Leah Bracknell

Actress and star of Emmerdale

Born: July 12, 1964;

Died: October 16, 2019

LEAH Bracknell, who has died of cancer aged 55, made a little bit of television history as Zoe Tate on the soap opera Emmerdale, a character who was widely acknowledged to be the first lesbian on a British soap – although the sexuality of fictional characters can be tricky to pin down.

Bracknell first appeared on the popular countryside soap opera in 1989, the year that Emmerdale Farm graduated to being just Emmerdale. At the time her character Zoe was still at university, studying to become a vet.

Zoe had a few heterosexual relationships, none of which were particularly successful and the scriptwriters decided she was actually gay. Zoe apparently realised she was gay in 1993 – a year before the famous lesbian kiss between Beth Jordache (Anna Friel) and Margaret Clemence (Nicola Stephenson) on Brookside.

Bracknell said at the time: “Zoe is quite feminine and not the obvious media stereotype of a lesbian, but the writers aren't taking any sort of moral stance. This is something that Zoe discovers gradually and it will be dealt with constructively, emotionally and positively." Later Bracknell said that the character only became interesting after she realised she was gay.

Writing on the website AfterEllen.com in 2010, commentators Sarah and Lee wrote: “Leah Bracknell leftEmmerdale in 2005 and many waved a fond farewell to the longest running and possibly the best representation of a lesbian ever to grace British soap land.

“Emmerdale is still the only soap to allow its lesbian resident to exist without having to wear a sign around her neck that constantly reinforced her sexuality. Sometimes she was just having a drink, or working or visiting her brother.”

Nevertheless in due course Zoe was to find herself in pretty much the full range of sensationalist soap situations. She was in a civil partnership for a while, but it was not long before she was having other relationships as well, with several women, including a female truck driver, and in one instance with a man.

She had no memory of this particular relationship, there were suggestions of rape, but the relationship and her failure to remember it were finally explained away by the fact that she was schizophrenic.

Zoe also kills one character and blackmails another and before leaving Emmerdale for a new life elsewhere she blows up the farmhouse she has just been forced to sell. Bracknell won that year’s award for Best Exit in the British Soap Awards, having been nominated for the National Television Award for Most Popular Actress in 2002.

She was born Alison Rosalind Bracknell in London in 1964. Her father David Bracknell was a television director and her mother Li-Er Hwang was a Chinese-Malaysian actress. They had met while filming The World of Suzie Wong in 1959. Bracknell’s adopted first name of Leah is an Anglicisation of her mother’s forename.

She acted as a child and at 12 she appeared on The Chiffy Kids, a children’s comedy-drama TV series directed by her father. She studied at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Emmerdale was one of her first big jobs and she appeared in more than 300 episodes, with two breaks as maternity leave.

When Bracknell left Emmerdale in 2005 it was because she wanted to spend more time with her two daughters and qualify as a yoga teacher. "I loved playing Zoe but I felt the time was right to take a break,” she said. “By the time I left she was an emotional wreck. I wasn't sure where else I could take her.”

At the time the BBC announced that Bracknell was simply taking a break and was expected to return in about nine months, but she never did. Subsequently she appeared on Judge John Deed (2007), The Royal Today (2008), Casualty 1907 (2008), A Touch of Frost (2010) and DCI Banks (2015). She played three different characters on the long-running soap Doctors between 2007 and 2011.

Bracknell also taught yoga in group and one-to-one sessions and designed and made jewellery. “Yoga has been a source of great strength and inspiration to me, guiding me through life’s challenges large and small, along a path rich in discovery, learning and personal healing,” she said on her personal yoga website.

In October 2016 she revealed that she had lung cancer. She had been teaching yoga workshops and rehearsing for a new play. "It turns out that the universe had other plans,” she said. "I began to feel breathless climbing stairs... I just put it down to a bit of stress. My abdomen suddenly ballooned and within a matter of a few days I looked heavily pregnant. I could barely walk or breathe."

She needed emergency treatment to remove excess fluid from around her heart and her illness was diagnosed as stage four, terminal lung cancer. But Bracknell was determined to fight it and a fundraising appeal raised the money for experimental treatment in Germany. She appeared on This Morning and Loose Women to discuss her condition.

However her treatments did not work, the outlook remained bleak and in March 2017 she married her partner Jez Hughes in a small, private ceremony. News of the marriage did not break until the following year.