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

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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.

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