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Free Deirdre!

Nineteen million people sat transfixed in front of their TVs, outrage building at what was unfolding: Poor, gullible Deirdre had been thrown in jail for fraud, taking the rap for her ne'er-do-well boyfriend on Britain's longest-running soap opera.

"Free Deirdre!" insisted the nation's tabloids. "A gross miscarriage of justice," an editorial in The Sun said after Sunday's episode of Coronation Street" left Deirdre in distress.

Tony Blair's spokesman said Tuesday it was the prime minister's view that "anyone with eyes in their head" could see she is innocent.

Never mind that mild-mannered Deirdre Rachid is an imaginary resident of the fictional town of Weathersfield in northern England. For the past 25 years, devoted Coronation Street" fans have shared the joys of her marriages and love affairs and wept with her tragedies.

So if anybody thinks they are going let Deirdre languish behind bars while that rotter Jon Lindsay walks free, they can think again.

"The whole nation is deeply concerned about Deirdre, Conservatives as much as everyone else," Tory Party leader William Hague said Tuesday.

Art has been imitating life on "Corrie," as the show is lovingly called, for almost 38 years.

Four nights a week, at the sound of its catchy theme song, families throughout this nation of 58 million and in other countries, too, head for their living rooms with their supper plates or cups of tea.

Twelve years ago, when Deirdre was thinking of leaving husband Ken Barlow for Mike Baldwin, the denouement of the affair was broadcast during a soccer match.

For the benefit of Manchester United fans who couldn't tear themselves away, the team flashed "Deirdre stays with Ken" on the scoreboard at halftime.

Of course, that was before Ken had an affair and the marriage ended, and Deirdre's vacation romance with Moroccan waiter Samir Rachid led to marriage. But Samir was murdered on the eve of donating a kidney to Tracy, Deirdre's daughter by her first husband.

Grieving Deirdre then was taken in by the smooth charms of Jon Lindsay, although almost everybody out in televisionland could see he was no good for her.

Granada Television Ltd., maker of Coronation Street, is staying tight-lipped about Deirdre's future. But The Mirror newspaper, quoting an unidentified insider, said she would be freed relatively quickly.

Blair, an avowed fan himself, has a family tie to the soap through his wife, Cherie Booth. Her one-time stepmother, the late actress Pat Phoenix, was one of the mainstays of the program for years.

Blair's spokesman, speaking with the usual anonymity, said the prime minister can't really get involved in cases like Deirdre's.

But, he noted, Blair wants scriptwriters to bow to public and parliamentary opinion "and, while they're about it, make sure Sally and Kevin, the Websters, whose marriage is in truble, live happily ever after."

Written by Audrey Woods
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed