London Weekend Television’s series The Gentle Touch (1980-1984) was the first British police TV drama series with a female lead. Welcome to our screens, Detective Inspector Maggie Forbes.
You paved the way for those who followed, and provided a template of characteristics developed by writers and actors who went on to create a number of strong female detectives with complicated professional and personal lives.
In the early series Maggie Forbes (played by Jill Gascoine) is quickly established as a widow bringing up her son by herself after her husband, a fellow police officer, was shot while on duty. She is based at the Seven Dials police station in London’s Soho, and is the only woman of rank in the CID.
She lacks female support. There is no Scott to her Bailey, no Cagney to her Lacey. So she doesn’t have a foil for her character, another female for deep and meaningfuls and conspirational conversations in the loo, someone with whom she can let her hair down over a Lambrini or two, no-one to tell her that those trousers wrinkle really badly around the thigh…
This gives a strong focus to Maggie’s working life, and it’s a tribute to the writing and the acting that you feel you’re in the presence of a strong professional woman who is driven by her principles and by her respect for the law’s ability and responsibility to protect the weak and the innocent.
The themes tackled in The Gentle Touch were topical then and are still contemporary. For example, homophobia, racism, rape, sexism, mental health are topics which occupy us today, perhaps more than ever, and some of the episodes approach them with a depth which was possible when television drama didn’t include so many shots of characters gazing at computers or getting out their phones.
In 1980, police procedurals featured no screens and few acronyms apart from the odd CRO, MO and GBH, just enough to create credibility and elicit a knowing nod from savvy viewers. Perhaps there was more scope for dialogue-heavy scenes, some of which feature discussions which are almost like debates, or dramatised newspaper comments.
For example, when Maggie finds girly mags under her son’s bed, and discovers that he has been asked round to watch a porn film at his friend’s house, she is beyond angry. She tackles her son, who makes light of the mags and is more exercised that she has invaded the privacy of his room. She asks advice from her dad and from a work colleague, both of whom shrug it off and tell her not to do anything.
The battle lines are drawn — harmless natural interest versus the degrading of women. Maggie is so incensed that she storms off to the friend’s house, where the son and his mate are settling down for an afternoon’s viewing — ‘Draw the curtains, Freddy, so that we get a good picture’ — and takes the videotape from the machine.
Two fascinating scenes follow Maggie’s invasion and totally illegal actions. The son of the house stands up to Maggie, telling her she has no right to barge in like that, and defending his right to watch the video, which belongs to his father. He’s not a nice lad, but he has a point.
Then the lady of the house returns and defends the boys’ action, as well as the right of anyone to watch blue films, and she and Maggie have an argument which could take place today. It covers the way women are seen, the exploitation of women, freedom of choice, the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, and develops into an attack (by Maggie) on class attitudes. The words ‘metropolitan elite’ aren’t actually used, but the words ‘white liberal’ are, and although the reference to eating pate de fois gras wouldn’t work today with our vegan and avocado toast sensibilities, it is used in just the same way to identify a particular lifestyle and set of attitudes.
And then Maggie accuses Mrs Blue Film of being the type to discuss racism over pudding but not welcoming a black family moving in next door. It really is bang on today’s vibe, if you ignore the perms and wide shoulders (which do begin to grow on you a bit).
Son also rises
Maggie’s son Steve is an interesting character. He goes off the rails when his dad is killed and takes to alcohol, but after that he turns out just fine. You keep waiting for him to get in with a bad crowd or become a drug addict, but he carries on being really helpful and really nice to his mum, speaking lines such as ‘I’ll put a light under the casserole’, which may need to be translated for younger viewers. When Maggie promises to be there for his appearance in the school play we hear the cue for her failure to show, and we anticipate Steve’s hurt and anger and the irreparable emotional damage caused — but he’s OK with it! A bit disappointed, but actually understanding
Steve’s school is intriguing. From the way he and his friends speak, it’s quite posh, but it has a very ordinary name. The play in question is based on the passionate love affair between Abelard, a 12th century scholar and theologian, and his student Heloise. The couple are tragically forced apart and become a monk and a nun. (Maggie and her dad struggle with yards of brown cloth to make the monk’s outfit.)
It’s not an obvious choice for a play for 15 or 16-year-olds, but Steve is enjoying it, and he likes the English teacher whose project it is and who has inspired Steve’s interest in poetry. But Steve wears such interests lightly, pretending that it’s weirdo stuff, which is about as convincing as the way he and his friends refer to their mothers as their ‘old lady’, a phrase which sits ill with their accents and illustrates a pitiful attempt to be cool.
Among the joys of this vintage series are the passing contemporary allusions and references. Some have present-day relevance, such as the mention of jewellery thefts in Hatton Garden, while others evoke either nostalgia or bafflement, such as the need to get change for the telephone, Hank Janson (producer of hard-boiled pulp thrillers), Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Starsky and Hutch, Anna Raeburn, and Shaw Taylor. Taylor was the face of Police 5, a TV programme dating from 1962 which asked for the public’s help in solving crimes. At the end of every programme Taylor would exhort armchair detectives to ‘keep ’em peeled’.
And there’s a sweet reminder of pre-digital treats in a scene when Maggie, worn out after a day’s work, is looked after by her dad and Steve. Dad is cooking a steak just the way she likes it, and Steve tells her that the late night film on telly is her favourite, Now Voyager. Nowadays we can see anything we want at any time, and will never experience the particular pleasure of an unexpected treat popping up in the TV schedules at just the right moment. (Of course, being on a cop show, Maggie is called out before she can enjoy the meal or the movie.)
The Gentle Touch was the starting point for some wrong-side-of-the-law characters as well. Lynda La Plante, as Lynda Marchal, played Mrs Blue Film in the video episode. Convinced that she could write more convincing dialogue than the male writers of The Gentle Touch, she began working on what was to become a ground-breaking, female-led series — Widows.
Abelard and Heloise are buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The boys’ English teacher sounds as if he could be persuaded to arrange a school trip. The kids could pay their respects to Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde as well. It would have made a great spin-off episode. Oh well.
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