I was planning to start this column by telling you that disaster had struck, in the form of the death of a fictional character in a television programme. But I live less than ten miles from Soham where disaster really did strike and suddenly the word has rather deeper connotations.

I'm not going to write about that; it's been covered in all the papers and there's little new to say, just that I'm surprised at how much more relevant it feels than similar recent cases - Sarah Payne springs to mind - how much closer to home is the gut-crawling horror when in theory it should be no different. I still find myself abandoning all my eco-liberal tendencies and swinging way out past Daily Mail territory into a kind of Stalinist absolutism that says the answer to this is a quiet trip down to the basement of the Lubyanka with a loaded gun and a single bullet to the back of the head of the perpetrator(s).

From which position of rampant extremism, we'll head back to the safe, trivial world of teen TV and the fact that Tara Maclay, played by the astoundingly non-Hollywood Amber Benson, is going to get her comeuppance in season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sorry, those of you who are still waiting for the videos of season 6.2 to come out, word on the web is that, for the sake of the drama, Tara has had to go. We wouldn't care, those of us out here in

Buffy-land, but for the fact that Tara was Willow's girlfriend and co-witch and her death means the end of the longest-running, most plausible lesbian relationship to run on prime-time television anywhere.

This isn't to say it's plausible, far from it.

On the fantasy side, Tara and Willow are both witches in the Bewitched sense of the word. They don't wrinkle their noses to cast spells but the special effects haven't come on particularly far since the 1960s and the turning of friends into rats - and back again - is one of the key themes of their work. Lots of sparkly music and fizzy effects and a puff of smoke and lo! the bad guy just turned into a ball of melted cheese. But, hey, this is what Buffy is all about and it's not the magic that matters; that's simply an amusing method of winding up the moral majority to vessel-breaking point before we hit them with this wonderful, open relationship that we're feeding their kids.

And it is rather wonderful; the best role model a teen could ask for. Certainly Willow's conversion has to be one of the most atraumatic sexual revolutions imaginable. She went from being straight to dyke in the space of four episodes with not the slightest blink of self-doubt or panic about how friends/family/

students/lecturers and all those vampires were going to take it. Which is fine, because all of

the above took it so well you'd think they had known all along. Particularly the vampires - and they did know all along, thanks to a hint in the episode where Willow went bad and became a vampire and showed the first hints

of lesbian tendencies, so that's okay.

Now we know it's all going to end and the web-traffic is rife with bewailings and dissections. There are two main types of Buffy lists: those inhabited by academics who discuss at length the wider social implications of the portrayal of evil as embodied by goofy-toothed individuals who turn to dust if you stab a stake through their heart. At the other end of the spectrum, the much less academic lists are inhabited by emerging lesbian women all over the world who are so damned grateful that the writers put in a pair of girls and the thought police didn't make them edit out the results that we really don't care that the relationship was shallow and unreal and all the other perfectly valid targets for flack.

We shouldn't take it for granted. Buffy had been going for four seasons when Joss Whedon created Tara. Even so, he fought long battles with the production company and the relevant scenes in the early days were shot in endless repetition with the homophobic watchdogs on set to ensure there was no untoward physical contact. Those who think the acting is wooden need to bear in mind the situations under which it was filmed. We should also remember the rumour that the film of Scooby Doo contained a two-second kiss between the two lead female characters until the censors ordered it to be edited out. You can watch any amount of death and destruction but your teenage world will dissolve into insecurity if you see two women in lustful contact, at least in the eyes of the octogenarians who run the film certification board.

Or not. If the Buffy generation turns out an excess of teenage dykes, I'll be happy but surprised. Those of us on this side of the line had to sit through endless representations of straight relationships without any suggestion that we might want to try it out - I don't see why the same shouldn't apply in reverse.

Anyway, as with most film representations

of lesbian women, Tara is dead (Thelma and Louise, anyone?). The advantage with Buffy lies in the fact none of the lead characters has ever stayed dead for long. And even if Amber Benson is going to abandon the cast, Willow's still there and we have a promise sworn on the graves of several dead vampires, that she's not going to turn straight. Happy watching. n