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Why did they die?

Wynford Hicks recalls the personalities -including a cat and a dog-whose deaths on TV and Radio broke a nation’s heart

Why did they die?

Fifteen years ago Grace Archer became the first in a long line of popular characters in BBC serials and series whose deaths provoked strong public reaction. But Grace’s death stands out from the others: nothing since has quite equalled the shock of that September night when she plunged into the blazing stables at Grey Gables to rescue the horses, and collapsed and died on the way to hospital in her husband’s arms.
To increase the impact of Grace’s death The Archers’ signature tune was dropped at the end of the episode. As producer Tony Shryane explained, ‘The signature tune packages the programme; it introduces you to the fictional world of the serial- and then at the end takes you gently back to reality. But we wanted to leave people suspended in mid-air mentally -to finish with the word dead!
Why was it decided to kill Grace in the first place? ‘In order to make the programme more real. We gave this a great deal of thought and in the end decided that, since death is part of life, killing Grace would make The Archers more real to listeners. That was it, purely and simply.
‘We were very careful about the way Grace was killed. We avoided road accidents because so many people have memories of friends and relatives killed that way.’
And Tony Shryane didn’t deny the suggestion’ that the timing of Grace’s death might, just conceivably, have been affected by the fact that 22 September 1955 was the first night of Independent Television. ‘Yes, she did die on the same night,’ he said. Then he added gleefully: ‘We shared the front page of the Daily Mirror with ITV the next day.
But of all the newspaper articles on Grace's death - from here to Singapore - one gave Tony Shryane particular satisfaction. ‘There was a big piece in The War Cry, pointing out: "We’re all going to die".'
And so it came to pass that, among others, PC Bob Penney of Dixon of Dock Green, PC Sweet of Z Cars, police dog Inky of Softly, Softly, Captain the cat and David Owen of The Dales, Ellis Cooper of The Newcomers and Toby Wren of Doomwatch all met their tragic ends.

From the Radio Times 21-27 November 1970. With thanks to John Archbold.

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