Let there be light

Sue Johnston made her name as Brookside's put-upon Sheila Grant. Now, she's a tragic Ibsen heroine in the West End. But it's not all doom and gloom, Sam Marlowe discovers
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"She's depressed and careworn, carrying a terrible burden of guilt, and - oh, I've forgotten to put my earrings on!" Sue Johnston is talking about her latest role - in The Master Builder, Ibsen's tragic problem play - when she breaks off, realising that her extremely elegant outfit is not quite complete. Johnston is best known for her portrayals of put-upon Sheila Grant in Brookside and the sweet-natured, scruffy mum Barbara in The Royle Family - scarcely notable for their glamour. But you'd never guess it to look at her.

We're chatting over tea in her bijou Tudor hotel in Guildford, where The Master Builder is visiting the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre as part of its pre-West End tour. From the moment she glides down the staircase to greet me, her big, glossy, black dog, Ebony, at her heel, it's clear that Johnston is very much at ease with herself. Dressed in chartreuse silk, she's a striking and sexy 59. But her stylish poise is balanced by a down-to-earth practicality and a beguiling lack of inhibition. As we sip our tea, Johnston notices that Ebony has mislaid the unpleasant-looking object she had in her mouth. "Ebony! Where's your piggy's ear?" she calls. "Oh, there it is." And so it is - on the carpet in the middle of the smart lobby. It's not a real pig's ear, surely? "Oh, yes. She's had that one ages. You should see them when they're whole. I suppose they're the canine equivalent of pork scratchings. You're not vegetarian, are you?"

Johnston is such a well-loved British actress that it seems incredible that the opening of The Master Builder in London this week will mark her West End debut. She plays the downtrodden wife of Solness, the master builder, opposite Patrick Stewart. Johnston is relishing the chance to make her mark in the capital, and loves wrestling with Ibsen's complex drama of passion and redemption, despite "nights of despair when I think I'm never going to get it right". But then, she admits: "I like a challenge."

Life has presented her with plenty of those. She was born in 1943 in Warrington and grew up on Merseyside. She can remember the moment when she decided, at 16, that she wanted to act. "I was in a school production of The Tinderbox. I was playing a witch - typecast, thanks to this nose!" she chuckles. "I suddenly thought, 'I love this!' I felt I'd come home." Her parents were unimpressed. "Dad wanted me to go to university, because he'd never had the chance. And I think they both felt that acting was a weird sort of job and that actors were a bit dubious - almost a Victorian attitude, really."

After school she took a job in the tax office before becoming distracted by the Merseybeat scene at the Cavern. She hung out with the bands, including The Beatles, and worked in Brian Epstein's record shop. But her acting ambitions hadn't gone away, so when The Beatles relocated to London she took her first job in theatre - as an acting assistant stage manager in weekly rep, which translated as actor, set-builder, wardrobe mistress, props girl and general dogsbody. "Sometimes I used to cry with tiredness. But I was thrilled to be there, and it made up my mind to go to drama school."

She trained at the Webber Douglas Academy in London - "the best two years of my life". There, she fell in love with a fellow student, and they were briefly married. "It was all part of the excitement, which is why it didn't last. Reality shifted both of us in different directions." After graduating, Johnston worked in theatre-in-education. She fell in love with the actor and director David Pammenter, and married again. At 35 she became pregnant with her son, Joel, and Pammenter walked out. The prospect of single-parenthood was "very scary", and she decided she needed a change. "I could barely manage on the pay myself; bringing up a child on it was even worse."

She planned to retrain as a teacher but then, almost miraculously, everything fell into place. She was offered a small part in Coronation Street, which led to the audition for Brookside. She won the role of Sheila Grant when Joel was three. "The timing was extraordinary. If I was a fatalist, I'd say it was meant to be. I was working near my parents, so I had all their support. And it was five days a week - as near to nine-to-five as an acting job gets. It was just blissful."

But there was a less welcome side to her success. "I bought a small house in Warrington. It had a little front garden, and people used to sit on the wall and look in. So weekends were spent crawling around with the curtains drawn. I couldn't bear it. It was a huge shock. To the public I wasn't Sue, I was Sheila. I actually had a bit of an identity crisis. You just have to get used to it because it ain't gonna go away, and you learn that. But I hadn't realised how it would feel to be stared at and followed."

Sheila's storylines were often traumatic, and some viewers empathised to a worrying degree. "Women took Sheila to their hearts and they'd write to her for advice. Especially when she was raped. They would ask, 'How have you coped? I've not been able to deal with it.' It was heartbreaking. And I didn't feel equipped to help. All I could say was, 'I sympathise.' I have been sexually attacked so I did know some of those feelings, but not all."

That Johnston speaks of such a memory is a measure of her warmth and openness. "It was when I was 27, living in London. I was walking from Gunnersbury Tube, it was six o'clock, November - see, I can barely remember it," she says wryly. "This bloke suddenly appeared wanking behind the bridge. I heard him running behind me and I just knew he was going to get me. I fought like a bloody tiger. I got badly beaten up, but I didn't get raped. Even now, I can't bear anyone running up behind me. I still have to stand aside and let them past. And that happened 30 years ago. So it doesn't leave people, and it's a terrible, cruel thing to do to somebody, because it changes their life."

After eight years in Brookside, Johnston left Sheila behind. It was a difficult decision, mainly because of the financial security. "I had a child and I needed to provide for him. I thought, why are you walking away? But it just got so boring. I knew I had to leave, because I was unhappy." As it turns out, since then the work has shown no signs of drying up. And, she says, beaming with maternal pride, Joel, now 24, has turned out pretty well. "He doesn't hate me, and he's not a manic depressive or anything. He's a very stable and rather nice man."

With her West-End debut still before her, Johnston is already looking beyond the end of The Master Builder's London run. She goes straight into shooting a new series of the crime drama Waking the Dead. After that, who knows? What she'd really like to do is "a big blockbuster movie! Or a really good British film - maybe I'm too wrinkly for the American market."

Wrinkles be damned - she's 60 in December and plans to celebrate with a round-the-world trip with her son. "It'll be my birthday present to myself. It'll be fabulous. Unless Joel does something horrid like fall in love, that is!" She strikes the attitude of a possessive, domineering mother, before falling about laughing. Because she's not really worried - whatever happens, she'll cope. It's hard to imagine many situations that Sue Johnston couldn't handle.

'The Master Builder' is at the Albery Theatre, London WC2 (020-7369 1740)