The Simpsons looks set to lose one of its biggest stars for the foreseeable future, after Harry Shearer decided not to renew his current contract with the programme. The man behind a multitude of voices, such as Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner and the owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, Mr Burns, had been a member of the cast since 1989. It is planned for the hugely popular animated show to continue for the present time, despite the obvious problems that Shearer's departure could create to the continuity of the characters involved.

Familiar voice if not face

71-year-old Shearer has been a major member of the cast for over 25 years, yet his face is probably not as familiar as the various voices that he provides some of the key characters for on the show.

Nonetheless, he has become an integral part of its popularity over the years as the characters have grown. The Simpsons is centred-around Homer, Marge and their three children, but has broadened out to incorporate a host of supporting characters. Without their input the show becomes a slightly claustrophobic vehicle, especially when you consider the three pivotal voices that Shearer has 'created'.

Mr Burns is Homer's boss and often portrayed as a power-mad mogul on the show with a love for money. In sharp contrast, next door neighbour Ned Flanders is a devout Christian, a form of "goody two shoes". Principal Skinner works at the school that Homer's children Bart and Lisa attend, a disciplinarian who finds Bart's attitude to schooling unacceptable.

Shearer's voice makes them all sound completely different, such is his skill.

Characters have grown

It is testament to the comedy talents and observations of Shearer, that all three have often become more than just peripheral figures to the main storyline. Unlike human characters a replacement voice for them could potentially be found, indeed Mr Burns has previously utilised the alternative tones of Christopher Collins and Hank Azaria.

Writer Al Jean told fans that Shearer's parts would indeed be recast "if Harry does not return" and did not rule out a potential return if he changed his mind.

Life goes on for the show

In the meantime, season 27 has begun recording despite Shearer's absence and Fox have confirmed that two more seasons are currently planned.

The longevity of the satirical show is quite staggering, with another two seasons taking the total number of episodes up to 625.

As for Shearer, after providing the voices for around 55 characters on The Simpsons over such a long period of time, not being on the show may take some getting used to. It is believed that he did not leave because of issues over the money involved, although a tweet he issued suggested that some contractual issues may have influenced his decision not to renew. He may decide that the additional freedom and time on his hands allows him to do other projects. In the past he has starred in and co-wrote the movie "This is Spinal Tap" and also been involved on Saturday Night Live.