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By GREG DIXON
Sob, sniff, snuffle ... that sound you can hear is the nation's soap fans bawling into their breakfasts.
Tear-jerking scenes may be the routine stuff of television's serial melodramas, but this week the fans really have something to cry about.
Over successive nights, Australian outback drama McLeod's Daughters and local soap Shortland Street have delivered a double dose of death as first Claire McLeod, played by New Zealander Lisa Chappell, then the Street's Geoff Greenlaw came to sticky ends.
On Thursday night Chappell's character lost control of her ute and plunged to her death over a cliff near her Drover's Run home, ending the actress' three-season stint on the show.
Then last night "Dr Death" Greenlaw, a gay, euthanasia-happy quack played by Andrew Laing, met his maker early after being bludgeoned and thrown into the chiller of the Street's local bar, the Dog's Day Inn, by a still-unknown assailant.
Greenlaw's demise is the first death for a core character on the Street since ambulance driver Rangi Heremaia bit the dust nearly three years ago.
Both shows screen on TV2, but the state channel claims it was an unintended week of hell for soap fans.
"It was pure coincidence," says TV2 programmer Julia Baylis. "With one being an Australian production and one New Zealand, the storylines were developed individually."
She admitted the double deaths were undoubtedly good for her viewing figures.
"Often death is good for ratings, but especially in the case of McLeod's Daughters, where one of the most-loved characters is departing. In both cases, it's more about the hype built up around the death."
Greenlaw's demise will add a new element to the Street, with the soap shifting gear into murder mystery. The who-killed-Geoff story will count down to the Christmas cliff-hanger week beginning on December 15.
"We won't know who did it until the very last day of the last week of the show," says publicist Rachel Lorimer. "Over that time there will be a lot of red herrings that will suggest who might be the murderer."
There are three main suspects: Victor Kahu, CEO of the Street's hospital, Dominic Thompson, the boyfriend of Greenlaw's sister Delphi, and Jeremy, Greenlaw's ex-boyfriend.
Lorimer says a murder is a great exit for the show's writers, but when characters leave the show makers South Pacific Pictures usually receive mail from fans who are disappointed or upset.
"There are a lot of people out there who really feel something for them. So it is risky, but it's sad and entertaining at the same time."
The deaths will be taken harder by some fans than others, says Auckland psychologist Gwendoline Smith.
"Some people escape into these various little soap dramas. Sometimes it's almost a vicarious view of life. For some people whose lives are quite empty and quite lonely, the soaps take on a lot more importance than for people who are busy and who just watch for a little entertainment."
Smith believes the Street's murder may not affect fans as much as Claire McLeod's end.
"Via action films and a lot of what's on television people do sort of become quite desensitised to murder, which I think is quite dangerous. But I think death through tragedy and illness will often activate memories for people of having lost someone to a similar circumstance."
And Smith's advice for those blubbering into their breakfasts?
"I don't suppose you'd appreciate the comment 'Get a life'? The more politically correct way of putting it is, 'It's only television'."