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Jill Gascoine, star of The Gentle Touch and CATS Eyes – obituary

Jill Gascoine in The Gentle Touch - ITV/Shutterstock
Jill Gascoine in The Gentle Touch - ITV/Shutterstock

Jill Gascoine, who has died aged 83, was British television drama’s first starring woman police officer in The Gentle Touch (ITV, 1980-84) and its spin-off series CATS Eyes (1985-87).

As Det Insp Maggie Forbes, stationed at Seven Dials and covering Soho and Covent Garden in central London, Jill Gascoine broke the traditional police series template. She played the widowed mother of a teenage son, her on-screen husband, also a police officer, having been shot dead by armed robbers in episode one.

The first series was preoccupied with her home life, but subsequent series featured more thrills and spills, culminating at the end of series four with her being caught up in a grenade explosion.

Petite but tough-minded, her oversized bubble perm seemingly none too ruffled by the experience, Jill Gascoine carried on for a further 13 episodes. The gritty drama beat the BBC’s Juliet Bravo to the screen by five months and Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect by 11 years, and The Gentle Touch was an enormous ratings hit for ITV, running for five series until it folded in 1984.

The Gentle Touch predated Juliet Bravo by five months and Prime Suspect, with Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, by 11 years  - ITV/Shutterstock
The Gentle Touch predated Juliet Bravo by five months and Prime Suspect, with Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, by 11 years - ITV/Shutterstock

Jill Gascoine continued to play Maggie Forbes (now retired from the police) in the action-packed spin-off series CATS Eyes, described as a stiff-upper-lipped British version of the all-American, all-women hit show Charlie’s Angels.

She was one of an intrepid trio of gun-toting women undercover agents (the others played in series one by Rosalyn Landor and Leslie Ash) ostensibly working for the Eyes Enquiry Agency, but which was actually a front for a top secret Home Office security unit known as CATS (Covert Activities Thames Section).

From series two, Jill Gascoine’s character was promoted to team leader, but other changes had been made on the production side that proved less successful. While she was lauded for her “liquid gaze and china-doll cheekbones … the urban tigress purred again”, the show itself was savaged by the press for its “thin plots, unimaginative scripts and dodgy politics”, and was wound up after 30 episodes.

An only child, Jill Viola Gascoine was born on April 11 1937 in South London and brought up in Kingston-upon-Thames, where she attended Tiffin Girls’ Grammar School. Trained for the stage at the Italia Conti theatre school, she began her career aged 15 as a dancer in the chorus in pantomime at the Grand Theatre, Halifax, and spent much of the 1950s as a singer and dancer in musicals and revues.

Jill Gascoine with her CATS Eyes co-stars Leslie Ash, left, and Tracy Louise Ward - ITV/Shutterstock
Jill Gascoine with her CATS Eyes co-stars Leslie Ash, left, and Tracy Louise Ward - ITV/Shutterstock

Turning to acting in 1961, she took regular roles at Dundee Rep, appeared as principal boy in provincial panto, beginning in Babes In The Wood at Halifax, and toured numerous repertory theatres throughout the 1960s before launching her television career in 1972.

Her television appearances included parts in Z Cars, Softly Softly, Within These Walls, Dixon of Dock Green, Armchair Theatre and General Hospital. She appeared topless in the British sex-farce feature film Confessions of a Pop Performer (1975), before achieving her television breakthrough as Letty Gaunt in The Onedin Line (1976–79).

During driving and pursuit sequences in The Gentle Touch, Jill Gascoine, a non-driver, always had to be filmed at the wheel of a stationary car. Her success in the series led to a second career on the stage, and in 1982 she was booked to play Prince Charming in the pantomime Cinderella at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

She also took the Marlene Dietrich role of Frenchy in a stage adaptation of the 1939 Western film spoof Destry Rides Again (Donmar Warehouse, 1982), where she met her second husband, the actor Alfred Molina, 16 years her junior.

On television she appeared as Judy Schwartz in the final series of the sitcom Home to Roost (1989-90) opposite John Thaw, and was cast in the film King of the Wind (1990) opposite Richard Harris and Glenda Jackson.

After marrying in 1986, she and Molina moved to Los Angeles, where she made television appearances in series such as Northern Exposure and Touched by an Angel, as well as performing extensively in theatre.

She also launched a parallel career as a novelist, starting with Addicted (1994), followed by Lilian (1995), both drawing on aspects of her own life and career. Her third novel, Just Like A Woman (1997), told the story of a middle-aged woman who finds herself pregnant in her fifties. As an actress she returned to Britain in 2008 to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Colette Freedman’s play Sister Cities.

A year later she was announced as a new addition to the cast of EastEnders, as Glenda Mitchell, the former wife of Archie Mitchell and mother of Ronnie and Roxy. But on her first day filming on set she withdrew, explaining that she felt she “lacked the right experience to film such a big continuing drama”, and the role was re-cast with Glynis Barber.

With her husband Alfred Molina at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2001 in Los Angeles, where they made their home - Kevork Djansezian/AP
With her husband Alfred Molina at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2001 in Los Angeles, where they made their home - Kevork Djansezian/AP

By then Jill Gascoine had begun having problems with her memory, and she was diagnosed with dementia in 2011. She also suffered from clinical depression, which she blamed on an unhappy time at boarding school as a child.

Jill Gascoine was a stalwart Labour Party supporter, and at the height of her television fame in the 1980s appeared in party political broadcasts. During the miners’ strike she was duped out of £250 by a con man from Yorkshire who claimed to be fundraising for the miners and who had the run of her house for several weeks while she was away filming.

In November 2016 it emerged that she was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease and had been in a specialist care home for more than two years.

With her first husband, Bill Keith, a Dundee hotelier, Jill Gascoine had two sons. They survive her with her second husband, Alfred Molina, and his daughter by a previous relationship.

Jill Gascoine, born April 11 1937, died April 28 2020