Created 30th March 2003
An integral part of the rural soap, writer Kevin penned 262 episodes of Emmerdale after coming up with the idea in 1972.
Laffan is credited with making the soap the hit it remains 31 years on, after his vision won the programme – which was originally scheduled to run at lunchtime for just 13 weeks – a permanent slot.
The elderly writer had undergone heart surgery two weeks ago but sadly passed on after suffering a bout of pneumonia.
Original cast member Shelia Mercier, who played Annie Sugden, paid an emotional tribute to Laffan.
She says, “He was a wonderful person. He was a prolific writer who created one of the most popular programmes on TV.”
An Emmerdale Spokesman added, “Without his creativity, Emmerdale would not be where it is.”
As the creator of the rural soap opera Emmerdale Farm, Kevin Laffan was responsible for television's second most enduring serial, after Coronation Street.
The matriarchal Annie Sugden faced life without her farmer husband, Jacob, who had died after spending much of his later years in the Woolpack pub, drinking away any profits. She aimed to make a go of the ailing farm by reuniting her two feuding sons, Jack and Joe, and accepting investment from an outsider, Henry Wilks, who had made his fortune in the Bradford wool industry and was bringing his business acumen to the Yorkshire Dales.
When Emmerdale Farm became simply Emmerdale and many of the trials and tribulations of the farm were replaced by raunchier storylines in the nearby village, Laffan voiced his objections. As the serial celebrated its 25th anniversary, in 1997, he said in an interview:
I'm against sex and violence. Families try not to quarrel and the drama lies in their trying not to. But, of course, it does break out occasionally – that's the climax. With sex, once you say a couple can get into bed together, what do you do next? You have to have the blanket going up and down. Then they do it without the blanket, and so on. The business, instead of the relationship between the people, becomes the drama.
Laffan had been born in the less rural surroundings of Reading in 1922, the son of a crippled Irish travelling photographer. After starting his career as an actor, he became artistic director at the Everyman Theatre, Reading, for seven years and, under the name Kevin Barry, wrote plays that included Ginger Bred (1951), The Strip-Tease Murder (with Neville Brian, 1955), Winner Takes All (1956) and First Innocent (1957).
Later, as Kevin Laffan, he enjoyed a West End stage hit with It's a Two Feet Six Inches Above the Ground World (1970), which was turned into a 1972 film with the reworked title It's a Two-Foot-Six-Inch-Above-the-Ground World. The screen sex comedy, starring Nanette Newman and Hywel Bennett as a Roman Catholic couple who adopt birth control, was later retitled The Love Ban.
By then, Laffan was establishing a reputation as a writer for television. He scripted the six-part Bud (1963), which featured the music-hall comedian Bud Flanagan playing a fictionalised version of himself, retired and trying his hand at a string of other jobs. He also wrote the ITV serial Castle Haven (1969), set in two large Victorian houses that had been converted into unfurnished flats in a Yorkshire coastal town, with the action revolving around the residents. Although now almost forgotten, it featured Roy Barraclough, Kathy Staff and Jill Summers, all of whom went on to find fame in other soaps.
Laffan's television plays included Decision to Burn (starring Anthony Hopkins, 1971) and The Best Pair of Legs in the Business, first produced for the small screen in 1968 but remade four years later as a feature film, with Reg Varney recreating his original role of an ageing holiday camp drag artist.
At about the same time came a phone call offering Laffan the chance to script a new, lunchtime serial, when ITV was looking for daytime programming in the wake of the Government's decision to relax restrictions on broadcasting hours, but the writer was not keen. He recalled:
Donald Baverstock, Yorkshire Television's director of programmes, phoned me and asked if I would like to write a farming serial. My first reaction was, "No, I wouldn't." I was a playwright at heart and my agent told me it would ruin my reputation. People are very funny. They think that, if you write a soap, you are going into the gutter. It's just a snobbish thing, really. Anyway, in the end I agreed. I was asked to write a three-month serial, so I wrote it as a 26-episode play and left the end open so that it could continue.
Laffan had worked on a farm near Walsall in his teens, although it was only for six months as a "fill-in" job in between work as an actor in repertory theatre. In writing about farm life, he was much more concerned with the characters than the job. "I was intrigued by the idea that farming was a way of life, as opposed to simply a way of earning a living," he explained to me. "I was interested in the mental attitude that set the two apart."
Emmerdale Farm, featuring the stage actress Sheila Mercier as Annie Sugden, began on 16 October 1972, at 1.30pm, with Jacob Sugden's funeral, a novel idea to bring together and introduce all the serial's characters in the fictional village of Beckindale. The Monday and Tuesday episodes were popular enough with mothers, pensioners and shift workers to earn the programme an extended run, until it eventually won a teatime slot and, in some ITV regions, was screened at 6.30pm.
Laffan stopped writing for the serial after 12 years but remained a consultant. In 1988, Emmerdale Farm was finally given a networked evening slot across the whole country and, the following year, its title was shortened to Emmerdale. The affairs, business and otherwise, of the newly arrived Tates at Home Farm became the centre of attention for many years, as the storylines' emphasis switched to the village, which itself was renamed Emmerdale in the year after the 1993 Lockerbie-style plane crash.
Laffan's other big television success was Beryl's Lot (1973-77), a comedy-drama inspired by the real-life story of the novelist Margaret Powell, a cook who married a milkman, prepared to take O and A levels as she approached 60, then had her first book published. For the television series, Carmel McSharry starred as a charlady in her forties, with a milkman husband and three children, and was seen starting evening classes in an attempt to improve her station in life.
Later, Laffan and Peter Jones wrote the sitcom I Thought You'd Gone (1984), in which Jones and Pat Heywood played the parents who moved to a smaller house in the country in the belief that their grown-up children had all finally left home. Of course, they were soon back. Laffan also contributed scripts to the espionage series Man in a Suitcase (1967, 1968), Kate (starring Phyllis Calvert as an agony columnist, 1970), the courtroom drama Justice (1973) and The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries (1993). His other stage plays included The Superannuated Man (1967) and Zoo Zoo Widdershins Zoo (1969).
Last year, Laffan was introduced to the Queen on the set of Emmerdale as it celebrated its 30th anniversary in her Golden Jubilee year.
Kevin Barry Laffan, playwright and television scriptwriter: born Reading,
Berkshire 24 May 1922; married Jeanne Thompson (three sons); died London 11
Kevin Laffan, who has died aged 80, strove to strip the public of its sentimentality
about farming and country folk by creating a television series, Emmerdale Farm
(later Emmerdale). It became Britain's longest-running television soap opera,
aside from Coronation Street.
The series was launched in 1972, and Laffan, who wrote its first 262 episodes, was keen to stress that farmers were fundamentalists. "They accept all the facts of life - and 'all' encompasses much more than the limited and boring gymnastics of procreation."
But though he nailed his colours to the mast of realism, by the time of his departure in 1985, Laffan had become disenchanted with the successful media monster he had created, attacking its "sex, sin and sensationalism". He reasoned that it had become too dependent on the cliche of explicit sex and was supported by one member of the cast who called the programme "Dallas with dung".
The man who had started by writing what he called "a 26-episode play" for Donald Baverstock, director of programmes for Yorkshire TV, had a stated scorn for pornography - though long after Emmerdale, in 1994, he was to write a raunchy play called The Missionary - And Other Positions, followed a few years later by the novel Virgins Are In Short Supply.
Emmerdale Farm soon became known as the small screen's answer to radio's The Archers, though its characters were more gritty. Laffan, who was keen on dominant women, created a memorable heroine in Annie Sugden, the wife of the ne'er-do-well pub landlord, who took over the village pub after her husband drank himself to an early grave. The first episode opened with his funeral.
Though this apparently sombre concept was not popular with all the executives of Yorkshire TV (especially as the setting was a mythical village in the Yorkshire Dales), Laffan stood firm. He was an advocate of the view, just permissible in 1972, that a writer's opinion was sacrosanct.
Like most genuinely creative writers, Laffan's characters were what set the show apart: not only was there Annie Sugden (played by Sheila Mercier), but Jack, the returning son who wanted to get his hands on the family farm, his jealous sister Peggy Skilbeck, and others who had their eyes on Annie's assets.
His programme was initially thought of by the schedulers as a filler for the Monday and Tuesday slots of the newly launched daytime programming - until then, watching television had been largely an evening activity. It was not until 1988 that it got its primetime, nationally networked, evening slot for five nights a week.
Laffan became a consultant after he left in 1985, and met the Queen on the set when the programme celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.
But Emmerdale was far from being Laffan's only work for television. Beryl's Lot, which began in 1973 and ran for four years, featured a milkman's wife striving to improve herself in middle age. With Peter Jones, he wrote the 1984 show I Thought You'd Gone, about a middle-class family faced with constantly returning grown-up children. He contributed episodes to Man In A Suitcase (1967 and 1968), Kate (1970), Justice (1973) and The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries (1993).
He also wrote many stage plays (under the name Kevin Barry), including Ginger Bread (1951), The Strip-Tease Murder (1955), Winner Takes All (1956), First Innocent (1957); and later The Superannuated Man (1967) and Zoo Zoo Widdershins Zoo (1969).
Laffan was a prolific writer, inspired by a sad but picturesque past. He was born in Reading, the son of an itinerant Irish photographer, and boasted that as a boy he had leapt off the bailiff's lorry carrying his family through the gates of a Walsall workhouse in the Black Country, and was given a home by an elderly actress. She told him: "If you want to be serious, make them laugh" - advice, he said, he had never forgotten.
He is survived by his wife and three sons.
· Kevin Laffan, writer, born May 24 1922; died March 11 2003
Emmerdale creator dies
Kevin Laffan, the man behind hit soap Emmerdale, has died at the age of 80.
He personally took charge of the northern soap and launched it on a successful path, writing the first 262 episodes.
The rural saga was only supposed to run for 13 weeks, at first, but Laffan gave it a such a successful start in life that it is still going strong 31 years later. The first episode ran in 1972.
Mr Laffan died of pneumonia.