As the saying goes, the only certainties in life are death and taxes. And TV doesn’t really feature taxes very much – I can’t envisage a world where John Simm stars in an unbearably tense five-part series about a man checking his VAT receipts. Which means we’re left with death. And on TV, there is no shortage of the stuff. Our screens are absolutely bursting at the seams with crime dramas and serial killers. And if someone’s not being murdered, they’re being killed in a car accident, or squeaking out a few profound and deeply moving last words while an orchestra swells in the background and everyone reaches for the Kleenex.
Even our soaps are basically glorified adverts for funeral homes. What with tram crashes in Wetherby, plane crashes in Emmerdale, coach crashes in Hollyoaks, and boat crashes in EastEnders, it’s a miracle any of the characters can even pluck up the courage to leave their houses each day.
So yes, there’s a lot of death on screen. As such, it would be a very foolish journalist who claimed they’d written the definitive guide to the most memorable onscreen deaths. I can almost guarantee that, the moment I hit send on this article, I’ll remember at least five other deaths that I wish I’d included. With so many examples to contend with, I’ve inevitably forgotten a few. So, let’s call this A top ten of TV deaths, as opposed to THE top ten. And apologies if I’ve not included your favourite.
Matthew versus Motor
Series: Downton Abbey
Character: Matthew Crawley
There is one hard and fast rule of drama that crops up time and again: If anyone ever seems truly happy – and particularly if they remark upon their happiness – they are pretty much certain to undergo some unspeakable horror moments later – up to and including their untimely demise. So it proved for Matthew Crawley, who had just become a father for the first time, and had been to meet his baby son, George. Driving away, grinning ecstatically, roof down, wind in his fulsome locks, Matthew looked the very picture of contentment. Right up until the moment he was forced to swerve off the road by an oncoming truck. Poor Matthew – he survived the trenches, the Spanish flu, and even the dowager countess’ vicious barbs, only to die at the wheel. A Downton-obsessed nation mourned.
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Character: Vasily Ignatenko
Oh boy. There’s deaths, and then there’s deaths. A particularly tortuous death in the unremittingly grim and frightening mini-series Chernobyl, the passing of firefighter Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) in Moscow’s Hospital No. 6 is all the more distressing for being absolutely true. Ignatenko was a real firefighter, and one of the first on the scene following the explosion at the nuclear power plant. He died 18 days later, ravaged by radiation burns. The series handles it brilliantly, from an astonishingly tense scene when they first fight the fire (and notice they can taste metal) to his increasingly harrowing appearance, and the desperation of his wife as she watches the man she loves simply slip away. Their story features in the trailer below. If you’ve not seen the series, find it and watch it. It is remarkable.
Cold Feet, warm heart
Series: Cold Feet
Character: Rachel Bradley
Most TV series play pretty fast and loose with people’s lives. Someone might die in an episode, everyone will be sad, and by the next programme they’re all jollying about having a holiday or whatever. But with the death of Rachel (Helen Baxendale), one of the lead characters in Mike Bullen’s long-running drama Cold Feet, we were delivered not just the blow of her death, but also the repercussions and the grief, which have stretched across almost two decades. And still, she is not forgotten, in this sensitive and deftly-handled evocation of grief and loss. Note, too, in the clip below, another appearance of the trope that when everything seems to be going well and everyone is happy in a TV drama, death is surely lurking nearby.
Gone, but Unforgotten
Character: Cassie Stuart
In many ways the death of DCI Cassie Stuart (the brilliant Nicola Walker) was very much like that of Rachel from Cold Feet. Both failed to stop at a junction and were ploughed into by an onrushing vehicle in a genuinely shocking scene. But while Rachel’s death came at a moment of pure happiness, Cassie’s didn’t, largely because happiness seemed to consistently elude the poor woman. Troubled by a complicated relationship with her father, a broken marriage, and traumatised by her work, Cassie was exhausted and troubled, but a fabulous copper and a pretty awesome human being. When she met her maker, just a few short months ago, millions of fans of the show were completely devastated. Unforgotten will return for a fifth series, but Cassie will not. And how we will miss her.
Julia Montague’s explosive end
Character: Julia Montague
Writer Jed Mercurio is not afraid to kill off key characters, and to do so with astonishing suddenness. When Jessica Raine joined the cast of Line of Duty after leaving Call the Midwife, we expected she’d become a series regular. Instead, she lasted less than an episode before a rather gruesome death by defenestration. But even by Mercurio’s standards, the death of Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes) in the hugely successful series Bodyguard, utterly bamboozled a nation. Conspiracy theories abounded that she wasn’t dead, because nobody could believe such a major plot twist, involving such a huge character, could come just halfway through a series. But dead she was, killed by a bomb even as her bodyguard/lover David Budd (Richard Madden) sensed danger and tried to save her.
Bye bye, Blackadder
Series: Blackadder Goes Forth
Characters: Blackadder, Baldrick, George, Captain Darling
Some of the deaths in this list are shocking, some are absurd, some are oddly beautiful – but you really wouldn’t expect the most moving of the lot to come from a sitcom. Yet the last ever episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, set in the trenches in 1917, was one of the most powerful bits of comedy you could ever wish to see. In a memorable final few minutes, Tim McInnerny’s Captain Darling is sent to the front line to go over the top with Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) and his subordinates, George (Hugh Laurie), and Baldrick (Tony Robinson). All are patently terrified. When they finally go over, the action is shown in slow motion, as a hauntingly mournful version of the Blackadder theme is played on the piano. Even the hopelessly cheap effects can’t detract from what is a hugely powerful moment, and when the battlefield fades out and a field of poppies fades in, to the sound of gentle birdsong, you’re likely to find quite serious amounts of grit in both your eyes.
Big Bird’s big lesson
Series: Sesame Street
Character: Mr Hooper
One of the first characters to appear on Sesame Street was Mr Hooper, who owned the store. He was played by Will Lee from 1969 until 1982, when Lee died of a heart attack. Back then most shows, particularly kids’ shows, would have either never mentioned it, or would have explained that Mr Hooper was out of town for a while. But Sesame Street took the incredibly bold decision to use this as a way of teaching its young audience about death. They consulted child psychologists before drawing up a script, which involved some of the Sesame Street residents explaining to Big Bird about Mr Hooper’s passing. The result is this rather sweet, tender and impressive clip, which aimed to help youngsters accept the permanence of death and not be scared of feeling sad.
Bleak for Blake
Character: Henry Blake
Everyone liked Henry Blake. The Colonel in charge of M*A*S*H 4077 (played by McLean Stevenson) was affable, irreverent, and humane. Viewers loved him. So it was with mixed feelings that they watched his last ever episode, which saw him granted an honourable discharge from Korea and allowed to return home. The audience would miss him, but at least he was getting the happy ending he deserved. But the cast were called in to film one last page of the script, after Blake had said his goodbyes and left. In the episode’s final scene. Corporal Radar O’Reilly walks into surgery and announces to a devastated room that Blake’s plane has been shot down over the Sea of Japan. There were no survivors. The writers killed off Blake to emphasise the chaos and horror of war. They were rewarded with a thousand (mostly angry) letters, and the fury of Stevenson, who was so upset about his character’s demise that he wouldn’t even attend his own leaving party.
Character: Dr Mark Greene
Without a shadow of doubt, ER was one of the best TV dramas of the last 30 years. Set in Chicago’s County General Hospital, it centred around the work of the Emergency Room team, under the leadership of the heroic Dr Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards). He was the heart and soul of the show for its first eight years, which made his 2002 departure all the harder for fans to bear. Particularly as it involved him dying of a brain tumour. At least, though, he was given a good death, slipping away quietly, with the breeze filling his beachside bedroom, on holiday in Hawaii with his loved ones. Even now, though, almost 20 years later, I can’t listen to Israel Kanakawiwo’ole’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow without a lump coming to my throat.
Oil be back
Character: Bobby Ewing
From the sublime to the ridiculous. Let’s face it, Dallas didn’t do subtle – and nor did we want it to. We wanted melodrama by the bucketload, and we got it the day that Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) was killed saving ex-wife (and new fiancée) Pam (Victoria Principal) from being run down by her jealous half-sister who also loved Bobby. In an excruciatingly bad bedside scene, Bobby says goodbye to his ex-wife, his ex-fiancée Jenna, his mother and stepfather, his half-brother and his wife, and his full brother. He urges them all to be a family, and declares his love for them all, before the bleeping stops, he flatlines, and everyone overacts horribly. The only thing that could make it more absurd would be if the whole thing ended up being a dream and he’d come back a year later. Oh…
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