An all-star cast of acting greats can trace their roots to Lancashire’s theatres, but few can say they owe their careers to time spent in the pensions department of a St Helen’s factory. Sue Johnston took a job at Pilkington Glass because it gave her the chance to join their amateur dramatics group, where she had her first taste of acting.

Born in Warrington, she grew up in Prescot and attended Prescot and Huyton Grammar School for Girls. She dated Norman Kuhlke, the drummer with the Swinging Blue Jeans, and became friends with Paul McCartney. Having worked as a tax inspector and for Beatles producer Brian Epstein in the office above his record shop, she defied her parents’ wishes and enrolled at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

She worked in repertory theatre into her mid-30s and in 1982 she appeared in three episodes of Coronation Street, as Mrs Chadwick, a bookie’s wife. Remarkably, she has rarely been out of work ever since.

Roles followed in some of the biggest and most successful television series including Brookside, Waking the Dead, Downton Abbey and perhaps her most famous part: as Barbara in Caroline Aherne’s sitcom, The Royle Family.

She married her first husband, Neil Johnston, in 1967 but the couple divorced shortly after she suffered a miscarriage. But she kept his surname as her professional name. She has one son, Joel, from her marriage to David Pammenter. The pair wed in 1976 but divorced in 1980. She was given an OBE in the 2009 Queen’s Birthday Honours and celebrated her 80th birthday in December but has lost none of her energy and enthusiasm for the acting industry.

Great British Life: Sue JohnstonSue Johnston (Image: Newsquest)

Tell us about your childhood

I had a lovely childhood; whenever I think of it, I feel happy. I was born in Padgate, Warrington, and though I was an only child I had so many cousins because my granny on my mum's side had 12 children who thrived, while my dad was one of six, so I spent a lot of time with my Warrington-based extended family. My granny was a dressmaker and would dress all her daughters and granddaughters. We didn’t have a telly but we had a radio and a piano, which were our entertainment. I was never bored. I adored reading and still do as you can see from all the books here. I’m going to donate a lot of them to Lyme Hall, I was there filming recently and they showed me the library where people can make a donation and help themselves to a book.

When did you get your first television set?​

I was 10 and it was so we could watch the 1953 Coronation. Some of our neighbours who didn’t have a telly came round to watch it with us. We would draw the curtains and put a side light on so we could watch this little screen. It was a very strong community and everyone on the street were honorary aunties and uncles and looked out for each other. It makes me very sad to see how things have changed in that respect.

What other memories do you have of that time?

So many. I have this wonderful memory of going to the shop and buying sweets for the first time, as we had just come off rationing. It was fantastic. Such a simple act that was so profound. I still have my ration book.

I went to school with the actor Sam Kelly, who back then was called Roger and he was so funny. One time we were in the classroom waiting for the teacher and Sam made me laugh so much I wet myself. The teacher came in and I scurried off to my desk while one of the kids shouted ‘Miss… someone’s weed at my desk’. The teacher stood us all up and turned us around so she could see that I was the culprit. Oh, the shame and humiliation.

Growing up who was your role model?

I think my mum's youngest sister, Aunty Jocelyn, still going strong at 93 and probably propping up the Chester Grosvenor bar as we speak; she’s marvellous. She was the most glamorous of the three sisters and became a model. We had scrapbooks on the Royal Family as they were like celebrities back then, especially the young queen who was so glamorous.

What made you want to be an actor?

Although we were working class and we didn’t have a lot of money, my parents loved the arts and would take me to the theatre and the ballet, which I suppose was quite unusual in those days. My godmother on my father’s side would take me to the Liverpool Everyman Playhouse and then to Lewis’s for a birthday lunch so I was exposed to a lot of theatre. When I had passed my 11+ there was a new girls' grammar school built in Prescot, Prescot Grammar School for Girls, and we were the first pupils to attend. It was very strict and although we didn’t have drama as a subject, Miss Potter, who was my English teacher, put on a play called The Tinderbox and I was cast as the witch. It was during the rehearsal for The Tinderbox I realised I wanted to be an actor. I had done a dive onto the floor and looked up toward the audience and it was at that one moment I knew I had found my place. I was about 12 or 13.

What happened when you left school?

I stayed for a year into the 6th form, left school at 17 and went into the civil service as an income tax officer. I was hopeless but after a month based in St Helens, I was, thankfully, transferred to the Liverpool 5 district on the corner of Matthew Street, so I discovered The Cavern and it changed my life. I loved music and it carried me through those years of not acting. I became good pals with Paul McCartney at that time, and he helped to get me a job in the Clive Epstein furniture and record shop, called Nebs. I was doing PR for them in the office and in the thick of things. But once the Beatles moved to London and my relationship with Norman Kuhlke, the drummer in the Swinging Blue Jeans had broken down, I decided I needed a change. My dad suggested I get a job in the pensions department at Pilkingtons in St Helens, as they had an amateur dramatic group. I did two or three productions with them, which led to me being offered an acting assistant stage manager for another theatre company doing weekly rep; it was hard work but I loved it. This led to me being accepted for drama school, which I was thrilled at but my father was furious. I was 21 and although I had worked from the age of 17 I was living at home, and I think the thought of me moving to London upset him as it was so far away. It was my mum who signed the papers for me to go as my father refused. This enabled me to get a grant to be able to study, which is sadly not available to young actors today.

Did your father warm to you being at drama school?

Well, they took me down to London and sorted out my accommodation, which was sharing a room in an all-girls' hostel. I lasted six weeks in that room before I moved to a mixed flat and life took off.

What was life like in London then?

Well times were changing. Politics started to have an impact on me and my friends at drama school, with us going to demonstrations at Grosvenor Square to protest about the Vietnam War. It was a hundred miles an hour. I made friends with a girl from Birkenhead as we stood out due to our regional accents. When Raphael Jago took over as principal of our drama school he came in one day and asked, ‘anybody here working class?’. Me and two of my friends nervously put our hands up and he said, ‘this is where the fire of the theatre is coming from’. Actors such as Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney were breaking through, along with 1960s kitchen sink dramas. This boosted my confidence for the next 20 year when I did lots of rep and Theatre in Education at the Cockpit Theatre in London. I adored Theatre in Education and eventually was one of the founding members of M6 Theatre Company based in Rochdale

Great British Life: John McArdle as Billy Corkhill and Sue Johnston as Sheila Grant in the Channel 4 soap Brookside. John McArdle as Billy Corkhill and Sue Johnston as Sheila Grant in the Channel 4 soap Brookside. (Image: PA Pictures)

You came to prominence in the early 1980s as Sheila Grant in Brookside. You were in your late thirties with a young son, Joel. What difference did this role make to your lives?

I was still doing theatre when Joel was born but unfortunately, my marriage broke down and as a single parent I needed to look at how to get a better income, as theatre didn’t pay very well. So, I got myself an agent and my first telly was actually three episodes of Coronation Street where all my scenes were in the Rovers. I was so star-struck – these were telly stars. This led to my audition for Sheila Grant. What impressed me was everyone on Brookside was new and Phil Redmond (the creator) got a government grant to train up new people in that profession, which helped pay us all. Phil decided he wanted single camera-only filming, shot entirely on location as he had bought the Close, so it was as if you were peeping into these people's lives.

Do you have a favourite role you’ve played?

Barbara Grade in Goodbye Cruel World is probably some of my best work. I’m very proud of that drama, and playing opposite the lovely Alun Armstrong, who has been my husband in three different projects, and Johnny Lee Miller, who played our son. My character had the wasting disease MND. When the first episode aired I got a call from my dad saying how proud he was and that he thought that it was so good, which was the first time he had said anything like that to me.

Great British Life: BBC One's The Royle Family, clockwise from bottom: Jim (Ricky Tomlinson), Barbara (Sue Johnston), Anthony (Ralph Little), Denise (Caroline Aherne), Dave (Craig Cash) and Nana (Liz Smith). BBC One's The Royle Family, clockwise from bottom: Jim (Ricky Tomlinson), Barbara (Sue Johnston), Anthony (Ralph Little), Denise (Caroline Aherne), Dave (Craig Cash) and Nana (Liz Smith). (Image: Matt Squires/BBC/PA Wire)

Is there a character you would love to revisit?

Barbara Royle, but sadly it wouldn’t be possible now. Caroline Aherne was an absolute genius and knew exactly what she wanted. She had cast everyone right from the beginning of the project; she went up to Ricky Tomlinson at the Comedy Awards one year and said, 'You’re going to play my dad and Sue Johnston is going to play my mum.' We didn’t have a clue what she was talking about but Caroline had it all planned out. She was determined she didn’t want it filmed in front of a studio audience, which was unheard of then, and that it would all be filmed with a single camera so as a viewer you felt as if you were there. It was a struggle for her to get her way with the studio execs but she did. I adored being a part of such a wonderful team.

Is there anybody that you would love to work with?

Hugh Jackman! These lips have kissed his cheek. I was working with Patrick Stewart in Ghosts on the West End and we flew to New York and saw Hugh on Broadway in a Boy From Oz and he invited us backstage. He’s divine.

Who have been your favourite co-stars?

I’ve been very lucky to work with some wonderful actors like Albert Finney and Maggie Smith. Jodie Comer is fantastic too, I worked with her and the wonderful Stephen Graham in Help, a drama set in a care home during Covid. Jodie has that amazing ability to be anybody, she’s phenomenal.

Great British Life: Sue was appointed OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in 2009 for services to drama and to charity. Sue was appointed OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in 2009 for services to drama and to charity. (Image: Ian Nicholson/PA Wire)

You turned 80 in December, how do you look after yourself physically and mentally?

I do have a natural energy. I used to be really into fitness. When I was doing Brookside, I would run a Jane Fonda class in the Grants' house at lunchtime for anyone who wanted it. I bought a Fitbit but I got bored with it. I think it’s down to healthy food and minimising sugar, and I take some supplements.

You seem to be as busy as ever, with Channel 4’s Truelove and reuniting with Ricky Tomlinson for Ricky, Sue & a Trip or Two

I love my job. It was such a privilege to be a part of the Truelove story and cast, tackling a sensitive subject matter like assisted dying. In contrast, you have me and Ricky in Ricky, Sue & a Trip or Two, for More4, pootling around the country visiting different places. The first one is the Liverpool area and we visit Prescot, which is where I went to school, and we even visit my old house, which is very emotional. My friend, the actor David Thacker, discovered William Shakespeare used to stay at Knowsley Hall and performed plays in the area so they’ve now built a replica of the Globe theatre in Prescot. It’s been a wonderful show to film.

Great British Life: Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston reunited for for the upcoming More4 series Ricky, Sue & a Trip or Two. Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston reunited for for the upcoming More4 series Ricky, Sue & a Trip or Two. (Image: Nine Live Media/LA Productions)

What other projects have you got coming up?

Lots. There's a Channel 4 horror series but I can’t talk about it at the moment, however it was such great fun to do. Let’s just say I was 4.5 hours in makeup; I think people will love it. Also, I’ve done an episode of The Responder, with Martin Freeman for the BBC and there are another couple of projects I will be involved in.

What would be your dream role?

I would love to do a TV series or film filmed locally so I didn’t have to travel as much. Over the years I have spent so much time away from home and I still feel guilt from the many times I was away from Joel as he grew up. Acting can be a very selfish profession.. but I adore it.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

‘You’re ok’. I’ve had some lovely boyfriends but I’ve also been hurt by philandering men and they have the knack of making you feel worthless. When I played Sheila Grant I thought I looked ugly but now when I’ve watched repeats I think, ‘actually I looked ok’. What people remember about you is your heart.