Gilly Coman shot to fame as the mini-skirted, high-heel wearing redhead Aveline Boswell in Carla Lane's 1980s television sitcom Bread. Set in Liverpool, it followed the devoutly Catholic, working-class Boswell family, who went about systematically exploiting the social-security system in Thatcher's Britain.
Aveline, the daughter, more often than not dressed in outrageous stockings, short skirts and cripplingly high heels, in her tireless quest to become a model. But she was mollycoddled by her armour-plated matriarch mother, Nellie (Jean Boht), who wanted to protect her from the big bad world, and her four brothers who vetted any would-be suitors. Reportedly, Coman brought a lot of her own personality to her character.
First screened in May 1986, when more than three million were unemployed, Bread was initially roundly condemned by the critics, with The Times snorting, "[It] reinforces the cultural stereotype of the inhabitants of that self-destructive city as a bunch of spongers abusing the welfare state."
Nevertheless, its popularity grew thanks to its killer catchphrases, such as "She is a tart!" and "I wannabe a model" – and its soap opera-style storylines. In 1988, more than 21 million viewers watched Aveline marry Protestant vicar Oswald. That same year also featured a memorable cameo by Lane's real-life friends, Paul and Linda McCartney. After four series, Coman left to have her first child, with Melanie Hill taking over the role. Bread went on for another three series.
Born into a theatrical family, Gilly Helen Coman was born in 1955 in Liverpool, where her parents ran a ballroom-dancing school in Wavertree. Aged eight, she joined the city's Shelagh Elliott-Clarke drama school at a time when professional drama schools were rare. Coman's determination to succeed was evident from the start; she would complete her school studies in the mornings before switching to drama and dance lessons, which would take her into the early evening. She was rewarded two years later with an appearance in a Ready Brek commercial. Upon leaving school, she gained repertory experience at a number of theatres including the Liverpool Playhouse.
In 1978 Coman appeared in Coronation Street, and there were further television roles in Boys from the Blackstuff, Emmerdale Farm, Brookside and a number of one-off dramas. In addition, she appeared in Ronnie Barker's Open All Hours, as well as Casualty and Inspector Morse. There were also many bit parts, including one in the film comedy A Private Function (1984). She later won excellent reviews for her portrayal of a mother trying to hatch a plan to take back her three abducted children in the BBC play Snatched (1994), based on true-life events.
Her big break and notoriety, though, came with Bread, and lifelong friend Jane Joseph, now the director of St Helens Theatre Royal, recalled her audition for the sitcom. "She came in dressed as Aveline and made everyone laugh and that's what got her the part," she recalled. Bread creator Carla Lane said, "The way she dressed up in those high heels and walked down the street represented Bread for me."
In 1989 Coman left the series to have her first child. Although in 2000 she decided to retire and bring up her family, she had planned a return to acting after her daughter had completed her GCSEs. Coman died at home, of a suspected heart attack, aged 54. She is survived by her husband, the photographer, Phil Cutts, her youngest child Jessica and her three sons. She was always a very giving person and a generous actress and her untimely death has shocked the acting community.
Gillian Helen Coman, actress: born Liverpool 13 September 1955; died Caldy, Merseyside 13 July 2010.