Obituary: Leah Bracknell, Emmerdale favourite who refused to see herself as a ‘cancer victim’

Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Picture: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
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Leah Bracknell, actress. Born: 12 July 1964, in London. Died: September, 2019, aged 55.

Leah Bracknell always wanted to be an actress and made her film debut when she was only 12. It helped that her dad was the director. She went on to play one of the first lesbian characters in a British soap opera, appearing as the vet Zoe Tate on Emmerdale for 16 years, though the character did not know she was a lesbian until well into Bracknell’s time on the show and it came as a big surprise to Bracknell.

Over the years Zoe shot one man dead, she had a child after a one-night stand, she was meant to marry one woman but realised she was in love with another, she suffered from schizophrenia and alcoholism and she blew up the former family mansion before leaving the soap in 2005. That last won an award for “Best Exit” at the British Soap Awards the following year.

One reviewer said: “It was all about as likely to happen in a Yorkshire village as Geoff Boycott joining the local Morris Dancers, but great fun all the same.”

Bracknell had originally intended to take only a nine-month break to spend more time with her family and to train as a yoga teacher, but she never returned. “I loved playing Zoe, but by the time I left she was an emotional wreck,” she said “I wasn’t sure where else I could take her.”

Three years ago Bracknell was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She underwent alternative treatments, styling herself a “cancer rebel” rather than a “cancer victim”, she talked openly about the disease on various television shows, including Loose Women, and she wrote a blog called Something Beginning with C, which included poetry.

Her parents met when her father, David Bracknell, was working on location in Hong Kong, as an assistant director on the 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong, and her mother Li-Er Hwang, a Chinese-Malayan actress, played one of the characters in the movie. Leah Bracknell was born back in London in 1964. She was originally Alison Rosalind Bracknell, but adopted the name Leah as an anglicisation of her mother’s name.

“I used to hang out with the technicians when my father was making films and inevitably you pick up the whole atmosphere,” she said. “I spent years bullying him into giving me things to do until he finally let me appear in The Chiffy Kids.” The Chiffy Kids was a Children’s Film Foundation serial that was shown on Saturday mornings in cinemas.

Bracknell attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and had spells with several English provincial theatre companies. But she was struggling to earn a living as a waitress when, in 1989, she landed the role of the young vet Zoe Tate in the soap that was then known as Emmerdale Farm.

Bracknell had inherited her mother’s dark, exotic beauty and her character proved popular and was developed over time. It was 1993 before Zoe, or rather the scriptwriters and producers, decided the vet was gay. When first informed Bracknell thought they were joking. Zoe came out shortly before Brookside’s famous lesbian kiss between Beth Jordache (Anna Friel) and Margaret Clemence (Nicola Stephenson).

Bracknell said she was happy with the revelation, but was proudest of the way in which the programme approached schizophrenia and the research that went into it.

She had two breaks from the programme on maternity leave. She eventually appeared in several hundred episodes of Emmerdale between 1989 and her award-winning “exit” in 2005, an hour-long special watched by more than 8.5 million viewers.

After leaving Emmerdale Bracknell had a recurring role as the matron Jenny Carrington in the daytime hospital soap The Royal Today, a spin-off from evening drama The Royal, which was set in the 1960s.

She appeared in more than 40 episodes in 2008. She also made one-off appearances on other shows, worked in theatre, taught yoga and developed her own line of jewellery, donating a proportion of the profits to a mental health charity and a hospice.

Bracknell had been a smoker, but gave it up long before her lung cancer was diagnosed. When she went public with the diagnosis a public appeal quickly raised £50,000 to finance a trip to Germany for experimental treatment. She tried to stay positive, but latterly wrote in her blog of being trapped in a “nightmare”. She wrote: “If only you could wake from the nightmare: dawn breaks and you realise that it was all just a bad dream. And life is wonderfully normal again.”

She died in September, but news of her death was made public only last month and few details were released.

She is survived by her long-term partner, Jez Hughes, a writer whom she married two years ago, and by two daughters from an earlier relationship.

Brian Pendreigh