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

Some characters mean too much to be killed off

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.