Emmerdale’s Cain Dingle gets clobbered and left for dead by the roadside this week, like a squashed badger. And as you’d expect of a man with such a cursory commitment to personal hygiene, he leaves no shortage of enemies behind.
As the suspects line up – from teenage Amy, whom he impregnated and has terrorised ever since, to his own dad, Zak – Cain’s “Judgement Day” aspires to join that illustrious list of soap’s best-ever whodunnits. So which has been the most compelling?
Who shot JR? (Dallas, 1980)
Dallas fans were made to wait eight months to find out the identity of the mystery assailant who shot JR Ewing in the season finale in March. The story led to fevered speculation, from the US presidential race to BBC1’s Nationwide, not to mention T-shirts and badges emblazoned with the message “I Shot JR”.
In November 1980, viewers finally learnt that the gun had been fired by JR’s sister-in-law and former mistress, Kristin Shepard. The story popularised the season finale cliffhanger, which has become a staple of TV drama and, of course, spawned countless imitations.
Who killed Tom King? (Emmerdale, 2006)
Proof that it’s a bad idea to get married on Christmas Day – one of those things that only really happens in Soapland – podgy patriarch Tom King was battered with an ornament, pushed through a window and plunged to his death on his wedding night. While Santa had a cast-iron alibi – delivering Christmas presents in America – ten of Tom’s nearest and dearest did not.
One of Emmerdale’s most successful plots, the story also developed a life of its own online, where a “Who Killed Tom King?” website allowed viewers to play along, gather clues and watch extra Emmerdale content.
Tom’s son Carl confessed to his brothers that he was their father’s killer the following May, in an hour-long special featuring opera singer Katherine Jenkins, who opened the pageant to mark the village’s 500th anniversary.
Who shot Phil Mitchell? (EastEnders, 2001)
Another rotten alpha male, another mysterious attacker, another list of suspects all with
motive, means and opportunity. But instead of Dallas’s glittering Texan skyline, Walford’s shabby Albert Square was the backdrop to Phil’s gunning down.
The month-long mystery was resolved in April 2001 when it transpired that Phil’s ex, Lisa, had pulled the trigger. With a Uefa Cup semi-final delayed by 15 minutes to avoid clashing with the reveal, almost 20 million viewers tuned in to see Lisa unmasked – and chastise her for her poor aim.
Who killed Archie Mitchell? (EastEnders, 2009)
Any number of Walford malcontents had a motive to batter the malign elder Mitchell with the Queen Vic bust on Christmas Day. Suspects galore scowled at him darkly in the days and hours before his death. The story aimed to hook casual Christmas viewers into staying with the soap until the killer was revealed in EastEnders’ 25th-anniversary live episode in February.
Thus, mere minutes after actress Lacey Turner was told that her character Stacey (who had been raped by Archie) was the killer, 18m viewers saw her confess to Max after her beloved Bradley fell to his death.
Who’s the daddy? (EastEnders, 1985)
An altogether different kind of suspense story, the mystery of who fathered teenager Michelle Fowler’s baby worked like a traditional whodunnit. Among the suspects: Ali Osman, Tony Carpenter and “Dirty” Den Watts, who was revealed as the baby’s father a month after Michelle discovered she was pregnant.
The “Who’s the Daddy?” plot was reprised in EastEnders in 2009 when Heather Trott became pregnant. The mystery lasted nine long months before pipsqueak car salesman Darren Miller was revealed as baby George’s dad.