Role models? Too flaming right, mate

Doctors say soap characters should be showing us all how to live. We say they already are... and here's the proof. By Paul Bignell and Cole Moreton

'Ere, doc, you're having a laugh, aintcha? Senior doctors have taken a pop at soap operas for showing leading characters with unhealthy lifestyles but none of the side effects. Dot Cotton of EastEnders should be coughing, says Bupa, the private healthcare company, because she has been a smoker all her life. At the other end of the telly glamour scale, Louise Summers from Hollyoaks has clearly got "alcohol dependency problems" but doesn't show it.

"Shadrach Dingle from Emmerdale should, by rights, have a red face with broken veins that you may see with high alcohol consumption," says Dr Peter Mace, Bupa's assistant medical director. "If we tested his blood, there might be evidence of damage to his liver, though this can occur later."

Right, doc. And you might find out he's an actor playing a character, not a real person. But go on. "Tyrone Dobbs [of Coronation Street] consumes far too much saturated fat and does little or no exercise, which would realistically lead to high cholesterol levels that, in turn, may lead to heart disease. This might make him short of breath, and perhaps give him chest pain on exertion, though he may dodge exercise to avoid these symptoms."

Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, president of the Faculty of Public Health, agrees it would be "useful" for "someone who smokes to cough quite a bit or clear their throat, something that is quite realistic yet not drastic".

Yes, and some of us might get high blood pressure from shouting: "It's not real."

A spokesman for the BBC said: "Eastenders has always highlighted health issues such as HIV and mental illness in storylines which have really engaged viewers. Medical dramas as such as Holby and Casualty often show the more subtle nuances of medical health matters."

Quite. So in the soap tradition of yelling back at the doctor and stomping out, here are our alternative soap role models. They've been ranked for glamour, niceness, fidelity, lifestyle and the impact their stories had on the wider world. All right? Now then, doc ... geroutta my pub.

Bet Lynch, Coronation Street

For being the ultimate barmaid. A brassy, blonde man-eater with a vulnerable side and a heart of gold, she started pulling pints at the Rovers Return in 1970 and came to define her kind, on and off screen. Brash enough to nickname her breasts Newton and Ridley after the brewery, smart enough to become a very good landlady. Actor Julie Goodyear has yet to escape from Bet's leopard-print shadow.

Peggy Mitchell, EastEnders

For family. It's everyfink, ain't it? Peggy (Barbara Windsor) would happily firebomb the whole of Walford for her boys, Grant and Phil. She knows they're thugs and villains, but loves 'em like the day they was born. Queen of the Queen Vic, current protector of her nieces Roxy and Ronnie, best known for telling her enemies with a terrifying snarl: "Geroutta my pub."

J R Ewing, Dallas

For being the president America should have had. If the US really wanted a Texan oil man from a powerful dynasty, with no fear of bending the truth, it could at least have picked a smart one. J R (Larry Hagman) would never have invaded Iraq – he'd have found a far sneakier way of getting his hands on all that oil.

Elsie Tanner, Coronation Street

For being all woman. A Sixties icon, unlike anyone seen on the box before. Sassy, strong and fiery as her hair. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan called Elsie (Pat Phoenix) "the sexiest thing on television".

Frank Butcher, EastEnders

For swagger. Just a used-car dealer from a dodgy part of town, he had the self-confidence of Sinatra. Played by Mike Reid. If you can keep your head when all around are losing theirs – through bankruptcy and depression – and still say "babe" with a cheesy smile, then you'll be a Frank, my son.

Beth Jordache, Brookside

For knowing that revenge is a dish best served with cold concrete. And for that kiss. Years of rape and abuse came to an end when wife and daughter Mandy and Beth buried evil Trevor Jordache under the patio in 1993. Later that year Beth (Anna Friel) fell for neighbour Margaret and enjoyed prime-time TV's first lesbian snog.

The Duckworths, Coronation Street

For enduring love. Survived decades of squabbles, flings and trouble with their son. Jack and Vera (Bill Tarmey and Liz Dawn) were not just funny, but also capable of very moving scenes, not least earlier this year, when Vera died suddenly at home.

Phil Archer, The Archers

For going on and on. And on. Longest-surviving character in longest-running radio soap, played by the longest-serving actor (Norman Painting) since 1951. Biggest moment was the death of his wife Grace in a fire – 53 years ago.

Little Willy, EastEnders

For TV soap pets everywhere. They were safe until Willy the pug (played by Willy the pug) was the first to be put down. Who was not moved by his elderly owner, Ethel, asking: "Where's my Little Willy?"

Amy Turtle, Crossroads

For services to broadcasting. Pioneered rolling news (or gossip), as her nylon apron crackled. Amy (Ann George) also inspired Mrs Overall in 'Acorn Antiques'.

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