Sue Johnston: 'I watch Royle Family's The Queen of Sheba with a lot of pride'
Johnston talks about Truelove and looking back fondly on The Royle Family.
This interview first appeared in Radio Times magazine.
Sue Johnston is on cracking form. There are three Christmas trees twinkling away in her house, she’s in a brand new thriller on TV and she’s just celebrated a milestone birthday.
It’s a big one. The sort of birthday that would make some people consider themselves properly old. Not Johnston. She’s continuing a 40-year run of work that began in the summer of 1982 with a minor part in Coronation Street.
Since then, her career has encompassed a huge number of roles, including stints on TV staples such as Downton Abbey, Jam and Jerusalem, Brookside and playing matriarch Barbara Royle in BBC comedy smash The Royle Family.
She’s rarely been off our screens, and that’s before we include things like Celebrity Gogglebox. So, she doesn’t seem like someone who’s about to hang up her coat.
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"I am very lucky," she smiles. "I think it’s because I still work. It’s a great discipline. I’m determined not to start shuffling about. I don’t take easily to growing old, but I have lost several friends, through cancer and suicide. I think they would give anything to grow old. To see their grandchildren and have wrinkles. I feel privileged that I’m still here. Life is good."
Truelove, her six-part thriller on Channel 4, radically reframes the familiar notion of old age. Johnston plays Marion, one of a group of old college friends, all played by actors who are in their 70s.
These "oldies" laugh, dance, get drunk, flirt and generally love life – until health and intrigue catch up with them. Johnston is joined in the cast by Lindsay Duncan, Clarke Peters, Peter Egan and Karl Johnson, and none of the characters they play are in any sense an "old person".
"I loved the whole script," says Johnston. "The story is so different. I loved the twists and turns. It’s an adventure. And so beautifully written [by Iain Weatherby] that when I got the script, I felt like saying, 'Yippee!' There’s a lot demanded of me in the role. And that’s what I like. It’s great to be demanded a lot of. You don’t always get that, not at my age."
She agrees that creating characters who aren’t grey walk-ons is very unusual in contemporary TV drama. This cast drive too fast, drink too much and take way too many risks. "Look around!" Duncan’s character Phil says plaintively at one point. "We’re invisible. Nobody suspects pensioners."
Johnston agrees, with a certain amount of frustration. "Yes, it feels different to be cast in a drama like this. But, you know, this is normal life! We live lives like young people do, and always have done."
She shakes her head. "Old people on screen are often pigeonholed into characters who are always on their own, either lying in bed dying, or struggling up the road bent over a walking stick. Life isn’t like that! Traditional productions say that when you’re in your 70s, you don’t have thoughts and feelings or relationships, but you do.
"To get a script where your character isn’t a granny sitting in the corner all cranky, or someone lying in bed, is very good. And also not to be the only old person on set."
Having said that, Truelove is about the end of life, how to do it and when. It takes a clear-eyed look at euthanasia, mercy killing and consent, and then twists it on its head in a properly gripping plot.
Has Johnston had these thoughts about herself? "I think people should have a right to end their own lives. I know there is a delicate line here, so the temptation to bump someone off is removed. But I have had beloved dogs and cats put down if they are suffering.
"You think of yourself in that condition – everyone sitting round the bed while you’re lying there, zoned out on morphine – and you think, 'I hope I don’t go like that.' Although, I don’t think I would have the courage to go to Switzerland. And it would be so awful for my son to take me there and come back on his own. I don’t think I could do that to him."
Johnston was also on our screens this Christmas in a one-off BBC Two special, a tribute to the comedy actor and writer Caroline Aherne, creator of The Royle Family, who died of cancer in 2016, aged 52.
Johnston admits she has only recently been able to watch the sitcom again. "It was very hard, because there are so many people in it who are no longer with us, but The Queen of Sheba [the landmark 2006 episode] is my favourite, and I watch it with a lot of pride.
"The first series was rerun the other day, and do you know, little kids now ask for selfies with me because they love it as much as the older generations did.
"I think how proud Caroline would have been to know it’s still loved. It was one of the happiest jobs I have ever done. And yes, I miss her. All the time. She’s another one who would have loved to have got old and grown wrinkles… Although maybe she would have had Botox!"
Johnston and her oft on-screen husband Ricky Tomlinson (they played a married couple in both The Royle Family and Brookside) have recently been reunited on the sofa watching TV in Celebrity Gogglebox. "With Ricky, it’s so easy. All I need to do is ask a question, and off he goes. He tells the right story and makes me laugh. But it’s not like we are Barbara and Jim.
"I’ve also just done a programme with Ricky in which we explore our DNA, and that was so interesting. I discovered that I’m 30 per cent Scottish, 50 per cent English and 20 per cent Norse. But I didn’t find out where I got my nose from, which is big and round and horrible."
I tell her (truthfully) that I’ve never noticed her nose. "Well, you will now," she sighs. "I also didn’t find out where I got my desire for acting from. All I know is that it started when I was in the school play. We were doing the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Tinderbox and I was the Witch. You know, because of my big nose. I was lying on stage and I just thought, 'I love this.' That’s when I knew."
So, life for the now 80-year-old Johnston is indeed good, as she explained just before the festive period. "My friends will come over to me on Christmas Eve, I will cook roast goose, as I always do, and they will stay over, as they always do, and then we’ll all go off to our respective families.
"My son is a great cook, and he has two little boys, so I’ll be with him and his wife on Christmas Day. Then everyone will come back to me on Boxing Day. I like to feed and water my friends and family.
"New year? Well I used to love New Year’s Eve – everyone would snog everyone else at midnight. I don’t do so much of that now, so I’ll just toast it in quietly with some friends." I bet it was fun, though. Sue Johnston is a force of nature, and totally unlikely to be "sitting all cranky in a corner" any time soon.