The actor Myra Frances, who has died aged 78 of cancer, broke a British screen taboo when she and Alison Steadman shared television’s first lesbian kiss in 1974. The groundbreaking play Girl, written by James Robson, told the story of a relationship between Frances’s army officer and Steadman’s young recruit, two decades before Anna Friel and Nicola Stephenson famously took that milestone to soap opera – and pre-watershed TV – in Brookside.
Frances’s sensitive performance contrasted her corporal’s superior ranking by day in the Women’s Royal Army Corps with the gentle passion she brings to the affair. In one carefree scene, both actors are heard singing along to Dusty Springfield’s hit single This Girl’s in Love With You – “top of the gay girls’ hit parade,” remarks Steadman’s character.
While Steadman went on to find fame in films, Frances spent another 10 years in television, usually playing strong women. She followed Girl with her other standout screen role, as the selfish, self-obsessed Anne Tranter in the first series of Survivors (1975), a post-apocalyptic drama devised by Terry Nation, best known as the creator of the Daleks in Doctor Who.
Tranter, who has enjoyed a privileged upbringing, is one of less than 1% of the world’s population not wiped out by a plague, and Frances gives an intensely powerful portrayal of her as a screen villain, dumping her disabled partner and refusing to help others, having regard for only her self-preservation – the qualities of a true survivor.
The drama ran for a further two series with regularly changing characters, and in 1979 Frances appeared in another cult screen hit, Doctor Who. In The Creature From the Pit adventure, she played Lady Adrasta, doomed ruler of Chloris, who controls the valuable metals on her verdant planet of foggy forests until her people turn against her.
Frances was born in Hastings, East Sussex, to Jane Bayley, an entertainer, and Harry Piddock, a music-hall performer. On leaving the Grey Coat Hospital school, London, at 15, she worked as a secretary and personal assistant in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award office while spending evenings training at the Actors Workshop in London.
She turned professional in 1965 when she became an assistant stage manager with the repertory company at Sheffield Playhouse and was soon performing in front of audiences there. Her biggest theatre success came as Jean Fenton, fiancee of a kidnapped government minister, in the Michael Pertwee farce Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something! with Brian Rix’s company at the Garrick theatre in London. Taking over the part from Deborah Grant, she played it from 1972 to 1973 and also in the 1974 film version.
She made her television debut in two 1968 episodes of the BBC soap opera The Newcomers, and followed it with several TV plays before appearing in The Organization (1972), where she met Peter Egan, its star. Her first marriage, in 1969 to the actor Robert Taylor, had ended in divorce, and she married Egan in 1976.
Her other notable TV roles were as Norah Smyth, one of the suffragettes in the Sylvia Pankhurst episode of Shoulder to Shoulder (1974); Dete, the orphaned Swiss girl’s aunt and resentful guardian, in Heidi (1975); Stella Clisby, a love interest of Gerald Harper’s country squire, in the 1976 series of Hadleigh; and Valerie Scott, a barrister, in two 1976 Crown Court stories. Her final screen appearance was in a 1984 episode of The Gentle Touch.
Although she then directed several plays at the Mill theatre in Sonning, Berkshire (1991-93), Frances left acting behind. She and her husband became involved in animal welfare causes after their experience of taking in rescue dogs – seven at one point.
They began in 1988 when a labrador collapsed in the street in front of Frances. Calling it Custard, she brought it up with the couple’s own labrador, Crackers, and 11 years later, when Custard died, she devoted herself to supporting animal welfare charities such as All Dogs Matter and Saving Suffering Strays. Together, the couple also campaigned for Animals Asia, which rescues bears from bile farming in China and Vietnam.
She is survived by Peter and by Rebecca, her daughter from her first marriage.
• Myra Frances, actor, born 13 April 1942; died 30 March 2021