Liane Jones: Soap operas are a matter of life or death

Some characters mean too much to be killed off

Related Topics

In the midst of life, we are in death. Well, that's certainly true when it comes to BBC soaps. Last Sunday, The Archers celebrated its 60th anniversary by having Nice-But-Unrealistic-Toff Nigel Pargetter fall off the roof of his stately pile, while over on EastEnders' Albert Square, a mother whose baby had died in his sleep wandered traumatised to the bedside of a neighbour's (identically aged and dressed) child, placed her own son's corpse in the unattended cot and scarpered back home clutching the neighbour's baby, which she then passed off as her own.

So far, so ridiculous. But both plot developments struck a chord. Archers listeners, who had been warned for weeks that something catastrophic was going to happen, broke into genuine outrage over the loss of a character they had liked for years.

Much of their indignation was on behalf of newly resting actor, Graham Seed, who seems honestly stricken. Obviously, he confided to the Today programme, he was grieving. He'd had no idea he was due for the chop after 30 years of happily belonging to the cast. When he'd been called in to the executive suite to be condemned, he'd asked, "Why me?" By the end of the interview, many early-morning throats had lumps in them, mine included.

But this outbreak of emotion has been quite enjoyable, most Archers fans will admit – a Diana-esque outpouring that's shot through with a sense of nostalgia. Nigel has always been a symbol as much as a character – a story we like to tell ourselves about a benign, slightly foolish, good-hearted streak that still lurks somewhere in our national psyche.

The response to the EastEnders story is different. Viewers began complaining to the BBC immediately the baby swap was broadcast, and once they were asked to watch the grief of duped parents Kat and Alfie, complaints rose into the thousands. The BBC's defence that it was aiding understanding of sudden infant death syndrome was given short shrift.

The website Mumsnet pointed out that portraying the character of bereaved mother Ronnie as deranged and predatory was hardly helpful. The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, which had provided some factual advice, saw fit to put a notice on its site disclaiming involvement in the swap element of the storyline.

The BBC, meanwhile, seems to have been taken aback by the protests over Nigel. Rather like the coalition government when students and schoolchildren erupted on to the streets last November, it seems surprised that people cared so much.

The analogy is not so far-fetched. In both cases, an executive that is used to talking to itself makes decisions about issues that are central to the lives of ordinary people. True, TV drama doesn't actually alter the life chances of the viewers, but it does work on their emotions – that's its job. So when BBC high-ups use the agony suffered by hundreds of parents a year, and feared by hundreds of thousands more, to power a grotesque and sensationalist storyline, viewers mind.

If Ronnie's character had been treated with respect and allowed to grieve in a way that viewers recognise, they would have been engaged rather than sickened. By contrast, The Archers is handling the bereavement issue rather well, allowing characters to respond in different ways. While this doesn't make the killing of Nigel any less of a cynical ratings-gathering exercise, it does seem to be dispersing listeners' fury. For now, that is – who knows what the long-term reaction might be?

Rumour has it that some listeners are thinking of a constructive dismissal case on Graham Seed's behalf. The EastEnders team – and, for that matter, the coalition – might want to take note: where real lives and real feelings are touched, expect strong reactions.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Professional Services Firm - Oxford

£21000 - £24000 per annum + 21 days holidays: Ashdown Group: Technical Support...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts

Björt Ólafsdóttir

Daily catch-up: opening round in the election contest of the YouTube videos

John Rentoul
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor