A Desperate Housewives actress is taking a producer to court for killing off her character

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It could lead to a power shift in soaps

A post-modern moment for television will arrive next month when a real-life jury convenes to decide if Edie Britt, a Desperate Housewife among Wisteria Lane's gaggle of fictional spouses, was unfairly killed off in the fifth series of the American soap.

Nicollette Sheridan, the Desperate Houswives actress who played Edie, the character who died in a car accident, appeared to have been triumphant after a recent court ruling which deemed her case against ABC and the show's producer, Marc Cherry, substantial enough to go to trial for wrongful termination, although a judge at the Los Angeles court hearing threw out claims of sexual harassment and assault.

Some might say the case represents a typically Californian, trigger-happy attitude towards litigation. But an actress accusing television producers of fictional murder and taking them to a real court must have a bearing on the producers' creative autonomy.

The exit from a soap of any character – be it through Edie's accident or Nigel Pargetter's fatal fall in The Archers – poses serious questions for producers and writers. How far can storylines be challenged by actors or viewers, if they can be contested at all? Do the intentions of potentially grudge-bearing writers or producers matter if a high-profile character's death, or other exit, enriches plotlines and drives up viewing figures?

A world in which an actor can legally disapprove of the fate of his or her character may see teeming courtrooms and, in worst-case scenarios, turn scriptwriting into a Pop Idol-style popularity contest, in which actors and perhaps even viewers have input into who stays and who goes.

Of course, viewers and actors have every right to complain when a character is flung off a cliff or run over by a spurned lover. But there have been great "event television" moments in which the most popular characters have vanished from the screen. Take the sudden death of Tiffany (Martine McCutcheon) in EastEnders; the disappearance of Dirty Den (Leslie Grantham) in the same show; or the demise of Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) in Dallas.

It can be argued that writers who kill off the most charismatic characters are being creatively daring, as is the show which takes such ratings risks. EastEnders scriptwriters have proved particularly ruthless when disposing of characters and such an approach appears to have worked in their favour, as the enduring popularity and critical success of the show attests. Last April, six characters were written out of the BBC soap, on the instruction of a then new executive producer, Bryan Kirkwood.

Despite protests from disgruntled actors or viewers, deaths and disappearances have often proven to be crowd-pullers. A recent case in point is Nigel's demise in The Archers, in early January this year. A maelstrom of criticism overthe death of one of the best loved characters from the BBC Radio Four series raged for months on internet noticeboards and radio phone-ins. Some argued that although Nigel's end gave the programme's plot dramatic momentum and saw in the 60th anniversary of the series with a bang, the strategy represented a cheap form of crowd manipulation. People tuned in in a state of disbelief and carried on listening in that state, though many claimed to have boycotted the series after Nigel's rooftop fall, seeing the death of the veteran character as a brutal clearing out of the old guard. Graham Seed, the actor who played Nigel, still receives letters of protest.

Yet the controversy was excellent for ratings. Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR) figures show that the surprise that producers had promised would "shake Ambridge to the core" did what it set out to do: create a heightened sense of drama and draw in more listeners. More than 5 million tuned in to The Archers every week in the first quarter of this year, compared to 4.88m in the previous quarter. Lunchtime listening was at record levels.

Keri Davies, a scriptwriter on The Archers, says that far from manipulating listeners, the death of Nigel Pargetter was an opportunity for narrative creativity which energised the drama. The strong listener response was no bad sign either.

Davies says: "If we killed a character and nobody cared, what would be the point? I genuinely believe that just as there is an element of bereavement for the actor who is killed off, so there is for the listeners as well. The death of any major character is going to leave a bit of a hole in the lives of the listeners for whom this character might have almost become a proxy friend. So we saw people going through the classic stages of bereavement – anger, denial, sadness."

Seed, the Rada-trained actor who played Nigel, says that he suggested ways in which his character might face a lesser fate than death, but that the scriptwriters had imagined the story strands too far into the future to save him.

"I have no axe to grind but I was very, very sad, and quietly horrified, to be written out," Seed says. "It was a very upsetting thing. I was notified three weeks before I recorded my [dying] scream. I said, 'Why don't we make him a paraplegic?' It might have been an interesting storyline to have him in a wheelchair. The reason my editor gave me for writing him out was that it would introduce wonderful new storylines – to kill off a popular character – and I suppose in a way the uproar did exactly as the editor wanted. It was a big story, very 'soap'."

In an ideal world, Seed says, it would be nice if characters' destinies were up for discussion. "Sometimes the actors have better judgments of their characters than the writers. Sometimes you have a fantastic idea which you share with the writers."

Yet Davies says that a death provides rich opportunities, sending ripples over plotlines for some time to come. "An event like Nigel's death will change the drama and have repercussions for decades. The actors know it could happen, that they could be go under a tractor at any moment. Deaths written in years ago are still having repercussions now, and creating tensions between characters."

Just last week, listeners were gripped by a dramatic altercation in The Archers after David admitted to Nigel's wife, Elizabeth, that it was he who had sent her late husband up to the roof from which he had his fatal fall.

Ironically, Nigel's death has boosted Seed's career. In July, he will launch a one-man stage show, Don't Call Me Nigel, and he is due to tour in a play alongside Nigel Havers this summer. "[Nigel Pargetter's death] was fantastic publicity," Seed says. "A casting director told me it was the best thing that could have happened to me."

Because The Archers exists in a fictional world, there is also the possibility of a comeback. Some are calling for Seed to re-emerge as "Nigel's long-lost brother, returning from Zimbabwe". But not every re-entry, or indeed every exit, pays off. In the case of Bobby Ewing's death at the end of the 1984-85 series of Dallas, after Duffy expressed a desire to leave the show despite his stellar profile among its fans, producers persuaded him to return in the now infamous "shower scene". Viewers were outraged by scriptwriters who passed off Bobby's demise – and an entire previous series – as a dream. One of Duffy's co-stars, Larry Hagman, spoke afterwards of his regret over the storyline; some blamed it for the show's death.

Ben Preston, the editor of Radio Times, says screen deaths are a must if ongoing series are to be kept fresh. But writers must tread a careful line. "Hatching, matching and dispatching soap stars is a fine art that requires a deft touch," Preston says. "Do it too often and you end up with Bobbie Ewing in Dallas – or Dirty Den in EastEnders – coming back from the dead, a sure sign of creative bankruptcy. Do it in character and viewers feel it like a death in the family. When Jack Duckworth died, dancing around the living room with the ghost of his wife Rita, it may have been the first recorded instance of magical realism on Coronation Street but it was perfectly in character. And there wasn't a dry eye in the nation."

So what about intentionality? Is it acceptable to write out a character because of a grudge against an actor? In Sheridan's case, a Desperate Housewives scriptwriter claimed in a written testimony in court that Cherry asked the writers to kill off her character because of an "increasing frustration with Ms Sheridan".

A commentator for The Wall Street Journal, Eric Felten, has written of "umpteen reasons for producers killing off soap stars, the biggest usually revolving around money". He adds: "It's hardly a new phenomenon. There's reason to believe that no less a dramatist than Shakespeare knew how to write inconvenient actors off the stage.

"The star comedian of Shakespeare's troupe was Will Kemp, whose quick-witted buffoonery was as famous as his rowdy dancing. It was Kemp who introduced audiences to John Falstaff, and those audiences clamored [sic] for more of the scoundrel. Maybe the success went to Kemp's head, but he seems to have had a falling out with the man penning his lines. No one quite knows why Kemp left the company, but the comedian was later known to gripe bitterly about 'Shakerags'."

Perhaps untimely deaths and sudden disappearances are not just part of the shock and delight of fiction, but long-held prerogatives of the mercurial writer.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering