Jill Gascoine, who played British television’s first female police detective in The Gentle Touch, was a household name in the 1980s. And although she was from London originally, she credited her years in Dundee as being the making of her both as an actress and as a woman. “The Rep taught me all I know about acting,” she said in an interview with Scotland on Sunday in 2008. “And as a mother it saved me.”
Gascoine was Detective Inspector Maggie Forbes in five series of The Gentle Touch, which premiered in April 1980, a few months ahead of rival show Juliet Bravo and a decade before Prime Suspect. It attracted 18 million viewers and it was serious stuff, far removed from the crash, bang wallop of The Sweeney.
Gascoine’s character was married to a police officer, but he did not survive the first episode, leaving her to juggle a demanding job and bring up a teenage son. The show tacked such issues as sexism, racism and mental health, an issue with which Gascoine had first-hand experience.
Maggie Forbes was intelligent, sexy and very much a reflection of her era, with big shoulders and big hair, a perm that was shared with pretty much everyone at the time from Cher to Alan Rough.
Maggie proved so popular that when The Gentle Touch had run its course the show’s creator Terence Feely simply moved her into a new show called CATS Eyes, as part of an all-female secret intelligence team, although that show probably owed more to Charlie’s Angels than it did to the realism of Z-Cars and Softly, Softly, both of which Gascoine appeared in during the 1970s.
Born in Lambeth in London in 1937, Jill Viola Gascoine was a nervous child and suffered from bouts of depression later in life. During an unhappy time at boarding school she was belittled by teachers in front of other pupils for bedwetting and thinking there was a ghost in her dorm. But by the time she left school she had her sights set on a career as an actress and came to the Edinburgh Fringe in a revue in the late 1950s.
She played one of the schoolgirls in the film The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s in 1960 (although she was in her twenties by then) and joined Dundee Repertory Theatre in 1963. Over the next decade she would go on to appear in dozens of productions, from Strindberg and Shaw to Jack and the Beanstalk.
She married a local hotelier, Bill Keith, they ran the Greystane Hotel (now a Hilton) and they began a family. But the marriage did not last. “My first marriage ended badly,” said Gascoine. “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.”
She found herself bringing up two boys on the £28 weekly wage she got from Dundee Rep, living in a single-bed flat with no bath or hot water. She shared her bed with her four-year-old son Sean, while baby Adam slept in a drawer. “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.”
There was the odd television role in the first half of the 1970s and she appeared in full-frontal nude frolics in the film Confessions of a Pop Performer. But it was her performance as Letty Gaunt, the strong-willed governess who marries the eponymous shipping magnate in the BBC’s hit period drama The Onedin Line that marked her breakthrough and led to The Gentle Touch and CATS Eyes – the acronym stood for the rather bureaucratic-sounding Covert Activities Thames Section.
Gascoine met Alfred Molina when they appeared together in a West End production of the musical Destry Rides Again in 1982, they married in 1986 and moved to California. Molina, who was 16 years younger, had already had a major role in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But while his career took off, Gacoine admitted that she found it tough getting parts, though she did make guest appearances in the popular US series Northern Exposure and Touched by an Angel.
She developed a second career as a writer, beginning with the novel Addicted, about a successful television actress and her relationship with a much younger actor, who is part English and part Spanish, much like Molina. In the 1990s she was diagnosed with kidney cancer. It was diagnosed early and she underwent successful treatment.
In 2009 she returned to Britain to join the soap opera EastEnders. She was to play Glenda Mitchell, the ex-wife of Archie Mitchell and mother of Ronnie and Roxy. However, after just one day on set, she decided it was not for her, saying that she lacked the experience to commit to a recurring role in a “continuing drama”. But she was having problems with her memory. The role was recast with Glynis Barber.
In 2013 she revealed that she had Alzheimer’s disease at a Beverly Hills event to raise money for research into the disease. She is survived by Molina, her two sons from her first marriage and a step-daughter.