HER ROYLE HIGHNESS
From soaps to sitcoms, MARION McMULLEN looks at the acting career of beloved British star Sue Johnston as she turns 80
baby Sue Johnston worked in a tax office and the pensions department of Pilkington Glass before making her television debut in Coronation Street.
She was first seen in the Rovers Return on the ITV soap in 1982 and recalled: “I was Mrs Chadwick, the bookie’s wife. I remember it so clearly because it was my first telly job.”
The TV newcomer was 38 at the time and had worked on the stage for many years before she found herself rubbing shoulders with Corrie legends like Pat Phoenix and Doris Speed who were known nationwide as Elsie Tanner and pub landlady Annie Walker.
Sue said: “I was very nervous of all of them because if you sat in the wrong seat you were in deep doodoo in the green room.
“There was a big green room and another room off it where they played bridge at lunch times. The guy who played Alf Roberts put his head in and said, ‘Does anyone play bridge?’ and I put my hand up. He said, ‘Would you make up a four?’ and I went ‘No’. I didn’t dare speak to them, let alone play cards with them!”
It was while appearing on Corrie that Sue auditioned for the lifechanging role of Sheila Grant in Channel 4’s new soap Brookside.
It was seen for the first time on the station’s launch night on November 2, 1982, and ran for 21 years. At its peak, Brookside drew in audiences of nine million viewers.
“It was very odd because suddenly people weren’t calling you by your real name, and that was very difficult,” said Sue.
“I’d been an actress for 20 years, playing different roles, and then
suddenly people start calling you Sheila.”
Ricky Tomlinson played Sue’s onscreen husband Bobby Grant and the pair later successfully reunited once again for popular BBC comedy The Royle Family playing tellyloving Jim and Barbara Royle.
Sue was born Susan Wright at her aunt’s house in Warrington on December 7, 1943. Her mother was staying there while her plumber husband Fred was away with the army.
Growing up in Prescot, her interest in the theatre was sparked by childhood trips to the Liverpool PlayWAR house and she later appeared in school plays and amateur productions.
By the time she was
18, Sue was a regular visitor to Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club and worked in the shop owned by Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
She went to drama school in London and trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and worked with Pie In The Sky’s Maggie Steed and Clive Russell performing for children in schools in Coventry as part of the Belgrade Theatre’s pioneering Theatre In Education programme. Brookside made her a familiar face on television and BBC sitcoms like The Royle Family and Jam & Jerusalem showcased her talent for comedy.
Sue has also appeared in films like Brassed Off,
ITV’s Downton Abbey and got used to being surrounded by corpses when she stated playing forensic psychologist Dr Grace Foley in BBC drama Waking The Dead in 2000. She said at the time: “I’m not very squeamish. You just know that it’s not real. On set we do have fun with the bodies. There’s rather a lot of black humour that goes on around them.”
The twice-married TV star was awarded an OBE in 2009 and has also appeared in programmes like Time, Medics, Age Before Beauty, The Cockfields and Death On The Tyne. She even played Corrie’s Pat Phoenix in 1998 ITV drama The Things You Do For Love: Against The Odds with Tony Scannell as her husband Tony Booth.
Sue returned to Coronation Street in 2012 to play battleaxe Gloria Price. Gloria arrived at the Rovers to tell daughter Stella (Michelle Collins) that she had fallen into a spot of bother in Spain and needed to lie low for a while. She immediately started interfering in Stella’s life and merrily winding up the locals.
Sue said she was a little starstruck when she returned. She said: “I was a bit giddy when I saw them all. It’s a very strange feeling because you have to divorce what you see on telly and get to know the real actors. I called Craig Charles by his character’s name – Lloyd! I apologised, but he said he’d been called worse.”
Sue is now marking her 80th birthday and once said: “I stretch my face to see what I’d look like with a facelift, but the thought of someone cutting into my skin – ugh. And I don’t want to look like everyone else. Soon there’ll be no wrinkly women left on telly and they’ll have to cast me in everything.”