7 million tune in for Peggy's Eastenders death but opinion is divided over her suicide
Published 19/05/2016 | 07:47
Almost seven million people tuned in to watch beloved EastEnders character Peggy Mitchell take her own life.
Some 6.9 million viewers saw the former Old Vic landlady's last episode, peaking at 8 million - with a 37% audience share.
Peggy, played by Dame Barbara Windsor, took an overdose after breaking the news to son Grant (Ross Kemp) that her cancer had returned and taken a "proper grip" on her.
In a poignant final scene, after smelling cigarette smoke throughout the episode, Peggy hallucinated the return of her former love rival-turned-friend Pat Butcher (Pam St Clement), puffing away in thick pink lipstick and with "earrings rattling like Marley's bleeding chains".
Speaking to her friend, who passed away in the soap from cancer in 2012, Peggy said: "I'm being eaten alive and it hurts and I can't wait.
"I don't want that to be me, I don't want to be that little old lady in the bed, with people saying, 'Remember her? Peggy Mitchell? She's all skin and bones'."
She continued: "I will go as I have lived: straight back, head high, like a queen."
The ghost Pat remained with Peggy as she took a handful of pills alone, with the camera panning over letters left to her children before a clock stopped to indicate the end of the Square's most vivacious, loved and enduring residents.
However, the show's handling of Peggy's suicide storyline has divided opinion.
In Tuesday night's episode of the soap, Mitchell, played by Dame Barbara Windsor, takes an overdose as she reveals her terminal cancer has spread to her brain and bones, despite her distraught sons Phil (Steve McFadden) and Grant (Ross Kemp) trying to talk her out of the decision.
Samaritans, who worked alongside the soap's writers and researchers, praised EastEnders for showing the reality of suicide and the devastating effect it can have on the family involved.
The helpline's media adviser Lorna Fraser told Press Association: "Suicide is a topic that carries risk when you cover it because research shows the risk (that) if it's not handled properly, if it's sensationalised or romanticised, that it can influence imitative suicidal behaviour.
"There was a willingness to get this right so (EastEnders) got in touch with us quite early on when they were starting to develop Peggy's story and shared scripts with us which we gave advice on.
"Overall our advice is around sticking with the reality of suicide so, as you're seeing already in the episodes that have broadcast, the struggle that Phil in particular and Grant and other members of the family have with Peggy's decision ... and the devastation that is caused to families around this issue."
However anti-euthanasia organisation Care Not Killing said it was "extremely disappointing" that the "BBC is acting as the cheerleader for assisted suicide and suicide by killing off one of the best known and well-loved characters on British TV".
The organisation claimed that the BBC were ignoring the alternatives of "quality palliative and hospice care along with home care" by screening the "pro-killing programme", which it said was the seventh broadcast by the corporation since 2008.
Their claims were opposed by Dignity In Dying, which supports the legalisation of safe, assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults.
Chief executive Sarah Wootton said the storyline highlights a "real issue" for those with terminal illness who may be considering assisted suicide.
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She said: "While Peggy's tragic story is fictional, it highlights a very real issue which will resonate with many people who are suffering with a terminal illness. Nearly one terminally ill person takes their own life every day in the UK.
"No one should be put in the position Peggy was, agonising over whether her loved ones could or should help her to die. Nor should anyone feel forced to take their own lives behind closed doors or to travel to Switzerland to die, for example.
"Rather than feeling powerless in the face of a terminal illness, we believe, along with 82% of the public, that people should have choice and control at the end of life, including the option of doctor-assisted dying for terminally ill people if they want it."
Those affected by Peggy's story can contact Samaritans free of charge from any phone on 116123, email email@example.com or find the details for your local branch at www.samaritans.org