Dying on T.V.

Which T.V. death - fictional or behind-the-scenes - left you in pieces?
LATELY I'VE been catching up on NYPD Blue, now it's finally been released on DVD, and found myself gripped - and unexpectedly moved - by the death of Jimmy Smits' Bobby Simone. He takes five long, gruelling episodes to die. Not from a bullet in a shoot-out with some skells, or some other dramatic device, but from a nick on his gum after a trip to the dentist.

What follows is the painfully slow demise of an alpha-male detective, his physical collapse depicted in unrelenting, devastating detail. The hospital scenes are a perfect master-class in exactly how to get it right, stripped of the cliché we usually get on network T.V. What we're left with is a frightening, uncomfortably intimate, voyeuristic insight into a man's dying days. Initially, a junior (Latino) doctor deals openly and honestly with our traumatised couple, but an added frisson creeps in when a calculating WASP surgeon - who "talks down" to Bobby and Diane, vividly portrayed as working class Irish and Latino - tries to use the situation to his advantage.

The storyline is the most perfectly handled depiction of a character's death I've witnessed onscreen.

Over on Coronation Street, long-running transsexual character Hayley Cropper is dying from cancer. Hayley's portrayed with immense warmth and humanity by Julie Hesmondhalgh, and has been in the show since 1998, long enough for regular viewers to consider her an old friend. The trajectory is devastating: the routine check-up, further tests, the news that It's Not Good, the surgery that doesn't fix it... And then the death sentence. Yeah, I cried a little when consultant told the uncomprehending couple that palliative care was Hayley's only option. By dint of its characters sheer longevity, soap can still have that power.

Coronation Street is famous for making viewers blub. It was long before my time, but everyone knows of the famous scene where cleaner Hilda Ogden returns home from hospital with that pathetic bag of husband Stanley's possessions, and pulls out his famous glasses. In 1964, the credits rolled in silence when Martha Longhurst died suddenly in The Rovers Return, and conceit that would be repeated on that show and copied by others.

Years later, Doctor Who's controversial 1980s show-runner, John Nathan-Turner, would use the same "silent credits" conceit for the death of (gay) boy companion Adric. Actually killing an assistant was unheard of, and was never repeated (they backtracked on the brave butchering of Peri in 1986's The Trial of a Timelord). In Doctor Who today, if a leading character dies (and they do, often. Amy Pond seemed to die every week) they simply come back to life again, or become immortal. Death is meaningless.

Too many characters die in our our soaps these days - it's a bloobath out there! - although there at least they tend to stay dead, Dallas missteps notwithstanding. New Year's Day 2012 saw the death of Pat Butcher, a character who'd been in EastEnders since 1986. But it was an episode that aired a few days earlier that really tugged the heartstrings. For one last drink, Pat ventured out to the Queen Victoria pub, her local for decades. The camera slowly zooms in for a long, lingering close-up of actress Pat St Clement's face. In the background, various friends and relatives are told the news of her impending death, as Tony Bennett croons The Good Life, "please remember / I still want you, and in case you wonder why / Well just wake up / Kiss the good life goodbye..." She knows it's time to say goodbye, and we, the viewer, are left with no illusions that there's no hope of reprieve. The cumulative impact is devastating.

Click to 28:50.

Barbara Windsor has recently claimed that Pat St Clement phoned her up in tears upon learning that Pat was being killed off. It's an area EastEnders has form in, with the premature killing of Dirty Den in 2005, after actor Lesley Grantham was caught doing something he shouldn't on a webcam. Killing characters off can be a big mistake, as 1980s behemoth Dallas discovered when Patrick Duffy decided to jump ship - then come back. The entire ninth season was written off as a dream sequence, in one of TV's most epic fails. The worst part of this decision was the loss of Barbara Carrera as the terrifying Angelica Nero.

Redskin beauty JD Williams has twice died in cult dramas - as Kenny "Bricks" Wangler in Oz, and as Preston "Bodie" Broadus in The Wire. In both series, he played a long-running character who died abruptly, brutally and without warning. But most abrupt of all was the shocking gang killing of Kevin Alejandro's Detective Nate Moretta. Southland's writers sprang that one on us out of nowhere. Both Oz and The Shield open with characters who appear set up as series regulars, but see out the first episode in a body bag.

Dystopic late 1970s/early 1980s BBC sci-fi drama Blake's 7 loved a death, killing off all of its cast over its four season run - with the exception of evil super-villian Servalan. Famously, the remaining permanent cast were annihilated in the series finale, Blake. But I'm always drawn to the dreamy 1980 episode Sarcophagus, by sci-fi writer Tanith Lee, in which an alien entity takes over Cally. After centuries trapped in a tomb, she's freed, only to be thwarted by anti-hero Avon. For the alien, death is not an option, and her malignancy gives way to a desperate plea as she's sent back to limbo for another eternity: "I want to live, to live. I want to live, to live, to live. I want to live, to live, to live..."

Blake's 7 even killed off characters who'd already departed. Original character Jenna was said to have died - off-screen - in that terminal episode. EastEnders is also fond of telling us that long-departed characters have since died: we're told that Angie Watts finally succumbed to her alcoholism, years after she was last seen in Albert Square, and fellow '80s favourite Kathy Beale was said to have been killed in a South African car crash. The prematurely cancelled Noah's Arc had its second season finale resolved in a film, with the heartbreaking news that Dre did die in that Black Pride car crash, after all. I can't be the only one who wished that it had been Wade, instead.

Sometimes, the actors who play the characters we love pass away, whilst the characters they played live on - at least, for a while. Most recently, Glee's Cory Monteith died, leaving producers of that show to figure out an exit strategy for his character. Comedian Phil Hartman was murdered by his wife whilst he was still appearing in the NBC sitcom NewsRadio, and David Strickland committed suicide in a Las Vegas hotel room whilst appearing in the Brooke Shields' vehicle Suddenly Susan. Yootha Joyce succumbed to alcoholism whilst her sitcom George & Mildred was at the peak of its success.

To coin a phrase: a friend who dies, it's something of you who dies.


John G said...

There's a charming quote from Kenneth Williams' diaries on Yooth Joyce: "When it came to the line for Yootha to sing 'Tomorrow may never come' it had an extraordinary poignancy & it looked as if she were crying... at the end of the number she got up & said to Max 'Thanks, it was good of you..' & walked off the stage... one had the feeling that she never intended to return..."

KAOS said...

God, that's incredibly moving. :(

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