Exit Coronation Street’s Frank Foster: how to make a great soap whodunnit

As Weatherfield turns murderous, David Brown presents a guide to committing the perfect primetime crime

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A new murder mystery will be launched on Coronation Street tonight when evil knicker magnate Frank Foster gets his comeuppance following months of wrongdoing. 

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According to our recent poll, 30 per cent of you think that Frank’s mum will be behind the crime while 17 per cent believe that Eccles the dog is set to become rabid. 

Time and again programme writers turn to homicide to get us talking, so what are the key elements of the classic soap whodunnit? Let’s examine the evidence…

The victim

…needs to be someone with cirrhosis of the soul – think JR Ewing plotting to put Sue Ellen back in a sanitarium or Archie Mitchell turfing Peggy out of her beloved pub on Christmas Eve. Seeing as we’re invited to treat the crime as a parlour game, what doesn’t work is when soaps target vulnerable, decent people – the ultimate bad-taste clunker being “Who Raped Toyah Battersby?” Remember, death is TV’s cosiest commodity: it’s called Midsomer Murders and not Midsomer Sex Attacks for a reason.

The suspects

…who all have to be vocal as possible about how much they despise whoever is about to get shot or bludgeoned with a bust of Queen Victoria. Corrie escalates the vendettas this evening with “I’ll rip ‘im apart wi’ me bare ‘ands” (Kevin), “Yer vile, Frank Foster. Vile!” (Sally) and the almost-too-obvious “If I ‘ad a chance, I’d kill ‘im stone dead. And I wouldn’t miss a wink of sleep” (Peter). For further tips on how to get this right, consult the opening 20 minutes of any Murder, She Wrote.

The crime

…has to be both playfully knowing and something of a shock. Full marks then to Emmerdale for pushing Tom King from a first-floor window at the moment that a child was singing Walking in the Air on the ground below. And who can forget the sight of Phil “I’ll tan yer backsides!” Mitchell yelling at the prankster ringing his doorbell before getting shot in the back and rolling down his front steps looking for all the world like a big, mottled potato that’s slipped free from a bag of shopping?

The aftermath

This is the point where viewers question their preconceptions about long-standing characters. Could Ian Beale have gotten hold of a firearm? Was Sue Ellen sober enough to shoot straight? Suspicions are fuelled by soap residents gossiping and the police arresting anyone but the guilty party. In the real world, bookies will offer odds on likely candidates (William Hill took £500,000 when Archie Mitchell was killed), while producers say they’ve filmed several outcomes (when we all know this is a lie as it would blow the budget and take too much time).

The solution

Anticipation now should be higher than it was when the crime was originally committed. Get it right and you have a live 25th-anniversary episode of EastEnders that ends with Stacey admitting that she killed Archie. Get it wrong and you have Corrie’s David Platt exposed as some kind of lunatic postman waging psychological warfare against Gail. The benchmark remains the unmasking of JR’s assailant: tapes were flown into Britain under armed guard and a session of the Turkish parliament was suspended so that legislators had the chance to get home in time to watch.

The legacy

Soap whodunnits have that rare power to unite the nation, even in the modern day when our viewing has become increasingly fragmented. That November 1980 episode of Dallas in which Kristen was exposed of JR’s would-be assassin remains the 16th most watched programme of all time, with 21.6 million viewers (worldwide it was seen by nearly 360 million). Yet even as recently as February 2010, 16.6 million were tuning in to see Stacey’s big confession. 

Audiences love puzzles with neat resolutions and those instances when high-profile mysteries get solved become the stuff of legend. As Frank Foster meets his maker, we could be about to witness another of those magic TV moments.

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Don’t miss Coronation Street, tonight, 7:30pm, 8:30pm, ITV1