Interview: Sue Johnston: Fame and misfortune

On screen, Sue Johnston has been through the mangle more often than a set of sheets at an old-style B&B. Many of her characters could answer to the name of "Traumatised". She was rape victim-cum-bereaved mother-cum-homeless divorcee-cum-post-natal depression sufferer Sheila Grant in Brookside, the impoverished wife of a sacked miner in Brassed Off, and a woman who is struck down by Motor Neurone Disease in Goodbye Cruel World. Her roles have been grimmer than the prospect of David Beckham getting politely applauded at away fixtures this season.

And yet, playing these wretched unfortunates has never got the actress down. In fact, quite the opposite. "It never depresses me," she says. "It's actually exhilarating. I've always found these parts therapeutic. You go in, have a good cry, and then go home again feeling fine. It's better than therapy. Perhaps that's why I've never needed therapy, because I've been cast in all these parts where I've had to let it all out."

And the more she lets out, the more audiences appear to lap it up. They know an authentic portrayal when they see one. "People seem to relate to this class of middle-aged mother. One of the greatest joys I had was the response from people with Motor Neurone Disease when I did Goodbye Cruel World. It was the same when I played a rape victim in Brookside. It's great if people are able to identify with this woman who is not particularly glamorous, who goes to Tesco's and who leads a life that is no different from theirs. You hope you can somehow touch their lives by showing them something like Motor Neurone Disease in as real a way as possible. I like to be down-to-earth about things. I'd hate to be a glamoriser." She's very far from that. Her enviable reputation for gritty realism stems from her seven years suffering in Sheila Grant's immortal, white-spotted pink jumper. With the endless misery she had to endure in C4's soap, she became a virtual icon. "I heard about someone recently saying that the She in Sheila stood for `all women'," Johnston smiles. "Sheila struck a chord with an awful lot of people who saw her as a strong, fighting mother having to cope with suffering. She was a gay icon, too. Like Pat Phoenix in Coronation Street, she had that `I Will Survive' side."

Unlike many soap actors, Johnston had the good sense to quit while she was ahead. "I started getting bored on Brookside," she admits. "I felt they didn't know what to do with the character. Once her affair had settled down, it was like, `Where do we go from here?' She became a religious nutter, Saint Sheila, and I couldn't see where it would go. When John [McArdle] left, I thought, `Sheila can't lose another guy and go through another trail of tears'."

So in 1990, Johnston bravely left Brookside Close, aware that snobbery was prevalent about actors seen to be still dripping soapsuds. "There was this thing of typecasting. I was amazed at some of the people who came out of EastEnders and didn't do so well. Nick Berry has been astonishingly successful, but why hasn't Anita Dobson, who is a thunderingly good actress? Did casting agents feel they couldn't risk putting her in things because she was too strongly identified with Angie? But it is possible to do things after soaps."

Johnston proved as much, almost immediately, when she starred with McArdle in the well-regarded stage-play, To, by Jim Cartwright. "At Edinburgh, we were petrified on the press night. We imagined the critics sitting there thinking, `OK, you're soap actors. Let's see what you can do'."

She needn't have worried. The producer of Goodbye Cruel World was in the audience for To, and at once snapped her up for Tony Marchant's award- winning BBC2 drama. "Tony and Jimmy McGovern are the most extraordinary young writers.They'll thank me for calling them `young' - creep, creep... Goodbye Cruel World was tenderly written, without being over-sentimental. It was harsh, not pretty, and didn't spare your emotions. You felt as though you were doing something which meant something. It wasn't frivolous."

For all the heaviness of her roles, the Warrington-based actress is light- hearted in person. As we sit by the set of her latest play, Sugar, Sugar, at the Bush Theatre, she points to a full aquarium at the back of the stage. "The fish are wonderful," she deadpans, "they never forget their lines." Later she asserts that "the size of a part has never really interested me - I'm talking about plays, not men."

We will soon be engulfed by what amounts to a Sue Johnston festival. She is continuing in Sugar, Sugar, Simon Bent's black comedy set in the Seatos guesthouse in Scarborough. "It's an intriguing slice of the life I know only too well. It's about the danger of repressed emotions, and the way people talk at each other without listening. It's a cross between Joe Orton and Harold Pinter."

Much as she is enjoying it, the 54-year-old Johnston is finding the demands of theatre tough. "I have to discipline myself, which is why I get so mad with Gazza. He gets paid a fortune and still can't focus. And here we are at the Bush, focusing ourselves like crazy for pounds 200 a week."

In addition, Johnston is co-starring with Richard Wilson in ITV's new sitcom, Duck Patrol. "It's very Sunday night," she explains. "It won't be up everyone's street, but it will be popular in that slot. When we were young, there used to be interludes on television. One was a potter's wheel, and the other was a boat going down the Thames. This is like that - only more interesting than an interlude."

She is also playing a hard-nut prosecuting counsellor in Verdict, ITV's new prime-time reworking of Crown Court. "People have a fascination for courtroom drama. Whenever the soaps go to court, people love it. And look at the reaction to the trials of Louise Woodward and O J Simpson. It's like peeping behind the curtains of people's lives. We love feeling smug and safe while other people go through the most awful things."

Later on in the autumn she will also be seen in The Jump, a fast-moving ITV thriller, and The Royle Family, a new sitcom for BBC2, in which she and Ricky Tomlinson (her first screen husband from Brookside) play Caroline Aherne's parents.

With all this exposure, the actress is worried about Johnston Jaded Syndrome among viewers. "You'll get bored of me," she sighs, before adding, with a laugh: "But I'm very different in every single thing - only my nose is the same."

`Sugar Sugar' is at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush Green, W12 (0181- 743 3388) to 15 Aug

`Duck Patrol' is on Sundays at 8pm on ITV

`Verdict' begins on Friday at 8pm on ITV

Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

    Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

    £40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

    Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

    £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

    £30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum