EastEnders kills Lucy Beale: why do soaps love whodunits?

As the BBC1 soap announces its big spring storyline, David Brown looks at the enduring appeal of murder mysteries in soapland

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EastEnders kills Lucy Beale: why do soaps love whodunits?
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Ever since Kristin Shepard started a media storm in 1980 by shooting holes through JR Ewing, soap opera bosses have fallen over themselves to serve up whodunits. Nothing galvanises an audience like murderous intent, hence the paving slabs of Walford and Weatherfield being forever stained with the blood of the wounded or deceased.

Lucy Beale - the daughter of E20 business magnate Ian - is the latest to be slaughtered on EastEnders, her demise this spring weirdly coinciding with the fatal exit of those on rival shows. For anyone unaware, Emmerdale’s Gemma Andrews is to die as a result of an argument with Belle Dingle, while Corrie’s Tina McIntyre will also be dispatched after stacking up suspects with a grievance against her.

So why do soap scriptwriters have such killer instincts? Well, it helps that homicide is TV's most reliable parlour trick. There’s a reason why you don’t get programmes called Sex Attacks, She Wrote or Midsomer Home Invasions: for better or worse, untimely death on the small screen has become a guessing game and those in charge of our soaps know that doing away with a character is a sure way to get people talking.

Beacause let’s face it, things don’t work as well when the crime is something other than murder or attempted murder. Turning Toyah Battersby’s sexual assault on Coronation Street into a Who’s the Rapist? saga felt queasy and misjudged. Asking us to guess who was sleeping with Kat Slater was similarly sordid (besides, it was only ever going to be Derek Branning, wasn’t it?).

No, to get an audience to start speculating, there have to be lives on the line. And preferably the lives of those we either despise or couldn’t care less about. When Archie Mitchell was smashed about the skull over Christmas 2009, many viewers would have happily done the deed themselves. Similarly, Phil Mitchell had done his damnedest to get on the wrong side of everyone in 2001 before he was shot and took a tumble down his front steps like a King Edward that had escaped from a bag of shopping.

Unfortunately for her, Lucy Beale is a character who has been met with apathy rather than loathing. It’s hard to think of a standout storyline in which she’s been involved, regardless of the actress who happened to be playing her at the time. She’s bound to make a more compelling dead body than a living resident of Albert Square – mainly because of the repercussions her demise will have on those left behind.

Lucy’s exit is being billed as an atypical whodunit and something “rooted in truth – raw, emotional and gritty”.  Executive producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins has also hinted that the plot will give EastEnders stalwart Adam Woodyatt (who has played Lucy’s dad Ian since the opening episode in 1985) “a chance to shine”. By presumably focusing on the mystery plus the melancholy of her nearest and dearest, EastEnders has the opportunity to stand out from the crowd.

Because this is going to be a busy season for the soap police. Michelle Keegan’s Corrie departure is sure to get tongues wagging thanks to Tina's continued affair with Peter the compulsive cheater. And the death of Emmerdale’s Gemma – while not nearly as high profile as either Tina or Lucy – is another example of how that show has found fresh angles for well-worn plotlines (see Val’s HIV and Killer Cameron for further details).

For when it comes to murder mysteries in soapland, sustaining interest is the key. We should be left questioning the motivations of familiar faces we thought we knew well, but maybe don't know at all. There should be secrets on every street corner as once-trusted characters become suddenly unknowable suspects. In short, the aftermath has to be equal to the bloodbath.