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Union Road: The Grand Finale

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Writer and creator Graham Eveleigh tells all about this week’s Grand Finale on Xpression FM’s soap opera, Union Road

I’ve always disagreed with the term “writers’ block”. Possibly because it is over-used, and possibly because it implies some sort of physical or (if we’re being metaphorical) mental obstruction exists. And I don’t think it’s physical or mental, it’s emotional.

There’s a tangible, emotional reaction there. Whether it be fear, or anxiety, or repulsion. I had that coming to writing Union Road’s two-years-in-the-making finale.

Yes, it was hugely pressurised and important to all sorts of people… but the real problem was, I knew exactly what was going to happen! I have done for a long time. The famous last words spoken on that street, I first put down on paper in March 2014. Other things, of course, have changed – who exactly said them, for example – but for the most part, I always knew how I’d round off the show for good.

So, we have the wedding of Ian and Gena (aka Gian, the power couple), and I knew it wouldn’t quite go to plan. Well it would be boring if it went to plan, wouldn’t it?! They’ve got one more obstacle to face together, and they might not make it through it…

We have Linda’s story coming to an end. This is something we have examined throughout the whole year. One thing I am proud of is that, after last year’s finale in which she struck Samuel down with her car, the repercussions were fully and ethically shown. Linda was a popular character who made a mistake but we haven’t once stopped referring to that event. That would cheapen it. And she has redeemed herself in some ways… and to round off that, now Jenny Warren is returning!

I knew only quite recently that Jenny would be back – but I’d long hoped she would! I love the character of Jenny, last year’s no-nonsense landlady on the street, and Hannah Cummings who plays her is such a star. Plus, Jenny and Linda have unfinished business! Way before any of the rest of the finale had been written or recorded, we smuggled Hannah and Lucy Kinghorn (Linda) into the studio one evening and recorded what I believe to be some of the best Union Road scenes of all-time.

I knew that we needed some sort of resolution to the Toni and John storyline, but more crucially, I knew that we needed a thread of the finale that was slightly un-showy. The problem is, if you have an episode that is all big exits and stunts and loud sounds, it can be a bit overwhelming. Toni and John’s scenes are showy in a different way – they are showcasing their interesting relationship, and how they have changed. Toni musing on her university career chimed with this retrospective atmosphere as me and my peers come to the end of both Union Road and a degree. There’s a sweet scene in which Toni talks about the “maybe” feeling you get when you might see someone you like… it’s unusually introverted and emotional for that character. Finales don’t have to be entirely wham-bam epic. Some of the most notable scenes of this one are just Toni and John at an emotional crossroads.

I also knew that Mary Stone had to come to the fore for these final episodes, and, as the actress Sophie Weeks is third year, that Mary Stone would have to leave. There are quite a few exits in this one, whether they are articulated as such in the programme or not, but Mary is one of the ones I wanted to focus on. Because way back in episode one, in November 2013, it was Mary Stone moving in. She was our way into the street, that everywoman with a secret. She’s faced ovarian cancer with admirable strength, she’s dealt with her son moving away from home… she has one last thing to deal with.

And I knew that the long-running Who Is Mr Mountjoy? storyline would come to a head. I knew that I would finally let listeners – and George – in on the secret that has been driving them crazy. We’ve built that story up to be a big epic showdown but actually, it’s very personal. More than anything, it’s about how George deals with the revelation, and how it affects his sense of himself, of the family, of Lazenby & Sons and of the street.

But most importantly, I knew, as with last year’s finale, it was important to say: the story isn’t over. No story is ever over (just look at Broadchurch, that’s still rumbling on…..). Specifically, soaps are never over. Even the day Coronation Street finally dies, there will have to have some character, or some line of dialogue, that expresses the truth that LIFE WILL GO ON. So in the finale we have a brand new character, introduced as any regular would be – quiet student Chrissie who turns out to be not so quiet, played by Catherine Whiterow. She’s moving in as others are moving out, which proves the point that any episode of Union Road is a jumping-on point. If you’ve never listened before, why not start with the finale, when Chrissie starts. The stories are always ongoing but that means there’s always a story starting. Soaps are the continuing stories of people in a certain place, so as long as there is a Union Road, there is a Union Road.

Which is why… I’m burning it down. (In the fiction of course!) Two separate members of the cast came up to me and said, “Oh I see what you’re doing there. It’s like you’re cleansing it, at the end!” We needed something more ambitious than before (even more than last week’s trip abroad!) And, as the cast noticed, we needed something that resets the count to zero. We’ve always played with that idea that there is something wrong with the street, because such terrible things constantly happen there. That’s the nature of a soap! But I guess it started out as a sly dig at the fictionality of it, and became something much bigger and darker. It’s like there’s something wrong with the very foundations of the place, and residents have been corrupted by it. So, it had to burn!

Eventually, I got the story down on paper, and got my talented team into the studio, and they gave me some of the best performances I’d heard from them, and then we switched off the lights in the studio for the last time and went home.

Someone was grilling me the other day, about why a soap in the first place. It’s a decision I entirely stand by. The interesting thing is, Union Road isn’t really a soap. It’s a vehicle, it’s a hollowed out car in which any number of genres can be a passenger, or drive. My choice was based on the fact that Xpression Scripted needed a regular presence and a building reputation on the schedule first… and the fact that I’m partial to a bit of EastEnders second. It was about appealing to the widest number of people – the people who want comedy can hear it on Union Road, tragedy, love stories, ghost stories, mysteries… If we hadn’t adopted soap rhetoric it would have been applied to us anyway. And in lots of ways we haven’t – who’d heard of soaps having “finales”? I took the genre and adapted it for purpose, which means Union Road is well and truly its own beast. That’s a nice thing for all of us to lay claim to.

I suppose the temptation is to be a bit self-congratulatory at this stage, but the truth is, it’s not particularly different from the tireless and regular work that so many student media members do at this uni. There are absolutely things we – I – should have done differently. One day, I’ll write them down somewhere. The reason you keep making a show like this, though, is because there’s always the nagging thought that last week’s wasn’t quite perfect. I realised this after the first episode in November 2013. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this… but there is a small mouse click sound just before the credits are read, at the end. Listen back, you’ll hear it! When I heard it on transmission, I was devastated, and I remember Chris, then-Head of Scripted, saying “don’t worry, you can barely hear it!” And probably no one but me noticed. But because of that I’ve made certain that in every other of the thirty nine episodes we have made THERE IS NO MOUSE CLICK. Episode 2 had to be better than that. And then I’m sure there was something that niggled me about episode 3. And 4. So naturally, I present the finale as the best episodes yet. I hope they are.

I told a story, over two years, to a bunch of people. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do – tell stories to people. Thanks for listening.
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