Why TV soap is riskier than life in the fast lane

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Death is a fact of life in soap opera. Soap characters run a higher risk of death than steeplejacks, Formula One drivers or bomb disposal experts.

In EastEnders the death tally is 17 and rising. Coronation Street has lost 14 characters but Brookside and Emmerdale top the table with 29 and 28 deaths respectively.

The death count over the last 12 years demonstrates the risks that television soap stars run. Dr Tim Crayford, of the department of public health at King's College Hospital, London, and colleagues say an analysis of the four television soaps reveals a standardised mortality ratio for their stars of 771, more than seven times the average for ordinary mortals. By contrast, Formula One drivers have a mortality ratio of 581, oil rig divers 235, and bomb disposal experts 196.

"This is the first quantitative estimate of the size of the pinch of salt which should be taken when watching soap operas," they say in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal .

Albert Square in EastEnders turns out to be a significantly more dangerous place to live than Coronation Street. "People moving to Coronation Street between the ages of 30 and 44 went on to lead charmed lives while their peers living in Albert Square dropped like flies."

Many characters, often young, died violent or unexpected deaths including three killed by a mystery virus in Brookside and four killed in a plane crash in Emmerdale.

The authors say the results are of more than academic interest as British soap operas have built up a reputation for mirroring social themes, dealing with issues including Aids, breast cancer, theft and mugging. When it comes to death, however, they suggest they may be distorting the perception of violence in society. "It seems sad that to hold our interest they have to be as dangerous as Formula One motor racing." They advise characters who still survive to wear good protective clothing (designed to withstand sharp implements, sudden impacts and fire) and to receive regular counselling "for living in an environment akin to a war zone".

A spokeswoman for EastEnders said: "EastEnders is a drama, and like any drama reflects the age old complexities of life and death.

"The EastEnders data for this research was taken from unofficial websites and the findings should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.

"In 12 years just over 1 per cent of our characters have died. It's probably more dangerous to be a character in a Shakespeare play."

But Dr Crayford insisted yesterday: "I think there's a lot of scope for soap operas to be more realistic. It wouldn't be a bad thing if a few more people died of strokes and heart attacks, or lung cancer."