Janet Dibley on her dream role in the musical celebrating ‘Jackie’ and life in rural Sussex

Janet Dibley with Nicholas Bailey and Graham Bickley in Jackie the Musical (Photo by Eric Richmond)

Janet Dibley with Nicholas Bailey and Graham Bickley in Jackie the Musical (Photo by Eric Richmond) - Credit: Archant

East Sussex-based actress Janet Dibley says the much-loved magazine Jackie was a must-read for women of her generation. Now she has landed a dream role in the musical celebrating the teen journal.

“I thought my teenage diaries would be useful,” says Janet Dibley, who recently took to the stage of Brighton’s Theatre Royal as the lead in Jackie, the much-anticipated musical version of the teen magazine. “They are so boring! It’s all about what I eat, what homework I haven’t done, I moan all the time… they’re really uninspiring.” In the musical, Janet played Jackie as a newly divorced 50-something, with a teenage son and an impending house move. It is while packing up her home that she finds her back issues of Jackie. Through them, she rediscovers her teenage self and collaborates with her to solve all their problems with the help of the magazine: “It’s the journey of a woman coming through to another side of her life,” says Janet, who experienced a life change of her own three years ago when she and her family moved from Eastbourne to countryside near Alfriston.

If her own journals proved uninteresting, they did have a rival for the attentions of teenage Janet. “Jackie was like your diary. It talked about boys and what to do – because you didn’t know! It was a kind of big sister, a confidant – a private thing. My mum would always buy them at jumble sales, so we would get a load in one go for summer holidays.” Janet and her sister, also called Jackie, would fight over the annuals and their brother read them too.

Throughout the action of the musical, as the older Jackie tries to explain to her younger self the intricacies of online dating, spin the silver sounds of the Seventies. The first thing I did when I read the script,” says Janet, “was get onto iTunes and play every song. My husband was on the other side of the room while I was doing all this and he just heard me laughing – ‘Oh, yes! Ooh!’”

Janet has enjoyed a long and successful career on screen, becoming a household name in the 1980s television series The Two of Us, with Nicholas Lyndhurst. Her numerous credits include Fat Friends and Doctors (for the latter of which she also wrote). But she has always loved the stage too, and was keen to get back to her roots by doing a musical. “I went to some auditions that were like car crashes, and I thought I’d better get a teacher again. My first lesson I just burst into tears, I couldn’t get through the song. When I met them for Jackie I thought, I can’t burst into tears, how do I do this?” Do it she clearly did – and she says she’s fitter now than she was in her twenties, which should help when tackling Arlene Phillips’ choreography – but she says “I was conscious of the responsibility of it. They are tough, musicals. But it has a heart, and there’s something about the nostalgia of tapping into your own era of music that is so seductive.

“This means something to me that lots of other work hasn’t.”

While this production was in Brighton, Janet commuted from her rural home, which she’s still adjusting to after three years. “This is the first time I’ve ever been rural, or as rural as it can be in south east England (we’re not far from the A27). It teaches you something different, the country, and it’s unforgiving. There’s a whole area of life that you tap into that I had never known. It’s so levelling – it really does root you, literally, to the area. It’s terribly historic too: there are long barrows, field systems… you learn about where you live, and the history of it. It’s all a sign of getting older, isn’t it? My husband goes on digs! He’s a member of the local archaeological society and he loves it, so we’re well entrenched.”

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Janet’s husband is a former actor, Tyler Butterworth (they got together during the run of an Alan Ayckbourn play), who is now a businessman – they have dreamed of writing and performing together when they retire. One son is still at school and living at home, while the other is a folk musician in London.

Janet says she will continue to move between stage and screen – “I do it all if it’s right and it’s offered”, but one of her remaining ambitions is to revisit Shakespeare: “That’s the other thing that makes me cry apart from singing! I have been there, rather badly I think, although I would be my own worst critic.”

Now though, she’s looking forward to welcoming audiences to the sequinned world of the Seventies, where a number of friends have promised to join the audience. Clearly there’s a lot of goodwill out there: “I went to buy a Jackie comic – in an antique shop! And the lady said oh yes, there’s going to be a musical of it, isn’t there?”

My favourite Sussex...

• Shop - Flint Owl in Lewes. We go for our bread every Saturday but you can’t walk out of there with just bread…

• View - Looking out over the Cuckmere Valley. When we first lived in Eastbourne we used to have our anniversary on the hills we can see from our house now.

• Restaurant - The Wingrove in Alfriston – but there are so many. You do miss your own places when you’re touring.

• Pub - The Sussex Ox is a home from home. It’s just been taken over by a young guy who’s worked really, really hard.


Sussex celebrities and personalities share what they love most about the county - Some of Sussex’s best known personalities have revealed in the magazine what they most love about the county. Here, we compile their stories, favourite restaurants, pubs, shops, views and places to visit