Ashley Michael Thomas is a fictional character from the British soap opera Emmerdale, played by John Middleton. He made his first screen appearance during the episode broadcast on 5 December 1996. It was announced on 22 October 2015 that Middleton would be departing as Ashley at the end of his contract after the character was diagnosed with vascular dementia in the episode aired on that day. The contract was later extended in order for the storyline to be extended. In November 2016, it was announced that Emmerdale would air a special episode featuring Ashley's point of view to "give people an insight into how ordinary, day-to-day experiences can become disorientating and distressing when refracted through the lens of dementia." The episode aired on 20 December 2016. After Middleton's contract ends in around March 2017, Ashley will be killed-off in Spring 2017, ending his year and a half dementia storyline and twenty one years on Emmerdale.
Ashley's storylines have included his marriage to Bernice Blackstock (Samantha Giles) and the birth of their daughter Gabby, as well as his second marriage to Laurel Potts (Charlotte Bellamy) and the birth of their son Arthur, as part of a highly publicised cot death storyline in which Laurel and Ashley's baby son dies. It later transpires that their biological child is still alive as the babies were accidentally swapped at birth. Other storylines have included abusing his elderly father Sandy (Freddie Jones), being accidentally run over by Victoria Sugden (Isabel Hodgins) which results in his epilepsy, and being diagnosed with dementia. Ashley was involved in the October 2016 week of episodes "No Return Week", which lead to the death of James Barton (Bill Ward).
Ashley becomes the new vicar of St. Mary's church in Emmerdale arriving as the officiant for the wedding of Biff Fowler (Stuart Wade) and Linda Glover (Tonicha Jeronimo) and he is thrown straight into a confrontation with the Dingle family over a carol singing scam. Ashley becomes attracted to barmaid Bernice Blackstock (Samantha Giles), but she is not impressed by his job. Ashley's feelings for Bernice grow and when she breaks up with her fiancé, he eventually tells her how he feels. They begin a relationship and when they receive Bishop George Postlethwaite's (Peter Cartwright) blessing, they get married. Bernice discovers she is pregnant, but she miscarries. Ashley and Bernice's marriage becomes strained and he decides to leave the village temporarily. Bernice has an affair with Carlos Diaz (Gary Turner), which devastates Ashley. Bernice discovers she is pregnant again and she gives birth to a daughter, who she names Gabrielle (Annelise Manojlovic). A paternity test reveals Ashley is Gabby's father and he and Bernice reconcile. However, Bernice later tells Ashley she does not love him anymore and leaves the village alone.
Ashley begins dating Louise Appleton (Emily Symons). While they enjoy each other's company, Louise and Ashley are not in love and, after nearly dying in a road accident, they part amicably. Ashley realises Laurel Potts (Charlotte Bellamy) has fallen for him, but he initially rebuffs her. When Ashley learns Laurel is leaving the village, he declares his feelings for her. They start a relationship and as Laurel prepares to leave for Tanzania, Ashley proposes. However, Bishop George disapproves of the relationship and Ashley briefly leaves the church, while he and Laurel try to convince George of their love. Ashley's curate, Ethan Blake (Liam O'Brien), falls for Laurel and when she lets him down, he tells George lies about her and Ashley. He is later exposed and George gives the couple his blessing and conducts their wedding service. Ashley is horrified to find his father, Sandy (Freddie Jones), has arrived in the village and he reveals that they fell out because Sandy helped Ashley's mother to die. Ashley makes up with his father and he moves in. Ashley's niece Jasmine (Jenna-Louise Coleman) also comes to stay.
Laurel falls pregnant, delighting her and Ashley. While telling Shadrach Dingle (Andy Devine) off for drinking communion wine, Laurel goes into labour. Shadrach finds the church door is locked and he rings the bells to call for help. Laurel gives birth to a boy in the hospital. She and Ashley name their son Daniel (Rachel Moonie). Not long after they bring Daniel home, Laurel finds Daniel dead in his cot. Ashley and Laurel are devastated and Laurel briefly moves out due to her grief. Hilary Potts (Paula Wilcox), Laurel's mother, suspects that Arthur Doland (Alfie Clarke) is actually Ashley and Laurel's biological son. Arthur's parents Greg (Shaun Prendergast) and Melanie Doland (Caroline Strong) become terrified of losing their son and they try to leave the country, but Ashley and Shadrach stop them. A DNA test confirms Ashley and Laurel are Arthur's biological parents and Ashley successfully fights for custody. Laurel initially struggles to accept Arthur is her son, but she later bonds with him. Bishop George visits Ashley and reveals the Church Council are considering closing the church. Eric Pollard (Chris Chittell) makes a bid for the church, but after a sit-in protest, Eric withdraws his offer.
Bishop George warns Ashley that it is only a matter of time before the church is sold and Ashley gets used to the idea of moving to a different parish. However, Mark (Maxwell Caulfield) and Natasha Wylde (Amanda Donohoe) announce they have purchased the church and will return it to the community, with Ashley and Laurel paying rent. Ashley is asked to captain a local cricket team against his rival, Reverend Vincent Spode (Antony Byrne). Ashley reveals that he hates Vincent for stealing his ideas for a thesis at university and his girlfriend, Sally (Siân Reeves), to whom Vincent is now married. Sally later turns up at the vicarage with her bags, having left Vincent. Ashley allows her to stay for as long as she needs. When Vincent learns where Sally is, he hits Ashley, who starts to believe he has also been bullying Sally. Bishop George insists Sally and Vincent go for counselling, but Sally returns with a black eye and Ashley allows her to stay again. A fire is started in the church and Laurel becomes trapped, she is rescued by Ashley and Zak Dingle. Laurel becomes convinced Sally started the fire and when Ashley refuses to believe her, she and the children leave.
Eventually Ashley realises that he wants his family back. However, Sally reveals that she and Ashley are having an affair. Ashley denies this, but he is still suspended from the church. Sally later accuses him of sexual assault. Edna Birch (Shirley Stelfox) and Bishop George doubt Ashley's innocence until Sally admits she lied. She wrecks Ashley's house and leaves. Laurel moves back, but makes it clear that their marriage will take time to repair. Sally returns and tries to get her revenge. She comes to Ashley's house and drugs him and she eventually rapes him. In the aftermath, Ashley tells Laurel and they call the police. After Sally is eventually arrested, Laurel forgives him.
The following year, Ashley and Laurel's marriage starts to deteriorate. Ashley realises Laurel has been having some sort of affair with Marlon Dingle (Mark Charnock). Laurel confesses that she has feelings for Marlon, but they have not had sex. To test Laurel's commitment to him, Ashley asks Laurel to renew their wedding vows. He asks Jude Watson (Andy Wear) to carry out the ceremony. Ashley asks Laurel to move to another parish in Leeds, but she refuses and they try to get their marriage back on track. Ashley starts taking his anger out on Sandy and Rachel Breckle (Gemma Oaten) becomes suspicious. She calls Adult Services, which infuriates Ashley and Laurel. Ashley forces Sandy to accept a move into a care home. Laurel catches Ashley hitting his father and truth about the abuse comes out. Edna also finds out and calls the police. Ashley is arrested and cautioned. He resigns from his job and Laurel asks for a divorce. He becomes unemployed and homeless. Marlon finds him and asks him to live with him and Ashley is given the role as barman behind the bar at The Woolpack.
In December 2013, 17 years after initially becoming the Vicar of St.Mary's Church, Ashley gets his old job back, however after discovering that his rival, Harriet, was the first choice but resigned because of him so he gave the job up for her. Harriet is later sacked by the bishop, after officiating an unauthorized same-sex wedding blessing for Ali and Ruby. Ashley then regains his position as vicar for Saint Mary's church. Harriet and Ashley begin a relationship soon after. Ashley is critically injured after being run over by Victoria Sugden (Isabel Hodgins) who was intentionally aiming for Adam. After suffering numerous seizures, he learns that he has Epilepsy. He struggles to cope with his condition and soon realises that he is losing his memory. Ashley takes some memory tests. However, the outcome is unsuccessful and he is diagnosed with Vascular dementia.
In 2016, Ashley reunites with his former wife Laurel following her divorce from Marlon, and they become engaged. Ashley and Laurel are later married, but on the night of their wedding Laurel is devastated when Ashley cannot remember them marrying, and thinks that she is still married to Marlon and he is with Harriet. During a church service on Easter Sunday, Ashley suffers a crisis of faith and decides to completely retire from his duties as vicar. In September 2016, Ashley becomes a father again, when Laurel gives birth to a daughter, whom they name Dotty after Ashley's late mother.
Ashley begins a relationship with Bernice Blackstock (Samantha Giles). Ashley falls in love with Bernice but does not have the courage to tell her. He finds himself in a "right state" when he shares a tent with Bernice during a camping trip. As Middleton told Claire Brand from Inside Soap, Ashley could not handle scenarios involving females and now "he has to spend time with this woman who he clearly adores". While Ashley worries about the arrangement, Bernice remains "ignorant" to his feelings. The actor thought that Bernice had never contemplated a relationship with Ashley. He added that even "Ashley doesn't think Bernice would give him a second look even if he did tell her how he feels." The storyline had gained momentum off-screen as viewers had written to Middleton demanding a relationship between the two characters. While Inside Soap ran a poll which determined that readers wanted Bernice to leave Gavin Ferris (Robert Beck) in favour of Ashley. When the bishop learns of their romance he offers Ashley a job in Leeds, but Bernice does not like the idea. Giles told a writer from Inside Soap that her character is reluctant to leave the village because "for once in her life, she has got some stability and she doesn't want to change that." Ashley tries to persuade Bernice to move by taking her to visit his potential work place; but Bernice is not impressed. Giles explained that Bernice dislikes it and she feels depressed. While she accepts Ashley's beliefs, his relationship with God creates problems during decision making. The actress added that Bernice "naively thought that if they got engaged – their problems would be solved."
Ashley began a relationship with Laurel Potts (Charlotte Bellamy). When Ashley proposes to Laurel, she tells him to wait until she returns from volunteer work in Tanzania. Bellamy said it proved Laurel had progressed into "her own woman" and became more confident. She hoped Laurel would marry Ashley because it has been "all she's ever wanted in life." She added that Laurel deserved a happy ending, but highlighted the fact nothing is ever straightforward in Laurel's life. Middleton said that Laurel and Ashley are well suited to one another, branding her as Ashley's soul mate.
The serial later began scripting marital problems for the pair. Laurel helps Ashley's niece Jasmine Thomas (Jenna-Louise Coleman) with her sexuality issues. Laurel agrees to keep it a secret from Ashley. Coleman said Laurel acts like a mother figure for Jasmine. Jasmine later has an affair with Cain Dingle (Jeff Hordley) and Laurel hides this from Ashley too. Ashley is furious with Laurel when he learns the truth, Middleton predicted it would have a bad effect on their marriage. He said "Ashley really does love Laurel, although he feels really let down by her at the moment."
Upon Laurel's return she gives birth. Middleton told the Daily Record that the birth is typical "Laurel and Ashley - it's absolute chaos". After becoming stranded at the church she arrives to a maternity ward that is over capacity. Bellamy added "It wouldn't have been believable if Laurel had just given birth normally. Nothing normal happens to her - she's a bit off the wall." Middleton that the scenes were enjoyable to film and a midwife was on hand to make the scenes realistic. Laurel gives birth to a boy, Daniel, Middleton said they were "thrilled" to have a child of their own together.
Emmerdale aired a special flashback episode on 22 October 2015 which revealed Ashley's whereabouts four weeks earlier. It was revealed he was at a doctor's appointment where he was told he is showing early signs of dementia. After the airing of the episode, it was announced Middleton had left his role after twenty years of playing Ashley. Middleton has reportedly chose to leave on "a high" after being handed the "best storyline of his career", comparing it to a footballer's career in the sense they leave after a good season. Middleton revealed that he had spoken with show boss, Kate Oates, earlier this year about his exit. He also mentioned that his contract does not end until the end of 2016, meaning his exit would air in early 2017. Speaking of his decision to leave, Middleton said it was and wasn't hard to leave the soap, "It's another roll of the dice. I'm very, very excited about that and I couldn't ask for a better storyline to leave the show on, I really couldn't." Middleton continued to mention how he has thought about leaving every year as well as recalling the meeting he had with Oates prior to choosing to leave: "She basically pitched the idea to me. She asked me, 'Are you happy to do this story? You probably want to think about it. I said immediately 'No I don't need time, I recognise this for what it is.'" Oates spoke of Middleton's exit, "I think this is going to be a really challenging story for us to tell. John and I have been talking about it for many, many months. We have heaped more agony on Ashley, but it's because John is an awesome actor and will do the storyline amazing justice."
A writer from Holy Soap named Ashley's most memorable moment as being the "dramatic race to the airport" to prevent Laurel from leaving.