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Warrington-born Brookside & Royle Family actress Sue Johnston talks about her new autobiography (GALLERY & VIDEO)

 

IT WAS during long hours spent at her dying mother’s bedside that Sue Johnston began to reflect on her life and the idea of finally writing an autobiography started to germinate.

“I used to think and brood and think back,” says the actress. “And I thought then, if I ever write a book this would be the starting point and it would be called Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother.”

So how does she think her mum Margaret would have reacted to the book, published yesterday under the title she first came up with in that room at a Stockton Heath residential home?

“Oh she’d say I was making a show of both of us I think!” Sue laughs. “She’d be horrified.”

The actress’s mother had a mortal fear of drawing attention to herself, she says, so her daughter becoming a household name and appearing in the papers must have given her mixed feelings.

But it appears while she never revealed it to Sue, she was secretly proud as punch of her only child.

Sue explains: “It was a wonderful thing that I didn’t know, but when my mother died and I cleared the house, I found these scrap books that she’d kept of my career, that I never knew she’d done.

“She never told me.”

One of the earliest pieces came from the ECHO.

“Among them was this photograph of me with big bouffant hair which was taken for an article in the ECHO when I got to go to drama school.”

Rather like her mum, Sue admits that she finds talking about herself – as she’s set to do at a literary afternoon tea at Southport’s Royal Clifton Hotel on Monday to raise funds for Claire House Children’s Hospice – all rather embarrassing.

But when last year she finally agreed to requests to pen her autobiography, she says she decided she had to be frank and open about all aspects of her life.

“I think you go, ooo, I don’t want anyone to think that I’ve ever done anything that’s awful, but then it would be dishonest,” says the 67-year-old.

So the book reveals the Royle Family star’s miscarriage, and her battles with depression and eating disorders, including bulimia, that dogged her life from a young aspiring actress and into middle age.

She also recounts the terrifying and vicious assault she was subjected to on her way home one evening in London back in 1970.

It is, she says, the first time she’s revealed many of the deeply personal issues.

“I did talk about it after I did the rape of Sheila Grant in Brookside,” she says. “So that wasn’t a problem for me, even though it has left me deeply scarred. Which I think was probably an effect which I didn’t know about on eating and all that self-esteem.

“But then I never had the benefit of today’s enlightenment and when I had my eating disorder there wasn’t even a name for it.

“So things have changed, but I felt very much that those things were part of me that had informed me. I felt my relationships (Sue has been married twice and is currently single) weren’t, they’re part of other people’s lives as well so I haven’t dwelt on those because they affect other people.

“But I’ve talked about me really, and I suppose in the hope that I might help other people – I don’t mean that in a grand way, like holding a flag of righteousness.

“I just feel that these things can be overcome. I think it might help them to know it can be, because it’s so long ago it doesn’t really matter any more.”

Sue was born Susan Wright on December 7, 1943 in her Auntie Millie’s house in Warrington and grew up in the town with mum Margaret and dad Fred.

She says things her mother used to say to her keep flooding back even now with the autobiography on book shop shelves.

She says: “One I thought of this morning was ‘You’ve never looked decent since I’ve stopped dressing you’, which was a mantra I heard across the years, which she firmly believed in.

“I think it was that sort of a key to lack of control she felt that she’d lost over me and in her eyes it was about clothes but I think it was all encompassing really.”

One thing her mum disapproved of was the company her teenage daughter kept from regular visits to the Cavern Club, first in lunchtimes from work in Liverpool city centre and then later at night – especially a certain James Paul McCartney.

Sue recalls how her mother was appalled when she first saw the leather-clad Beatles on regional TV show Scene at 6.30, and when McCartney would occasionally give her a lift home her mum would ask, disgusted: “Has that dirty Beatle been in my house?”

At the time Sue was actually going out with Norman Kuhlke, the drummer from the Swinging Blue Jeans, who her mum did approve of, making him apple pies to take on tour.

Sue herself had started working for Brian Epstein at NEMS after being offered a job as the personal assistant to the personal assistant of Epstein’s right hand man Peter Brown.

It was while she was at NEMS that she had a record from America land on her desk – it was Chan Romero’s original Hippy Hippy Shake, the song that, thanks to an excited Sue playing it to her boyfriend, gave the Swinging Blue Jeans a top five hit.

Sue eventually left the Epstein business after winning a place at Webber Douglas drama school in London, and went on to work in theatre in education, touring companies and in rep before she got her big break in television at the age of 39 and courtesy of Phil Redmond.

It was, of course, Brookside.

Sue recounts tales from the set where cast members bonded like real families and would play pranks on each other and the crew during filming, with Mickey Starke and Ricky Tomlinson among the worst of the cheeky offenders.

The actress was reunited with her screen husband Ricky in the Royle Family, and since the early days in the ‘Close’ has forged a high-profile TV and film career, all of which she recalls in the book.

“I have a very good memory of things that really affected me,” she says of the detail she’s included.

“Other things, as you talk about them come back, and I’ve not kept a diary but I’ve kept my diaries and there’s a difference in that. I’d look at ‘fell out with my husband’ or ‘had a row’ and so you can refer to your diary to see where you were and what you were doing and what was happening.

“I didn’t ever write in my diaries an expression of how I was feeling, but it was just good for reference really I suppose.”

One thing that has remained important throughout the mum-of-one’s life is her love of Liverpool Football Club.

“They’re my passion!” she exclaims. “There’s nothing better for me than being in that crowd with Liverpool supporters, I just love it, I feel totally at home.”

The crowd also rallied round her once when rival supporters started to abuse her, with Reds chanting “there’s only one Sue Johnston” in retaliation.

She laughs: “That was the best. That’s how sad I am, but you know, to hear your name chanted by the Liverpool supporters is the best thing in the world really, for me as a Red.

“The great thing about being a season ticket holder is that it brings me back, and my son Joel is in Manchester and my god-daughter, who I write about in the book, has just had her baby and they are in the north so I come up and it’s great.

“I stay with my son and hop along the M62 and get my adrenalin fix.”

Sue will be hitting the motorways and A-roads this month to promote her book. In the meantime, she’s also been filming a new school-set series for Sky called The Gates in which she plays a deputy headteacher.

Then there’s a new drama for the BBC, and a now traditional Christmas special of The Royle Family.

“It’s non-stop thank God,” she agrees. “It’s good sometimes and then there’s times when I think maybe I should be taking it easier.

“But when I feel fit and healthy I don’t want to take it easy because old age can creep up on you and take you by surprise.

“The good thing about it is I can come out and meet my audience, and you don’t get chance to do that very often in telly. I genuinely love meeting people and interacting with people.

“And I’ll especially love it in Liverpool of course, it will be like coming home.”

Sue Johnston will be signing copies of her autobiography at Waterstone’s in Bold Street tomorrow at 1pm.

She will also be at a literary afternoon tea at Southport’s Royal Clifton Hotel on Monday. Tickets are £25 including tea and a copy of her autobiography, and proceeds go to Claire House Children’s Hospice.

Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother is published by Ebury Press priced £18.99.




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