Jill Gascoine: First woman to star in a British TV police drama


Jill Gascoine, who has died aged 83 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, became the first woman to star in a British television police series when she was cast as Detective Inspector Maggie Forbes in The Gentle Touch.

It beat the BBC’s Juliet Bravo to the screen by four months and was a whole decade ahead of the more hard-edged, intense Prime Suspect.

From the start, the emphasis was on a woman in a previously male-only domain – and facing sexism from some fellow officers. In the first episode, Maggie’s husband, a police constable, was shot dead in a robbery, leaving her to bring up their surly young son.

Early episodes concentrated on Maggie’s home life. When action became a stronger ingredient, car chases had to be shot with Gascoine in a vehicle towed behind the camera truck – because she had no driving licence.

After five series (1980-84) and audiences of up to 18 million, Gascoine and Maggie were transplanted to CATS Eyes (1985-87), Britain’s answer to the hit American drama Charlie’s Angels.

Maggie joined two members of the Eyes Enquiry Agency, a front for a Home Office security squad, Covert Activities Thames Section. The agents took on the mafia, triads and Russian spies, but attempts to recreate the glamour of Charlie’s Angels were stifled by the necessity to film in locations across the north Kent coast, close to the production company’s base.

Jill Viola Gascoine was born in Lambeth, south London, in 1937, the only child of Irene (nee Greenwood) and Francis Gascoine. She was brought up in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, where she attended Tiffin Girls grammar school before training at the Italia Conti Academy.

She made her stage debut, aged 15, as a dancer in the chorus of a pantomime at the Grand Theatre, Halifax, and sang and danced in musicals and revues throughout the 1950s.

Gascoine’s life was dominated by two health issues: clinical depression, which she put down to being miserable at boarding school as a young child and controlled by taking Prozac for the rest of her life; and her weight.

She recalled herself as a “chubby” child and being referred to as “the little fat one on the end” in auditions for shows. After working hard at controlling her weight and gaining fame on television, Gascoine said: “Now, I’m the slender one in the middle, I hope.”

She was seen on screen for the first time in the chorus of the West End musical Expresso Bongo (1958), broadcast on TV. In 1961, after appearing as a schoolgirl in the film The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s (1960), she switched to acting in repertory theatres across England and Scotland.

In Dundee she met her first husband, hotelier Bill Keith. They were married from 1965 to 1971. After he walked out on Gascoine and their two sons, Sean and Adam, she sang in cabaret and continued to act while living in a small flat with no bath or hot water, one of the boys sleeping in her bed and the other in a drawer.

Her television breakthrough came with a one-off role in Dr Finlay’s Casebook in 1970. After a London agent signed her up, more character roles followed in episodes of many popular series, including Z Cars (in 1973), Dixon of Dock Green (1974), General Hospital (1974) and Within These Walls (1975). At a time when the British film industry was in the doldrums, she appeared in the sex comedy Confessions of a Pop Performer (1975).

Her breakthrough came on TV in the Victorian-era shipping drama The Onedin Line. For four series (1976-79), she played philanthropic Letty Gaunt, introduced as governess to the daughter of rugged sea captain-turned-fleet owner James Onedin after his wife dies in childbirth. She marries him and shows her caring, philanthropic side by setting up a business employing the wives of unemployed men to mend old jute sacks and make bed linen – until she herself dies of diphtheria.

Gascoine also had a regular role throughout 1977 in the daytime soap opera Rooms as Ruth Harris, one of the tenants in a London house converted into bedsits.

In 1986, she married actor Alfred Molina – 16 years her junior – and, after he found success in Hollywood, the couple moved to Los Angeles. While his career soared, she struggled to find acting roles in the US, although she popped up in episodes of Northern Exposure (in 1994) and Touched by an Angel (in 1999).

She started a new career as a novelist. Her first two books were semi-autobiographical – Addicted (1994), about a middle-aged woman falling in love with a half-Spanish younger man, and Lillian (1995), featuring a woman suffering from depression. A middle-aged woman becoming pregnant in her fifties was the subject of the third, Just Like a Woman (1997).

Gascoine was treated successfully for kidney cancer in 1997. Thirteen years later, she was set for a return to British TV in the soap EastEnders as Glenda Mitchell, mother of Ronnie and Roxy. She pulled out after a day’s filming, saying: “I lacked the right experience to film such a big continuing drama.”

It became apparent that her memory was failing and, in June 2013, Gascoine revealed that she had been diagnosed with dementia at least a year earlier.

She is survived by Molina, her two sons and her stepdaughter, Rachel.

Jill Gascoine, actor and novelist, born 11 April 1937, died 28 April 2020

Read more

Honor Blackman: Actor who starred in The Avengers and Goldfinger

Tim Brooke-Taylor: Comedian who found fame in The Goodies