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

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

    Law Costs

    Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

    Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

    £28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

    C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

    Day In a Page

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution