Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Friday, 18 January 2008

How to kill off a soap star

Vera Duckworth

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Ashtrays, trams, shop freezers, plane crashes - all have been used to kill off soap stars. Vera Duckworth is the latest to make a big exit and how she goes is anyone's guess. What makes a good soap death?

Statistically speaking, Vera Duckworth is one very lucky lady.

She's spent 34 years living in Coronation Street and hasn't been savagely beaten with a crowbar, cracked on the head with one of her ornaments or locked in a freezer at local supermarket Freshco.

Sandra Maitland and Anna Friel played Mandy and Beth Jordache
Trevor Jordache, stabbed by estranged wife (Brookside)
Richard Hillman, drowned (Coronation St)
Steve Owen, car crash (EastEnders)
Half the cast, plane crash (Emmerdale)
Maxine Peacock, murdered by Hillman (Coronation St)
Source: Radio Times

Maxine Peacock, Charlie Stubbs and Anne Malone weren't so lucky - all with fatal consequences.

Soapland is not a safe place to inhabit and surviving for more than three decades is some feat. But after a good innings, the nation's favourite battleaxe - with a heart of gold - will be killed off in tonight's episode.

How she goes in Friday's episode is shrouded in secrecy. Soap characters have been killed off in plane crashes, fatally hit by irons, ashtrays and trams - even shot by gun-toting revolutionaries in Dynasty.

One thing's for certain, it has to be good. Viewers expect nothing less than television gold and tears galore. Vera is soap royalty, one of the genre's best-loved characters and one half of its most endearing - and enduring - couples.

Tender moments

But while many soap deaths are memorable, often it's not for the right reasons. Some make for classic viewing but others are laugh-out-loud funny for their sheer silliness - the Freshco freezer incident being one. So what makes a good soap death?

Gretchen Franklin played Ethel Skinner
Ethel Skinner, euthanasia (EastEnders)
Jamie Mitchell, run over (EastEnders)
Alma Halliwell, cancer (Coronation St)
Dennis Rickman, stabbed (EastEnders)
Matthew and Emily Farnham, car crash (Brookside)
Source: Radio Times

It's all about emotional resonance, say soap scriptwriters. Regardless of whether the character is good or bad, the audience has to connect with them in some way - for or against, but never indifferent.

"If that bit is right it will get the best out of the audience and the actors, they will all feel it," says Simon Ashdown, former scriptwriter for EastEnders and responsible for killing off Tiffany Mitchell (hit by car), Ethel Skinner (euthanasia) and Arthur Fowler (brain haemorrhage).

"You want to get every last drop of emotion out of all of them. Tiffany's death on EastEnders is a good example. The audience liked her and were hooked into her storyline, they really cared what happened to her. It was also really well acted, when she was dying there was a close up of her face and you could almost see the life go out of her eyes."

Often deaths involve fire, explosions or crashes. But while there has to be something "epic" about the scene, that doesn't necessarily mean it has to be visually spectacular. It's about balance.

"A bad soap death is one that's so over the top, the spectacle overshadows what should be a tender moment," says author Andrew Collins, the former EastEnders scriptwriter who killed off Nick Cotton's son Ashley (motorbike accident).

Emotion can make just as much impact as a huge explosion, as the death of Ethel Skinner in EastEnders showed. Voted the most moving soap death in a recent Radio Times poll, the intimate episode featured only Ethel and her best friend Dot, who helped her commit suicide.

"That was a gentle death," says Ashdown, who wrote it. "It was about the love of two friends. I thought that was powerful enough."

Resurrection and life

And while people do tune in to view attention-grabbing stunts, they often only boost ratings for one night. A stunt won't necessarily make them tune back in the next night or the night after. A good death will pull viewers back in because it won't be the end of a story, just a new chapter.

Hatch, match and dispatch is what soaps are all about
Gareth McLean

"The best deaths are those that are the climax of that character's storyline, but crucially have ramifications for those left," says Gareth McLean, television critic with the Guardian newspaper. "They send other characters on a new journey."

An element of surprise is also a winner, but it's increasingly difficult in the crowded soap marketplace, where storylines often get out long before the event itself.

The build-up to Vera Duckworth's death has been well handled because there have been no obvious hints in the running storyline about how it will happen. This maintains surprise and builds suspense, says Craig Batty, senior lecturer in scriptwriting at Portsmouth University.

"We know Vera and Jack are looking forward to a new life in Blackpool. The writers are building up their excitement and that is in contrast with the audience knowing something bad is going to happen but not what, which builds their excitement."

But possibly one of the most important elements is that the storyline is true to the character. If it isn't you are "breaking a pact with the audience and they don't like it", says Mr Batty.

Sharon Watts and Dennis Rickman
The festive season is particularly deadly in soapland

"The death should always be character-driven. You have to believe they would do what the scriptwriters make them do. If it isn't right, it feels like a disservice to the character."

But this is soapland after all and characters sometimes pull off what mere mortals can't - resurrection.

Writers say the biggest mistake when it comes to soap deaths is bringing the person back to life, like Den Watts in EastEnders and Bobby Ewing in Dallas.

"Hatch, match and dispatch is what soaps are all about," says McLean. "If you take away the finality of death you are messing with one of the fundamentals of soap. The show loses credibility and the audience lose faith.

"Soaps pride themselves on social realism, so to play with it is a huge mistake. It took EastEnders a long while to come back from the Den debacle."

But coming back from the dead seems unlikely for Vera. The decision to kill the character off was made by actress Liz Dawn and the show producers, rather than have her drift in and out with occasional guest appearances.

So tonight almost certainly is goodbye Vera and the end of an era.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Why do they have to kill her off?
Just let go off on her dream and retire in Blackpool. Jack could have kept popping back along with his pigeons.
Jake, Crewe

An unforgettable way to die? Perhaps she chokes on a fish bone. At a school outing to the Glasgow Exhibition in 1938 one of my school friends very nearly did. I have never forgotten it. Just a thought.
JP Ward, Vlaardingen, The Netherlands

I think Vera will die in her sleep. With all the excitement of going, and half of her not wanting to go, it gets all to much for her, and her heart just can't take it.
Hazel Press, London

The recent car-crash scene in EastEnders is the perfect example of what Craig Batty was talking about: the whole stolen car storyline was utterly ridiculous and was one of the worst story threads the soap has had. The only ray of sunshine of the whole thing was that Phil Daniels won't be inflicting his horrible overacting on us any more.
Geoff Winkless, Leicestershire, UK

Soap deaths are a wonderfully predicatable: If the character is horrifically injured, goes into hospital in critical condition and is sure to die, they will make a full and rapid recovery with no consequences. If they get a little knock, have no signs of injury or just aren't feeling ok, they are going to die before the ambulance arrives. Simple as that.
KTvS, Plymouth, UK

Ethel's death was one of the best storylines ever. However I think that producers kill off too many characters. It makes me wonder about the mortality rate in the UK. For example, why couldn't Pauline just go off to live with Michelle in America? And yes, while Tiffany's death scene was fabulously played, what they did with the character by first throwing her down the stairs, then running her over with the car, was excessive.
DebbieG, New York City

I agree with Jake, why couldn't they just send her and Jack off to live out a long a happy retirement? Everything in these soaps are sad and depressing and no-one is ever happy for very long. All marriges end up in divorce or one partner dies. There are real people in this world that do live long and happy lives, why don't soaps represent these people aswell. I get so fed up with them I've stopped watching now. I also agree that people killed off in soaps should never be bought back to life.
Lizzy, Derby

I smiled once during an episode of Eastenders... or was it just a dream?
Darren Dootson, Manchester, England

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