Soap opera actress in courtroom scenes to rival TV drama: Top libel QC counts another victory as 'EastEnders' star collapses after losing case against 'Sun' newspaper with pounds 500,000 bill for costs

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THE scriptwriters of EastEnders would have been hard-pushed to produce an episode as dramatic as the end of Gillian Taylforth's libel action against the Sun newspaper yesterday.

The collapse of Miss Taylforth, the screams of her distraught family, and the wailing of the ambulance siren were scenes never seen before in the High Court. The real lives of soap opera stars are increasing resembling their stage dramas.

From the start, the action brought by Miss Taylforth, who plays Kathy Beale in EastEnders, and her fiance Geoff Knights, had been an irresistible combination of sex and soap with plenty of twists in the plot.

Here was one of the best-known stars of EastEnders suing over allegations that she and her lover, a wealthy businessman with a criminal record, had been having oral sex in their Range Rover when they were spotted by a policeman.

During the first week of the case a bizarre reconstruction was staged in the Range Rover in the court car park. The judge, jury and journalists watched as the couple showed what position they said they had been in and then two Sun journalists simulated a rival version.

At the beginning of the second week, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, George Carman QC, counsel for the Sun, produced startling new evidence. Two days previously two men had arrived at the newspaper's offices with a video.

It showed Miss Taylforth at a party five years ago simulating oral sex with a large German sausage, making sexual motions with a wine bottle and saying to camera 'I give very good head'.

Miss Taylforth, who had wept in the witness box and said that she was not a sexual exhibitionist, was recalled to give further evidence. She told the court that the episode had merely been drunken high jinks with friends.

Peter Carter-Ruck, a leading libel lawyer, said on BBC radio yesterday: 'I think that the video evidence was very damaging in two respects. First of all it went to the witness's credibility and secondly it went to the issue of damages.'

The couple's case was not helped by the fact that Mr Knights signed a caution admitting the offence of indecency after being taken to the police station. He claimed that he had been too drunk to know what he was signing but officers said he seemed reasonably sober.

The criminal past of Mr Knights, who runs a chain of photocopying shops, was revealed to the jury. He has convictions for assault, burglary and criminal damage and last year beat up an EastEnders scriptwriter who gave Miss Taylforth a lift home.

Eventually the jury had to confront the fact that either the police or the plaintiffs were lying. PC Terry Talbot was adamant that he had seen Mr Knight's erect penis through the vehicle window.

By a majority of 10-2 they chose to believe the police. The jury stared straight ahead as the foreman announced the result, unable to look at the tense couple a few feet away in the packed courtroom.

EastEnders was never far from the minds of the protagonists in the case. When Miss Taylforth said she felt unclean and ashamed after reading the Sun story, Mr Carman accused her of re-enacting the aftermath of a rape scene in the soap opera. Miss Taylforth gripped the rail of the witness box and replied: 'No, Mr Carman, that was Kathy Beale. I'm Gillian Taylforth.' She denied that she had rehearsed her evidence.

High drama involving the real lives of actors and actresses in soap operas seems to be becoming almost as routine as it is for the characters they portray.

Leslie Grantham played 'Dirty Den' Watts in EastEnders, a character who served time in jail and was eventually murdered. In real life Mr Grantham had spent 11 years in prison for killing a taxi driver in Germany in 1966.

The string of personal tragedies suffered by Mike Reid, who plays Frank Butcher, in EastEnders, has been worse than those he has portrayed on screen. His son Mark accidentally killed a friend in a mock duel and later burned himself to death; his granddaughter Kirsty suffered a cot death; and Mr Reid himself lost pounds 240,000 in a Spanish nightclub venture.

But none can equal Julie Goodyear, who plays Bet Lynch, now Bet Gilroy, who has pulled pints at the Rovers Return in Coronation Street for more than 20 years. She has had three disastrous marriages, one husband walking out on her at the wedding reception.

In 1979, Miss Goodyear underwent surgery for cervical cancer and decided to set up a charity to help sufferers. She then found herself accused of defrauding the charity by fixing a raffle result but was acquitted.

Anthony Hayward, author of The Who's Who of Soap Operas, said soap stars were no different from other actors and actresses. 'In the end it is down to how popular the programmes are and the press scrutiny that results.'

Kathy Beale, the cafe owner, has suffered rape, a nervous breakdown and the suicide of her daughter. But even she has never been faced with a pounds 500,000 legal bill and the torment of cross-examination by Mr Carman.

(Photographs omitted)