With a career in theatre, film and television spanning more than 60 years, Sue Johnston’s body of work is nothing short of extraordinary. Born in Padgate and now living in Wilmslow, she has a knack for breathing life into iconic characters as well as being integral to trailblazing TV programmes, such as Brookside, Waking The Dead and The Royle Family.

In the latest edition of Cheshire Life magazine, out now, Armand Beasley, celebrity interviewer, talks to the veteran actress.

Sue celebrated her 80th birthday in December and her energy and enthusiasm for the acting industry are as vital as when I first met her 25 years ago.

Tell me about your childhood

I had a lovely childhood. I was born in Padgate, Warrington, and raised in Prescot, Merseyside, and though I was an only child I had so many cousins because my granny on my mum’s side had 12 children who thrived, while my dad was one of six.

My granny was a dressmaker and would dress all her daughters and granddaughters.

We didn’t have a telly but we had a radio and a piano.

I was never bored. I adored reading and still do, as you can see from all the books here. I’m going to donate a lot of them to Lyme Hall. I was there filming recently and they showed me the library where people can make a donation and help themselves to a book.

When did you get your first television set?

I was 10 and it was so we could watch the 1953 Coronation.

Some of our neighbours who didn’t have a telly came round to watch it with us. We would draw the curtains and put a side light on so we could watch this little screen. It was a strong community and everyone on the street were honorary aunties and uncles and looked out for each other.

It’s sad to see how things have changed in that respect.

What other memories do you have of that time?

So many. I have this wonderful memory of going to the shop and buying sweets for the first time, as we had just come off rationing. It was fantastic. Such a simple act that was so profound. I still have my ration book.

I went to school with the actor Sam Kelly, who back then was called Roger and he was so funny. One time we were in the classroom waiting for the teacher and Sam made me laugh so much I wet myself. The teacher came in and I scurried off to my desk while one of the kids shouted ‘Miss… someone’s weed at my desk.’ The teacher stood us all up and turned us around so she could see that I was the culprit. Oh, the shame and humiliation.

Growing up, who was your role model?

My mum’s youngest sister, Aunty Jocelyn – still going strong at 93 and probably propping up the Chester Grosvenor bar as we speak; she’s marvellous. She became a model. We also had scrapbooks on the Royal Family as they were like celebrities back then, especially the young queen who was so glamorous.

What made you want to be an actor?

Although we were working class and we didn’t have a lot of money, my parents loved the arts and would take me to the theatre and the ballet, which I suppose was quite unusual in those days. My godmother on my father’s side would take me to the Liverpool Playhouse and then to Lewis’s for a birthday lunch, so I was exposed to a lot of theatre.

When I had passed my 11+ there was a new girls’ grammar school built in Prescot, Prescot Grammar School for Girls, and we were the first pupils to attend. It was very strict and although we didn’t have drama as a subject, Miss Potter, who was my English teacher, put on a play called The Tinderbox and I was cast as the witch. It was during the rehearsal for The Tinderbox I realised I wanted to be an actor.

I had done a dive onto the floor and looked up toward the audience and it was at that one moment I knew I had found my place. I was about 12 or 13.

What happened when you left school?

I stayed for a year into the sixth form, left school at 17 and went into the civil service as an income tax officer.

I was hopeless but after a month based in St Helens, I was transferred to the Liverpool 5 district on the corner of Matthew Street, so I discovered The Cavern and it changed my life. I loved music and it carried me through those years of not acting. I became good pals

with Paul McCartney and he helped to get me a job in the Clive Epstein furniture and record shop, called NEMS.


Sue Johnston in Hoghton

Sue Johnston in Hoghton


I was doing PR for them in the office and in the thick of things. But once the Beatles moved to London and my relationship with Norman Kuhlke, the drummer in the Swinging Blue Jeans had broken down, I decided I needed a change.

My dad suggested I get a job in the pensions department at Pilkington in St Helens, as they had an amateur dramatic group. I did two or three productions with them, which led to me being offered an acting assistant stage manager role for another theatre company doing

weekly rep; it was hard work but I loved it. This led to me being accepted for drama school, which I was thrilled at but my father was furious. I was 21 and although I had worked from the age of 17

I was living at home, and I think the thought of me moving to London upset him as it was so far away. It was my mum who signed the papers for me to go as my father refused.

This enabled me to get a grant to be able to study, which is sadly not available to young actors today.

Did your father warm to you going?

Well, they took me down to London and sorted out my accommodation, which was sharing a room in an all-girls’ hostel. I lasted six weeks in that room before I moved to a mixed flat and life took off.

What was life like in London then?

Times were changing. Politics started to have an impact on me and my friends at drama school, with us going to demonstrations at Grosvenor Square to protest about the Vietnam War. It was a hundred miles an hour.

I made friends with a girl from Birkenhead as we stood out due to our regional accents. When Raphael Jago took over as principal of our drama school he came in one day and asked: ‘Anybody here working class?’ Me and two of my friends nervously put our hands up and he said: ‘This is where the fire of the theatre is coming from.’

Actors such as Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney were breaking through, along with 1960s kitchen sink dramas. This boosted my confidence for the next 20 years, when I did rep and Theatre in Education at the Cockpit Theatre in London. I adored Theatre in Education and was one of the founding members of M6 Theatre Company in Rochdale.

You came to prominence in the early 1980s as Sheila Grant in Brookside. You were in your late thirties with a young son, Joel. What difference did this role make to your lives?

I was still doing theatre when Joel was born but unfortunately, my marriage broke down and as a single parent I needed to look at how to get a better income, as theatre didn’t pay very well. So, I got myself an agent and my first telly was actually three episodes of Coronation

Street, where all my scenes were in the Rovers. I was so star-struck – these were telly stars.


Sue in Brookside alongside John McArdle as Billy Corkhill

Sue in Brookside alongside John McArdle as Billy Corkhill


This led to my audition for Sheila Grant. What impressed me was everyone on Brookside was new and Phil Redmond (the creator) got a government grant to train up new people in that profession, which helped pay us all. Phil decided he wanted single camera-only filming, shot entirely on location as he had bought the Close, so it was as if you were peeping into these people’s lives.

Do you have a favourite role you’ve played?

Barbara Grade in Goodbye Cruel World is probably my best work. I’m proud of that drama, and playing opposite Alun Armstrong, who has been my husband in three different projects, and Johnny Lee Miller, who played our son. My character had the wasting disease MND. When the first episode aired I got a call from my dad saying how proud he was and that he thought that it was so good, which was the first time he had said anything like that to me.

Is there a character you would love to revisit?

Barbara Royle, but sadly it wouldn’t be possible now.

Caroline Aherne was an absolute genius and knew exactly what she wanted. She had cast everyone right from the beginning of the project; she went up to Ricky Tomlinson at the Comedy Awards one year and said: ‘You’re going to play my dad and Sue Johnston is going to play my mum.’

Warrington Guardian: The Royle Family is set to return.

We didn’t have a clue what she was talking about but Caroline had it all planned out. She was determined she didn’t want it filmed in front of a studio audience, which was unheard of then, and that it would all be filmed with a single camera so as a viewer you felt as if you were there.

It was a struggle for her to get her way with the studio execs but she did. I adored being a part of the team.

Is there anybody you would love to work with?

Hugh Jackman! These lips have kissed his cheek. I was working with Patrick Stewart in Ghosts on the West End and we flew to New York and saw Hugh on Broadway in The Boy From Oz and he invited us backstage. He’s divine.

Who have been your favourite co-stars?

I’ve been very lucky to work with wonderful actors such as Albert Finney and Maggie Smith. Jodie Comer is fantastic too, I worked with her and the wonderful Stephen Graham in Help, a drama set in a care home during Covid. Jodie has that ability to be anybody – she’s phenomenal.

You turned 80 in December – how do you look after yourself physically and mentally?

I do have a natural energy. When I was doing Brookside, I would run a Jane Fonda class in the Grants’ house at lunchtime for anyone who wanted it. I think it’s down to healthy food and minimising sugar, and I take some supplements.

You seem to be as busy as ever, with Channel 4’s Truelove and reuniting with Ricky Tomlinson for Ricky, Sue & a Trip or Two

It was such a privilege to be a part of the Truelove story and cast, tackling a sensitive subject matter like assisted dying. In contrast, you have me and Ricky in Ricky, Sue & a Trip or Two, for More4, pootling around the country

visiting different places. The first one is the Liverpool area and we visit Prescot, which is where I went to school, and we even visit my old house, which is very emotional.


Sue with Ricky Tomlinson

Sue with Ricky Tomlinson


My friend, the actor David Thacker, discovered William Shakespeare used to stay at Knowsley Hall and performed plays in the area so they’ve now built a replica of the Globe theatre in Prescot. It’s been a wonderful show to film.

What other projects have you got coming up?

Lots. There’s a Channel 4 horror series but I can’t talk about it at the moment, however it was such great fun to do. Let’s just say I was 4.5 hours in makeup; I think people will love it. Also, I’ve done an episode of The Responder with Martin Freeman for the BBC and there are another couple of projects I will be involved in.

What would be your dream role?

I would love to do a TV series or film filmed locally so I didn’t have to travel as much. Over the years I have spent so much time away from home and I still feel guilt from the many times I was away from Joel as he grew up. Acting can be a very selfish profession but I adore it.

Your three favourite Cheshire haunts and why?

• The Animal Sanctuary in Wilmslow.

• Cheshire Smokehouse in Wilmslow – wonderful produce.

• The Little Theatre in Wilmslow – a lovely theatre of which I am a proud patron.

What will you do for Mother’s Day this year?

Joel, Zoe and the kids will probably come round along with extended family and I will cook. Joel makes me a Mother’s Day card every year.

Any advice you’d give to your younger self?

‘You’re ok’. I’ve had some lovely boyfriends but I’ve also been hurt by philandering men and they can make you feel worthless. When I played Sheila Grant I thought I looked ugly but now I think: ‘Actually I looked ok.’

What people remember about you is your heart.

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