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The Last of the Soap Icons: Saying Farewell To EastEnders' Peggy Mitchell

17/05/2016 16:05 | Updated 17 May 2016

It's a moment EastEnders fans have been both waiting for and dreading in equal measure. Peggy Mitchell is ringing the bell in the Queen Vic for one last time, and bowing out of the show for good.

Since arriving in Walford back in 1991 - when the Mitchell mum was recast - Barbara Windsor has tackled almost every storyline that can possibly be thrown at a soap actress.

We've seen Britain's most famous landlady battle cancer, negotiate her family's many feuds and cover up their crimes. She's taken - and dished out - a number of slaps, and watched her beloved pub burn to the ground, all while seeming far mightier than her 4'11" stance suggests she should be.

Saying goodbye to Peggy is a Very Big Deal. She means so many things to so many, and is the last of one of TV's most impressive creations: the iconic soap matriarch. For decades, soaps have presented us with a parade of strong, usually working class, women. They're figures not to be messed with, who guide their respective clans through the issues that typically plague families living in fictional boroughs and villages. Y'know, ones like dead bodies under floorboards and multiple paternity queries.

Over the years, viewers have gasped at Peggy's clashes with her love rival Pat Butcher. Coronation Street's Bet Lynch taught masterclasses in wearing leopard print, while Deirdre Barlow's affairs and dry wit kept the nation entertained for decades.

I grew up watching these women evolve on screen. Each as iconic as the next, Peggy and her peers were presented in a way that so many female characters are not. They're not infallible or faultless, but relentlessly strong; in a way that others outside of Soapland rarely are.

While dramas, sitcoms and the like have struggled to work out what to do with women - both as characters and actors - appearing to, at times, have no idea how to place one in a show, soaps have been light years ahead, letting their matriarchs to lead the way.

It's so hard to disassociate the actors from their on-screen personas, and Barbara Windsor's decision to return to the soap while she can, on her own terms, is a move straight out of Peggy's book. There'll be no off-screen shimmy-along and a dramatic phone call back to Walford for her.

Instead, the dust will settle in the wake of TV's most-admired creations. There's promise in characters like Kellie Bright's astonishing Linda Carter. Sally Webster continues to prove herself as an unstoppable force, while Emmerdale's Dingle family counts many fierce women in its ranks.

But it's fair to say that when the credits roll, they aren't just signalling the end for Peggy. For now, at least, she's the last of soapland's matriarchs. And possibly the finest at that.

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