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EastEnders actress denies leaving over baby-swop plot

EastEnders star Samantha Womack has insisted her decision to leave the soap has nothing to do with her controversial cot death storyline.

The actress, who plays bereaved mother Ronnie Branning, is bowing out of the soap as her contract reaches its "natural end".

Almost 6,000 complaints have been logged with the BBC over her character's high-profile storyline, which saw Ronnie lose a baby to cot death on New Year's Eve before swapping him with Kat Moon's live newborn.

It has now become one of the most complained-about EastEnders storylines, second only to the sudden death of Ronnie's daughter Danielle in a car crash in April 2009, which drew more than 7,000 objections from viewers.

Womack's agent Michael Wiggs said: "There's no truth whatsoever in any suggestion that Sam is 'quitting' EastEnders over the current storyline.

"Sam's contract comes to a natural end later this year and she will be taking a break from the show. This has been agreed with the producers for several months.

"Sam has had an incredibly happy and fulfilling time on EastEnders over the last few years.

"She has huge respect for the show, writers and producers and has thoroughly enjoyed playing such a complex role that has been involved in so many tough and challenging storylines."

BBC Drama controller John Yorke said Womack was "a much-loved member of the cast".

He said: "When she leaves at the end of this storyline, she'll be much missed, and the door will be open for her return."

The BBC had today received more than 5,800 complaints from viewers about the contentious plot.

Website Mumsnet has joined in the protest, with founder Justine Roberts writing to director general Mark Thompson to oppose the "baby swap" aspect of the story in particular.

In her letter, she wrote: "Our members are concerned that, as is all too common, a bereaved mother has been portrayed as deranged and unhinged. In fact the reality is very different."

She added: "For many, EastEnders might be their first or closest experience of a newly bereaved mother's reaction and subsequently they may treat baby snatching as a typical desire. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Roberts said the website's members were "frustrated" that the BBC had "squandered" the potential to raise awareness of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and its effect on bereaved families.

"The approach shown by the programme-makers appears at best to be ill-informed, and at worst looks like a cynical ploy to make headlines by creating deliberate controversy," she added.

Meanwhile, broadcaster Anne Diamond, who lost a son to cot death, branded the plot "tacky sensationalism".

She said on ITV1's Daybreak: "I think it's crass what they've done.

"I find it amazing that a cot death isn't awful enough for any drama. That they've had to actually make the cot death mother go slightly mad and then do a baby swap, is frankly offensive."

The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID), which worked with EastEnders ahead of the story, has also spoken out about the storyline, stressing its involvement "was limited to advice on SIDS risk factors, bereavement and the involvement of health professionals and the police".

The charity added in a statement: "FSID had no involvement in the planning or adoption of the specific 'baby-swap' plotline. The behaviour and actions of Ronnie Mitchell are in no way 'endorsed' by FSID as a typical, or even likely, reaction of a bereaved parent."

The BBC has responded to the floods of complaints, insisting the BBC1 show did not intend to "cause distress or upset".

In a statement, programme chiefs acknowledged it was a "particularly emotive storyline" which was approached "with great care and attention", with the advice of experts.

They stressed the plot followed in EastEnders' tradition of exploring difficult issues, and that there was "absolutely" no suggestion that Ronnie's behaviour was typical of a bereaved mother of a newborn baby.

Show bosses added viewers would "see the situation resolve itself over the coming months".

EastEnders executive producer Bryan Kirkwood said: "We appreciate this is a challenging storyline and have taken care to ensure viewers were aware of the content in advance of transmission.

"We also provided actionline numbers at the end of each show, offering advice and support to those affected by the issues."