Friday 24 November 2017

Life off camera

Sue Johnston
Sue Johnston
Sue Johnston with her mum.
Sue Johnston with her mother
With Royle Family costar Ricky Tomlinson

Hannah Stephenson

Royle Family star Sue Johnston has battled with her body, braved bulimia and bickered with family.

For years, actress Sue Johnston has had issues about her appearance.

The former Waking The Dead and Brookside star dislikes the shape of her nose, the lines on her face and neck, and the wrinkly, sagging batwing arms she says will prevent her from ever wearing sleeveless tops again.

Yet meeting her today, she looks at least a decade younger than her 67 years in skinny jeans and trendy motif-emblazoned T-shirt, which shows her enviable figure off admirably.

It's evident the actress who has played Ricky Tomlinson's wife twice - first as Sheila Grant in Brookside and again as Barbara in The Royle Family - has a real sense of fun, judging by the many laughs she's had during her career and charted in her memoir Things I Couldn't Tell My Mother.

She will soon be reunited with her Royle Family pals Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash to film a Christmas special, will be starring as a deputy head in new Sky series Gates, due out next year, and is enjoying spending time with her five-week old grandson, Archer. Life, it would seem, is good.

Yet for years Johnston had other worries - about her appearance, her weight, two failed marriages and living up to her mother's high expectations.

She grew up in a working-class family outside Liverpool and her mother Margaret was a woman who spoke her mind whatever the consequences - but kept her warmer, loving emotions under wraps.

Her only daughter was often the victim of her cruel tongue and Johnston admits she spent years seeking her mother's approval.

"I think she was cruel about the friends I chose, how I looked, the way I dressed. I can laugh about it now, but I used to come away steaming with stress.

"She'd really put the knife in. I remember when she said, 'What happened to your lips? You used to have lovely lips but they're so thin now'. I said, 'That's what happens when you get older' and she said, 'Well, mine didn't go thin'. She thought that because she was my mother, she had the right to criticise.

"Another of her great favourites was, 'You haven't looked decent since I stopped dressing you' and she meant it. She was always worried what other people thought and always looked immaculate."

Born in Warrington during the Second World War, Johnston was surrounded by cousins and an extended family. She had a happy childhood and while she dearly loved her mother, who died four years ago, aged 92, after suffering from dementia, it was often a fraught relationship.

"She was almost cruel in her dismissiveness. But in the last four years of her life, she became vulnerable and therefore needed me. She wasn't as cruel, but I also felt that she'd given up the battle."

When Johnston left Liverpool at 21 to pursue a career in acting, joining the Webber Douglas Drama School in London, her mother found it hard to let go.

"She lost control and that's when she didn't know how to be with me."

Johnston married her first husband when she was 24 but they were too young, she says, and the marriage didn't last long. Still, the stigma of divorce hit her hard.

"At 11 I was reading Pride And Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, featuring these glowering, passionate men that I've been in search of ever since. The Brontes and Jane Austen have a lot to answer for. For years, I thought you were defined by having a ring on your finger."

The distress of the split caused her to stop eating, which led to complicated issues with food.

"I got this drive to be thinner and started dieting. I began to comfort eat and can't tell you the day it went from enjoying food to an obsession where I'd wake up in the morning thinking, 'What can I eat and how can I stave it off?'

"I'd start craving pies and cakes and things I didn't normally eat. Then I'd cheat whatever diet I was on and gorge on everything."

She eventually went to the doctor, who put her on antidepressants.

"Depression is a malevolent black presence, always stalking you. Something you have to be forever on your guard against. It was like something was constantly on my shoulders, weighing me down."

It returned years later, when she was working on Brookside after her second marriage to theatre director David Pammenter had collapsed and she was struggling as a single mum.

While she doesn't elaborate in the book, today she reveals that Pammenter cheated on her and walked out when their son Joel was a baby, which must have shattered any self-confidence she had built up.

Food was the one thing she felt in control of in her life and she started to make herself sick, a habit that descended into full-blown bulimia and lasted for 10 years.

"The bulimia escalated on Brookside. When you're on television, it puts 10lbs on you, and it was the shock of coming to terms with being looked at [in the street because she was suddenly famous] and not having the maturity to deal with it."

None of the other cast members knew she was gorging and then making herself sick and it wasn't until a friend admitted she had bulimia that Johnston revealed she did too.

"I was revolted by myself and ashamed," she reflects. "We both decided to get help and went to the doctor. I was put on antidepressants again."

The bulimia has never returned, but she admits: "I will always regard food warily."

The depression, however, still comes and goes.

"I've had a couple of really bad periods. Something pushes the trigger, like if I'm overworked and down. Now I know the warning signs, though. I stop talking to people and go into myself."

Today, she lives in north London with one of her best friends, who rents the top of the house.

"It's like having a wife," says Johnston. "She loves cleaning, hates cooking and I love cooking, hate cleaning. It's perfect. We can both disappear to our own spaces."

Johnston says she's happy to remain single.

"We're all in search of a Mr Darcy and that's what my last husband was. He was intense, exciting, handsome and just blew me away, but he wasn't a good husband. I love him more now that we're friends again."

Getting older has also been a difficult hurdle, but Johnston has come to terms with it.

"Ageing is hard for women but I've gone into a stage of rather liking it, because I feel at ease. I say what I think and don't suffer fools gladly - maybe I'm turning into my mother!"

:: Things I Couldn't Tell My Mother by Sue Johnston is published by Ebury.

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