Being in soaps can damage your health

Alma Halliwell (Coronation Street): Cervical cancer

Mike Baldwin's long-suffering ex-wife found out she had cervical cancer only a few months ago; by last Friday she was dead, having missed just one smear test, and apparently without contracting significant symptoms. Actor Amanda Barrie, reasoning that the disease often takes years to develop, had offered to shave her head when the character underwent chemotherapy. In the end the shock of nasty Mike pledging undying love - and playing Perry Como records - was enough to finish her off.

Cindy Beale (Eastenders): Childbirth

The bad girl of Walford died alone and in prison - in other words, offscreen - on bonfire night 1998, allowing actor Michelle Collins to be off somewhere filming something else. A proper god-awful cartoon villainess, Cindy's end was satisfyingly Victorian in its morality: she died giving birth to her Italian lover's child. Collins was less pleased: "How many people die in childbirth these days?" she harrumphed.

Peggy Butcher (EastEnders): Breast cancer

Barbara Windsor is said to have personally pushed for her breast cancer storyline, having watched her mother die of the illness. She found a lump and the famous Carry On Camping breasts faced a mastectomy. The storyline was widely applauded but, needless to say, not everyone was happy: one London charity complained that the speed with which Peggy had been diagnosed - her tests came back in six days - would encourage other women to expect the same sparkling treatment from their rickety old hospitals.

Mark Fowler (EastEnders): HIV

Reformed tearaway Mark contracted HIV in 1991 from Gill, who he went on to marry the day before she expired messily from Aids. The storyline has allowed the soap to address issues such as prejudice against people with HIV (needless to say, everyone came round in the end) and safe sex: Mark's illness prompted more people to have HIV tests than the entire expensive government public health campaign of the late 80s and early 90s. A 1999 survey found that most teenagers had got their information about Aids from EastEnders, though experts were less impressed by the spontaneous 30 years' remission Mark was given by a doctor last year, conveniently allowing him a month off filming.

Jimmy Corkhill (Brookside): Clinical depression

Everyone's favourite soap failure began to develop particularly eccentric behaviour in October. Having been addicted to heroin, watched his son die of an overdose, killed Ron Dicko's son, and blagged his way into a job as a teacher, things finally got too much for Jimmy; after holding a class of pupils hostage and attempting suicide, eventually poor old Jackie had him sectioned.

Joe Wicks (Eastenders): Schizophrenia

The BBC worked closely with the National Schizophrenia Fellowship to make Joe's illness as realistic as possible, though it's not clear who suggested that the 17-year-old should take to plastering Albert Square with tinfoil. It was certainly courageous for the show's producers to write out their biggest teen heart-throb by having him sectioned. The Fellowship was flooded with calls after 22m viewers watched actor Paul Nicholls's exit.

Shannon Tattersall (Coronation Street): Meningitis

According to the unwritten rules of soap morality, gymslip mum Zoe was punished for her nights on the razzle when her eight-month-old daughter Shannon died of meningitis while the feckless teen was out boozing. TV presenter Anne Diamond, who lost a child to a cot death, was unimpressed. "By choosing one of the most irresponsible characters to suffer this tragedy, it suggests that women who lose babies have done wrong," she said. Zoe then snatched a friend's baby and leapt into Weatherfield canal in an attempt to end it all, before making her final exit from the soap in the clutches of a bizarre cult.

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