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'Coronation Street' suicide storyline draws praise and criticism in Britain

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In this photo provided by ITV plc, on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, television characters Roy and Hayley Cropper, played by David Neilson and Julie Hesmondhalgh, in a scene from Coronation Street. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, ITV plc

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In this photo provided by ITV plc, on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, television characters Roy and Hayley Cropper, played by David Neilson and Julie Hesmondhalgh, in a scene from Coronation Street. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, ITV plc

LONDON - It was one of the gentlest deaths in soap-opera history, but it has provoked a strong reaction in Britain.

More than 10 million people watched the long-running soap "Coronation Street" on Monday as Hayley Cropper, sick with incurable pancreatic cancer, took an overdose of drugs and died peacefully in the arms of her loving husband Roy.

Some praised the storyline for its sensitive handling of terminal illness and death, but others said it risked encouraging suicides.

Right-to-die campaigner Jane Nicklinson, whose late husband suffered from locked-in syndrome and waged a court battle for the right to have a doctor help him end his life, said the story had "done our cause proud."

But anti-euthanasia group Care Not Killing said Tuesday that the program was "in great danger of normalizing an occurrence that is actually very rare indeed."

Television network ITV said in a statement that "Coronation Street regularly features storylines that concern sensitive medical and social issues and it was recognized that Hayley becoming terminally ill would have a profound resonance for our audience."

It said writers and producers had consulted with the suicide-prevention group the Samaritans and cancer charities about the scripts.

The Samaritans had expressed concern that the show would cause a spike in people taking their own lives. It said calls to its telephone help-line after Monday's show were up by almost a third compared to the same period last week.

But chief executive Catherine Johnstone said the makers of "Coronation Street" had covered the issue sensitively and acted responsibly by consulting the organization about the plotline.

British soaps are grittier than their U.S. counterparts, generally set in working-class communities; "Coronation Street" takes place in the fictional Manchester suburb of Weatherfield.

A British critic once noted that "American soaps are about watching beautiful people suffer. We like to watch ugly people suffer."

"Coronation Street" has been chronicling its characters' lives since 1960, with a mix of social realism, melodrama and humour that has won it millions of regular viewers, and a surprising range of fans around the world. Prince Charles once made a cameo appearance, and rapper Snoop Dogg recorded a message for the show's 50th anniversary in 2010.

Over the years shows like "Coronation Street" and its London-set rival "EastEnders" have reflected — and at times pushed — debates in society on issues ranging from gay relationships to racism.

Hayley Cropper, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh, caused a stir when she entered "Coronation Street" in 1998 as the first transgendered character on a British soap. After experiencing some early on-screen bigotry, she carved out a firm place in the street, and in viewers' hearts, finding love with shy cafe-owner Roy.

Hesmondhalgh said she as proud to have been involved in a story that raised awareness about pancreatic cancer, and was surprised by the furor around it.

"It's not an assisted-dying storyline. She takes her own life," Hesmondalgh told the BBC. "It's very balanced. In the weeks to come we see the devastating effects on Roy.

"Television starts conversations and debates. It adds to it, and I think that's a wonderful thing."

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Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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