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Saturday, July 17, 1999 Published at 08:55 GMT 09:55 UK

Protecting icons from exploitation

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

A new American soap opera called Passions has raised more than a few eyebrows by constantly referring to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, as a character in its opening episodes.

Passions has been described as a "multi-generational saga" about four families who live in a seaside community called Harmony in New England.

[ image: Diana is a
Diana is a "good friend" of soap character
Princess Diana has been written into the story as a good friend of Sheridan Crane, one of the show's principal characters who is overseas in Paris.

It could only happen in the world of American daytime TV, but Sheridan's car crashes in the very same tunnel where Princess Diana lost her life.

When Sheridan arrives at the hospital in an unconscious state she hears Diana calling out to her telling her to "go back" to the living.

Identifying with Diana

Passions is being broadcast each weekday by NBC, one of America's big TV networks. James Reilly, who created the show, says he wrote Princess Diana into the story to help the audience attach an identity to Sheridan Crane.

He says "what better than for this character [Sheridan] to have been friends with Diana, and tap into that emotional well of feelings that the people have for Diana".

Although Sheridan was left unconscious as a result of her car crash, she makes a miraculous recovery.

[ image: Actress McKenzie Westmore plays Sheridan Crane]
Actress McKenzie Westmore plays Sheridan Crane
In one episode of the show she reportedly talks of the guardian angel Diana and says, "Thank God I was wearing my seat belt. If only Diana had been wearing hers."

Some viewers have complained about Passions saying it is tasteless, offensive and exploitative, but James Reilly can't understand why people are so upset about the Princess Diana references.

He says: "We didn't tarnish her image, if anything we burnished it, and we were very reverential in the way that we treated her."

Legal loophole

Critics may find the use of Princess Diana's name in a soap opera tacky, but in America there is legally nothing they can do about it.

There is a hotchpotch of different state laws governing the use of a dead celebrity's name. In California where Passions is made the TV show would be viewed as an "expressive work" and exempt from regulation.

[ image: Dancing with the dead: Fred Astaire was in vacuum cleaner ad]
Dancing with the dead: Fred Astaire was in vacuum cleaner ad
However tough new legislation to enable relatives of deceased celebrities to exert greater control over use of their loved one's name is making its way through the California legislature and could become law early next year.

It came about partly because Fred Astaire's widow, Robyn, became outraged when she saw an advertisement that read Fred Astaire Teaches You To Dirty Dance and found his face placed on condoms.

Other TV commercials have featured Humphrey Bogart hustling jewellery and John Wayne advertising beer.

Currently California law allows a dead celebrity's name, voice, or likeness to be used in a commercial endeavour only with permission from survivors, but there are several exceptions.

The new law would remove many of the exceptions and restrict use of a dead celebrity_s image. It would also limit the ability of advertisers to use sophisticated new technology to resurrect dead stars and bring them back to life to pitch products.

Bleak prognosis for Passions

[ image: John Wayne: Used to sell beer]
John Wayne: Used to sell beer
As for Passions, the furore will probably subside, because James Reilly says the Princess Diana references are not going to continue.

"It was just used at the beginning to establish Sheridan's identity. It is not going to be a recurring theme," he added

Passions probably made use of Princess Diana in its introductory episodes because she is such a powerful icon, and NBC needs help in building an audience for its daytime soaps.

It is still early days for Passions, but a review published in the Orlando Sentinel gave the soap opera a rather bleak prognosis.

Their critic wrote: "A show's dearth of creativity is evident when it shamelessly keeps picking over the bones of the dead. Passions seems to have a death wish."

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