and I didn't have anybody to work for. For 25 years, I have worked for divas – some of them really normal, some of them really lovely, some of them really vile.
"As their agent, I had to respond to them 24 hours a day. The only time I was ever not needed on call was during the first lockdown, so I wrote the book and had no idea that it was going to be a hit. I certainly had no idea that it was going to sell 300,000 copies and be translated into 10 languages.
"When that became such a success and they said we had to have a sequel, I wondered if I could even do this again. Now they want a third one! I didn't believe that it would happen to me – that I would have an international bestseller."
The new book, Guilty Women, continues to explore the darker side of the soap world. Is life behind the scenes still as dramatic?
"People need to remember that I have been in the industry for 25 years. So 20 years ago, 15 years ago, even 10 years ago, it wasn't like it is now. People weren't well-behaved and they did do terrible things to each other. So I write stories based on what I saw along the way.
"I'm lucky that I get great reviews in general, but I do hate it when I get that odd one that says: 'Oh, as if anyone would ever act like this!' I just think: 'Oh, you have got no idea'.
"I do believe it has changed, though. It isn't like that now, but it was and I did see it all.
"I'm also still surprised to this day that everybody who works in soaps comes forward and says, 'You've got to read this book!', because the things that happen in it are awful. There must be stuff that's still going on that people want to share, because why do people love these books so much?"
You shared some major revelations about life behind the scenes when you were doing the Ruthless Women PR campaign. Do you think that made an impact, in terms of making people think twice over behaving badly on set?
"I think people are still very much experiencing the joy of going back to work after COVID, so they're being a bit better behaved than they were before.
"I think people are still worried about what I might say, because I've been around for so long. I really have barely said anything compared to what I do know and have seen. I've just alluded to a few things!
"Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. There's probably someone in a dressing room now plotting someone's downfall in the dressing room next door. But yes, I imagine they're hiding it a bit better."
In the books, the future of the fictional soap Falcon Bay is always on a knife edge, which seems to now be happening with real-life serial dramas too. Did you see that coming?
"When I wrote the book in lockdown and it was about ailing soap operas, soap operas in the real world were not ailing at the time. I didn't realise that I was predicting the future, because since then we've had Holby City go and Neighbours is now going too.
"I didn't know that COVID would change viewing patterns forever. Some of the EastEnders viewing figures have been absolutely jaw-dropping throughout this year.
"That's mirrored through the book. In the first book, they're all trying to save the show. In the second one, they start to think maybe there's a life outside of the soap bubble."
Do you think the soap bubble is starting to burst?
"I sadly do – apart from Emmerdale. Emmerdale has really got its shit together. It's really strong, it's really solid, it's really consistent.
"For me, EastEnders has been the most rocky. At times, I have found that has just been unwatchable.
"I can't wait to see what the new executive producer Chris Clenshaw does with it, because God, I love EastEnders. I've loved it my entire life. But there were months when I hadn't watched it, which had never happened before.
"The last time EastEnders was amazing for me was the 35th anniversary when they killed Sharon's son Dennis – which they shouldn't have done, by the way. But just put Sharon in every scene and we'll watch it!
"The Gray storyline was one of the worst ever for me. I hated it with a passion. I thought Jessica Plummer, who played Chantelle, was such a brilliant actress.
"To kill her off so that he could basically carry on? No offence to him because I'm sure he's absolutely lovely, but it was like watching amateur dramatics for me. I couldn't bear it. I didn't even watch his exit because I couldn't have cared less by that stage."
Do you think there are more changes to come in the soap world?
"I think there's going to be a lot of culling going on, but I think that's what is needed. These shows are too big now. There are too many people in the cast. Everything needs tightening up. We need to go back to core values and the core families.
"That's one of the beauties of Emmerdale, because it's got less people in it and it's a smaller space. If I was in charge of a show now, the first thing I would do is cull 30% of the cast immediately and tighten it up."
In your books, the fictional soap Falcon Bay has a big rivalry with other serial dramas. Do you think we'll see EastEnders and Emmerdale start to compete against each other more aggressively now they're both airing at 7.30pm?
"I think EastEnders is in real trouble against Emmerdale. Chris Clenshaw has got his work cut out because Emmerdale is really together.
"If you watch the [ITV] News, they say: 'We're just going to cut straight from Russia, and in 15 minutes, Emmerdale is on'. They're pushing Emmerdale like there is no tomorrow.
"If I was in Coronation Street, I'd be a bit worried about what's going on. Someone, somewhere inside that network is thinking: 'Hmm, Emmerdale might be our winner here'. It's all about Emmerdale right now.
"I have also heard that Emmerdale is a lot happier place to be than Coronation Street. I have heard that a lot from people who have worked on both shows, in terms of morale. Apparently it's just a nicer place to be."
Last time we spoke, you shared the story of how you helped Danniella Westbrook to reclaim her role as Sam Mitchell in EastEnders in 2009. Since then, they've recast to Kim Medcalf again. What did you make of that?
"Kim is a lovely girl and a great actress in another role, but I've never believed her in that part.
"Danniella Westbrook is incredibly flawed. We know that she has got problems that are beyond any of our own. It's a miracle that she is still alive and she is a fighter.
"But when Danniella is in that role, it is magic. There is something about the way she performs on that screen, because she is so believable.
"Phil and Grant were wrong'uns and are a bit gnarly and wrecked – and so would Samantha Mitchell be by now. That's the problem with Kim Medcalf for me–- she's picture perfect, gorgeous, lovely and sweet. I also don't believe for a second that she'd leave her child. No way.
"Also, given that Danniella was a victim of the early days of television when they weren't well-looked-after, I believe the BBC still have a bit of a duty. She's talked about some bad stuff and owned up to it.
"I'm not saying Danniella has not deserved to not be re-hired at times. I'm not in denial, because she has said it herself. You can't run a show with someone who can be unreliable, but I think that character should be rested until she is reliable again.
"Either give it to Danniella or don't have the character on screen at all. Another soap should have hired Kim Medcalf, as she's a great actress."
In the past year, we've seen an example of a female soap star standing up to the producers, when Hollyoaks star Sarah Jayne Dunn refused to delete her OnlyFans account and left the show. As an agent, what did you make of that?
"Isn't it interesting that someone would say they'd rather do OnlyFans than be in a soap opera? I think that's a really big sign of what is going on with soaps, that someone might decide that.
"Hollyoaks' schedule is gruelling. I've heard it's the hardest of all and the most demanding. Sarah made the lifestyle choice and I think that's really brave.
"It's a shame from an actor's point of view, because Sarah is a good actress. I liked her in Hollyoaks and she played the part really well, but I don't know if anyone will hire her as an actress for a while because of it.
"What she's doing isn't actually bad, so it's a weird one, really. It makes you question how happy people are in soap operas. It's somebody's dream to be in a soap opera and to be at the Soap Awards, but she'd rather lie in her bed in her knickers.
"What does that say about soap operas? Hello Guilty Women, hello Ruthless Women! What went on that made that a better choice?"
Were there any real-life inspirations behind the new book?
"The main characters in Guilty Women wondering if there's life outside of soaps is interesting, because it's what I experienced with Beverley Callard on Coronation Street. She basically came to me and said: 'I'm done'. I was like: 'We'll wait for another producer and we'll get great stories'. She said: 'No, I'm done. I want out'.
"Everyone loves the character of Liz, but Beverley said she wanted to leave. She decided that she really meant it.
"I took that inspiration from her and saw that you can really have a change of heart. You can go from really desperately wanting to stay, to going: 'Actually, I really want to see something of the real world again'.
"And it's proved to be the right decision for her as she's never stopped working since and she feels free. She's even moved to the country – you can't do that in a soap.
"Because soaps are factories and you never see anyone else, so her decision definitely influenced the book. It was a big step for Beverley, especially with COVID, as her wage was being in a soap opera. She was incredibly brave and I adore her."
Do you think we'll ever see the big streaming services launch their own soaps?
"Absolutely – and I'll bet Ruthless Women is one of them. That's where we're going with it and my agents are talking to several streaming services. We've had loads of offers for it.
"I guess it would be like Moving Wallpaper. I wouldn't bother with making the fictional soap Falcon Bay, as the drama behind the scenes is starting to be more interesting than what we're getting to see on screen.
"I haven't found the right streaming partner yet because I don't want someone to get it wrong – it's a big chance for older actresses to have wonderful material."
Do you think soaps could be telling more stories for the older female characters?
"EastEnders need to give Gillian Taylforth a proper storyline that doesn't involve being referred to as a granny. Do you remember the episode where they made Kathy talk about being a pensioner and she said there was no point in her trying to date anymore?
"Have you seen her? She's a fox! Gillian is stone cold sexy and men would kill to go on a date with her. Who is writing this?
"You turn on Coronation Street, and it's probably COVID-related, but give Barbara Knox a fantastic storyline. Let's see her knock it out of the park.
"I know that's why Bev left – because her storylines were not believable to her anymore and she felt no-one was bothered about her character's history arc, to make it realistic for her to play.
"She actually said: 'I don't want to turn up to do stuff that I don't even believe in. The audience deserve better for Liz'. And she was right – they let the character down and the audience down with her, and that's how they lost her.
"With Gillian, give her a great storyline. What are they saying to the viewers? Soap watchers are generally older. We've got Hollyoaks for the younger ones. It's just so endemic, it's terrible and if you go back to Coronation Street in the '80s and '90s, nearly all the characters were older."
What are the soap highlights you've enjoyed in recent times?
"The Emmerdale episode recently about the christening gown was brilliant. It was just four women in a room talking about a gown and it was absolutely fantastic – with Laurel, Kim, Gabby – and Bernice making little jabs. It was TV gold and that's what we need more of.
"I love Sally Carman as Abi in Coronation Street. She's one of my favourite actresses. I also love Sally Dynevor and Joe Duttine as Sally and Tim.
"I think we just need more legacy characters with stronger storylines that we can focus on and really follow. The soaps also need to be quicker with concluding storylines, so we don't have to wait nine months for something.
"I still think soaps are the best thing in the world, but I think we need to maybe have less episodes and fewer characters. I feel like we don't have those massive moments anymore – and the material is thinly spread because there are so many characters.
"We need to have proper continuity, more stunts, more action and real engagement. We need appointment-to-view TV again. The problem is people have started to just watch soaps on catch-up. We need less filler, more thriller – and stronger scenes for the older women.
"If you watch EastEnders repeats on Drama, they're jaw-dropping because there's only about a third of the cast compared to what we have now. There are too many people now and the characters who should be getting a fair crack of the whip don't get it."
Shop Now Guilty Women by Melanie Blake.
Guilty Women by Melanie Blake is published in hardback on April 28.
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