The wages are pounds 205 a week and she's away for two months. The reason is a new play she loves: Rage by Richard Zajdlic. If Rage sells out, she'll play to a nightly audience of 105. Careerists might see this as a step down for a soap star. Sue Johnston says she's frightened to death. 'You can't see 15 million people, so you can't be nervous on camera.' In Rage she plays Mrs Ellis, a neurotic housewife. 'They'll all be saying: 'So what's new?' '
Sue Johnston was Sheila Grant in Brookside from day one of the series (and day one of Channel 4). On the page Sheila was only sketched out. 'You played a Northern woman of a certain type. Then the writers started picking up on what you do.' What she did was suffer in a pale-pink jumper with white spots.
'Whenever I see myself as Sheila Grant I always see myself in that jumper. I used to plead with them not to wear it. When I watch Wendy Richard (in EastEnders) having a particularly doleful time with Pauline, she always has an old cardigan on as well, and I think: 'Oh, I know what she's doing. Jumper acting.' '
The scriptwriters gave her a particularly doleful time: rape, homelessness, post-natal depression, bereavement, divorce. But a bad month for Sheila was a good one for Sue. 'It was like drama therapy. You could go in, have a good weep and a good scream, and go home feeling light.' Having dumped it on the nation? 'Yeah. Take that]' She took these ratings-grabbing traumas and, with only a little rehearsal, turned them into something gritty and moving. Realism like this quickly made Brookside Channel 4's top-rated programme.
Sue Johnston was born in 1943, an only child, with a great many relatives. Her granddad drove the Flying Scotsman, her dad was a plumber. She went to an all-girls' grammar school and came face to face with the Sixties at the Cavern Club. She was at Paul McCartney's 21st-birthday party.
Her London drama school (Webber Douglas) was like a finishing school: 'Lots of glamorous people with lardy accents.' She was ashamed of her own accent until the principal asked who in the group was working-class. Three students stuck up their hands. He told them they were the new wave.
After Webber Douglas, she did a couple of conventional jobs - Hayfever at Farnham, understudying at the Whitehall Theatre - then 'carried a lot of props and drove the van' for David Hare and Tony Bicat's Portable Theatre Company. Hare directed her in Genet's The Maids and his own Slag. But it wasn't until she got into theatre-in-education that she felt 'I'd found my place. I'd found perfect happiness.' For the first time, 'I had something to say.'
She went from the Cockpit in London, to the Belgrade, Coventry, and the Bolton Octagon, performing in schools, not theatres. Twenty years ago, they were devising environmental plays. The message was often simple ('Where shall we put these oil wells, Dad?' remembers Johnston. 'Over there by the council houses]'). At Coventry she was one of the ones who wasn't in the Workers' Revolutionary Party. They were a 'vociferous' bunch. She did it for 11 years: 'I just burnt myself out in the end.'
Three episodes of Coronation Street led to 'a colossal change': Brookside in 1982. For a single parent, it meant financial independence. In 1989, she made the transition from Brookside into drama and comedy, creating one half of Jim Cartwright's To. She was the unfulfilled mum in Carla Lane's Luv and Luv II; the crisp general manager in Medics; and a woman whose nervous system packs up in Tony Marchant's Goodbye Cruel World. She can take grief to the limits and never embarrass us.
She stayed political, turning up as a Labour luvvie in the last General Election. 'I did the opener at Birmingham. On the podium with Neil and Tony Blair. I didn't do the Sheffield one, thank God.' Hers is the politics of sincerity. Not many people would turn a politician's remark into the title of their autobiography. But it was a Labour MP, Clare Short, who gave her the phrase for her book, Hold on to the Messy Times (Pandora, 1989). In the book Sue Johnston holds on to the messy times so tightly the reader never gets to hear about them. It's private. 'I don't want my mother to know.'
The one time she really put her feelings down on paper was in a short story in 1990 for Me magazine. Writing the autobiography had been slow. Writing the short story took her '10 minutes'. It's a raw, powerful account of a husband leaving his pregnant wife. 'It's this thing about being an actor. You're always under- confident. You can let go of yourself hiding behind a character.'
'Rage': Bush Theatre, W12, 081-743 3388, previews from Wed, opens Fri.
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