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I'm so sorry I have to go

 W H A T   I   S A W   L A S T   N I G H T 
 Coronation Street 

LAST night, a transsexual committed suicide. Not only did it happen on Coronation Street, a soap, but the mainstream audience was distraught: this was one universally loved transsexual. 10 million tuned in to watch her slip away.

Hayley Cropper (Julie Hesmondhalgh) has been dying from terminal pancreatic cancer since last year, and as her illness progressed, she worried that she'd start to lose control and lapse back into being Harold, the man she once was. So Hayley decided that when things got really bad, she'd take control and end things on her terms. That moment came on Monday night (ITV, 9pm).

Hayley is a rare thing in soap these days, a genuinely lovely frump who's embarrassed by confrontation and nastiness, who would never have a tawdry affair, or have drunk slanging matches in the Rovers. She was a moral compass.

The actual moment of Hayley's death is genuinely shocking, a real punch in the guts, stripped of sentiment or melodrama. It's brutal, visceral; she takes a desperate gulp of a huge glass of meds and chokes. Her beloved Roy puts his hand out to help, but she bats it away, and keeps gulping. The camera abruptly jerks away from observing the act, mimicking the audience, many of whom will have averted their eyes. It's a truly awful moment of real life horror, and that's how it should be.

Not everyone watches soaps. Some people think it's beneath them, presumably preferring to watch more worthy things like BBC Parliament, or the opera. (Fewer still have an interest in transexuals.) But there's room for soap, and the opera. Hayley Cropper's death is a reward for those of us who do watch soap operas. It delivers the kind of impact you can only get from investing in a character not just for years, but for decades. The pared back production style still favoured by most British soap (except for the gaudy Hollyoaks) leaves all the work to the actors and the writers. There's no elaborate direction with fast cuts, or intrusive background music to distract us. Coronation Street and EastEnders have their faults (most of which can be put down to network demands for bigger and more frequent explosive stunts) but when they're at the top of their game, nothing else on TV - on either side of the Atlantic - comes close.

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