PROFILE: Bet Lynch; Susan Irvine toasts Coronation Street's departing landlady
Picture a warrior-woman in breastplate of leopard print and Lycra. She's all biceps and bosoms and defiant sexuality but with a sharp line in dry put-downs that keeps men in their place. She's strong, independent, nobody's woman but her own. No, this isn't Madonna, sterile stereotype of the Nineties, it's Bet Lynch, archetypal barmaid of the Seventies, a figure seemingly frozen in time yet still gripping to the millions of viewers of both sexes and all classes who are aghast that she filmed her Coronation Street finale this week.

Why the fuss? Perhaps it's down to the British penchant for nostalgia. Life has changed, and so have women, but Bet Lynch, tart with a heart, is a reassuring rock, a weekly dose of regression therapy in an alienating world. How otherwise can modern women relate to her any more than they could have to the gorgon figure of Ena Sharples?

That vaudeville costume of bouffant brassy hair and sex-tigress clothing gives her the appearance of a panto dame, not to mention her breasts, dubbed Newton & Ridley after the brand of bitter she pulled - "a cross between Queen Elizabeth I and Danny la Rue" as Roy Hattersley put it. It's been only slightly watered-down with the years. When she graduated from barmaid to landlady of the Rover's Return the golfball earrings shrank a bit and the skirts dropped slightly, but her evolution seems to have stopped there. Pubs are rarely inhabited these days by larger- than-life barmaids in scarlet lipstick, bursting out of tiger-print jumpers. Catwalks, however, are. Stylistically, Bet Lynch has never been more relevant. She's the street version of Versace, ascendant designer of the moment. The only person who could step into her shoes, glamour-wise, is Donatella, Versace's blonde, bouffant sister, another sex kitten/matriarch in the post-feminist Coronation Street mould.

But maybe, fashion apart, it was time for Bet to pull her last pint? One of life's worriers she may be, but perhaps this over-the-top figure has become a travesty of Northern Woman, poor, struggling, but slugging it out to the last?

No. The reality is that time has not so much slipped Bet by as caught up with her. When she first properly appeared on The Street in 1970, she was a single mother who had had to put her child up for adoption, struggling to find a place in a world that viewed her as a social outcast. She was sexually liberated, with all the dangers that involves of being sexually used. Men saw her as available, women saw her as a threat; indomitable, but vulnerable, she navigated her way between the two views. She earned her own living, carving out her own morality and never lost self-respect.

The life she led in the Seventies is one much more common among working- class women in the Nineties, making her in one respect at least less a dying breed of female dinosaur as a trail-blazer, a prototype of the lone working woman who remains sexually active into advanced middle age.

At the same time, her character has developed. If she had gone on just playing the eternal vamp, she would have become a sad figure and probably would have had to be written out as a pathetic old alcoholic. On the other hand, if she had married permanently for love she would have been killed off in another way, because that sexual energy that defines her would have been diffused. But Julie Goodyear always invested her character with a feisty sexuality that might say blonde, buxom, but never bimbo.

In this she is in complete contrast to that other ageing blonde barmaid played by Barbara Windsor in EastEnders. Windsor is a chirpy, cheeky, perky little thing with all the outward attributes of a Bet Lynch. But she has none of the gravitas and self-awareness. Windsor is a stereotype, Lynch an archetype.

OK, so she's not Lady Macbeth, but she was always a rich, complex character with enough predictability to make her bad choices in men inevitable. She saw them coming but couldn't help herself and with a "here I go again" launched into yet another doomed relationship. And, feeling with her, we have watched her go, riding the ups and downs of her endless tragedies and watching her pick herself up once she's been beaten down, bloody but unbowed.Under the pastiche make-up, she's a hero, suffering but enduring.

She has also matured. Her wisecracking, tough side developed when she took over as landlady of the Rover's Return in 1985. She was still the same Bet, but a good deal of her sexual energy was transformed into economic energy as she gained responsibility and respectability. Later, her more vulnerable side developed when she became the mother-figure to Vicky, granddaughter of her now estranged husband, Alec Gilroy. Today, she is even more a modern female icon, a matriarch who remains sexual and a businesswoman running her own life. No wonder we're still gripped.

And who are we? Coronation Street's audience is susceptible to being stereotyped as being chip-butty eating northern lasses chained to the ironing board. But Bet Lynch is a gay icon as much as a housewives' heroine. Of course, there are the outrageous clothes. Bet dresses like a drag queen and drag queens have often returned the compliment. But it's her diva qualities in the face of tragedy that make her a gay heroine in the mould of Judy Garland.

Fashion guru, gay icon, prototype of modern working class woman - heck! The brassy barmaid is even a post-feminist figurehead. She might have looked less relevant to young women in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when feminism was all about ditching men and positing theories. Now however, in a post-feminist, more practical, world she has emerged as one of the very few working-class feminist touchstones. Lynch needs men, but recognises that they are trouble. It's the fact that she's not PC that makes her believable, an independent woman (still) struggling to make her way in a (still) man's world.

But even while she embodies all these aspects of modern culture, it remains true that Bet Lynch is still the nation's favourite comfort food. While real-life Manchester copes with crack houses and guns and enjoys a multi- racial community, down on the Street, Bet is just about pulling her millionth pint, in a world still steeped in post-war security. Her departure is another symbol of the twilight of that insular and safer world that is slipping out of reach as modern society crumbles into more complexity and uncertainty.