This '80s sex symbol turned celebrity expat is far from being a Fringe first. Jill Gascoine tells Aidan Smith why she can't wait to bump into some old Scottish ghosts
JILL Gascoine is convinced the clinical depression she's suffered all her life has its roots in her hellish experiences at boarding school where the teachers made sure every other child knew about her bed-wetting and were completely unsympathetic when she insisted the dorm was haunted.
But the actress – best-remembered for her gutsy detective roles, gargantuan hair and gridiron shoulder-pads on 1980s TV – says of her long overdue return to Scotland: "I think I'm going to bump into some lovely old ghosts while I'm here and I can't wait."
The publicity for the play she's brought to Edinburgh from Los Angeles bills this as her Festival Fringe debut; it's not. "I've been here twice before, way back in the 1950s," says Gascoine, who is 71 but looks nothing like it. "Some friends and I came up from London and I'm afraid I can't remember where we were based or what we performed. A revue, I think. Yes, I was a dancer. Others sang or told jokes. But there was one night when everyone else went down with flu and I pretty much had to do the whole show myself. I was very young, full of dreams, so it didn't faze me at all."
Gascoine can be excused her sketchy memory. This was a long time ago, not far off the pioneering days of the very first Fringes. Also, she's "completely spaced out" from having just flown in from Hollywood, where she lives with her second husband, Alfred Molina. And, because she's supposed to be retired, the narration of her life story has got a bit rusty since she was rarely out of the telly mags as sex symbol Maggie Forbes from The Gentle Touch and C.A.T.S Eyes.
In fact, she's slightly unnerved to encounter someone who's swotted up on her. "You know more about me than I do," she says more than once. She finds it remarkable that I'm aware she worked with Ken Loach when both were unknowns and that in 1997 she suffered from cancer. It's almost as if she thinks no one should remember her.
But they haven't forgotten Gascoine in a toilet in Dundee. In the ladies' loo at Dundee Rep, a photograph duly records that she trod the boards for an earlier incarnation of the theatre. "The Rep taught me all I know about acting," she says, "and as a mother it saved me."
Elegant in black today, and festooned with silver rings, the Californian lifestyle obviously agrees with Gascoine. But in the 1960s she was forced to bring up her two sons on her 28-a-week wage from the theatre in a tiny, grotty flat with no bath or hot water – four-year-old Sean sharing his mum's bed and baby Adam sleeping in a drawer.
"My first marriage (to Dundee hotelier Bill Keith] ended badly. He was a compulsive gambler and even when I was heavily pregnant he'd refuse to stop playing these joints and take me home. He obviously had no money and it was very tough for me on my own, but I'm an Aries and I've always believed that that dire situation was the making of me – and the Rep where I played Joan of Arc and Antigone was certainly the making of me as an actress. I loved it there, really loved it." (By the way, she has lost contact with Keith, doesn't even know if he's still alive, but wonders – for her sons' sake – if she'll learn what became of him on this trip.)
Memories of her telly pomp are starting to flood back to her now. "I used to get some weird fan mail," she says. "Once when I was appearing in the West End a letter arrived at the stage door. The writing had been smudged with some suspicious-looking fluid, but I could still make out the odd lewd suggestion. And on the back of the envelope it said: 'If not known please send to Susan Penhaligon c/o another theatre."
That production was where Gascoine met Molina. "It was lust at first sight," she says. At that time, she was the more famous, having followed up The Gentle Touch with C.A.T.S Eyes when Maggie Forbes quit the force and went private. "C.A.T.S Eyes got a bit silly – Charlie's Angels in Kent – and I was given a new love interest every week. But The Gentle Touch had been the first telly drama to base itself round a female copper. Helen Mirren and Prime Suspect came after me."
Then, as Gascoine's star dipped, Molina's began to rise. Hollywood came calling for him and 15 years ago they headed out west. "It didn't bother me that Fred became more famous. Anyway, the good roles dry up for a woman, it always happens in the end."
At home at least, she's suffered no loss of status. "Fred desperately wants a pool like everyone else in Hollywood but there's no way he's digging up my lovely garden for it," she laughs. "And I'm always telling him he has to behave himself because he's no longer my toyboy and I could trade him in for two."
Gascoine is 16 years older than Molina; they said it wouldn't last. But last it has – for 26 years. "What's our secret? It's the old one about making each other laugh. And the fact that we're not always together – Fred is in Marrakech right now filming The Prince Of Persia – is good. If we were we'd have probably killed each other by now."
She worked in the theatre when the couple set up home just off Sunset Boulevard but even these parts were limited because she couldn't get the hang of an American accent. "To be honest," she says in a conspiratorial whisper, "I hate how America has ruined the English language. 'Math, 'erb, methodology, disoriented…' I'm disorien-tated by what they've done to it!" So she turned to writing and now has three novels to her name.
Gascoine is grateful to the American doctor who, in the nick of time, detected the cancer in her kidneys and these days she keeps the depression at bay with the help of Prozac. "I don't think we'll come back to Britain," she says. "I miss it for all the usual things, like the irony, although not the tendency to criticise too much, but Fred is so busy out there and I love the climate, friends like Millicent Martin, our dogs and my roses – and although I might moan about them sometimes, I really do admire Americans for their lack of reserve and the way they embrace you with great love."
It's a joke among her set that Gascoine keeps retiring only to make yet another comeback. She told a playwright friend, Colette Freeman, that these days she's only interested in playing "corpses", whereupon the latter came up with Sister Cities, a family drama about the mystery of a matriarch's apparent suicide. "No one thought I'd want to come to Edinburgh with it but here I am, back where it all began for me. Goodness knows where that old hall was, but I'd love to find it."
• Sister Cities is at Gilded Balloon, until August 25, 6.45pm