Headshot of Sue Johnston - Credit: Channel 4

Sue Johnston: “Turning 80 seems bizarre. I don’t feel like an old woman”

The actor on how she celebrates growing old and why she thinks we should all have the right to assisted dying.

Inundated with scripts from directors desperate to cast her in lead roles, doyenne of our screens Sue Johnston is struggling to believe she has just turned 80.

Looking at her – beautifully coiffed with highlighted hair and expertly applied crimson lipstick – I can’t believe it either. However, she certainly celebrated her big 8-0 in style last month, spending the evening watching the virtual Abba Voyage concert in London with friends before being joined by her family at her home in Cheshire at the weekend.

“Me turning 80 just seems bizarre,” says Sue, shaking her head, incredulously.

“It’s just a number, but I remember my mum was an old woman at 80. I think attitudes have changed so much. I don’t feel like an old woman.”

Sue has been a household name for decades, thanks to her iconic role as Barbara, the doting mother of the late Caroline Aherne’s character, Denise, in The Royle Family as well as stints in Coronation Street, Downton Abbey and Brookside. In her ninth decade she realises that, while she doesn’t feel elderly, younger people probably see her that way.

However, her overwhelming thought about growing old is that it’s a true privilege, sadly denied to many.

“I remember Caroline (Aherne, who died in 2016 from lung cancer, aged 52) and other friends who I have lost along the way, in their forties and fifties, and think, ‘How dare you moan? They would have given anything to grow old and have wrinkles’.”

“The acting is pretty damn good as well!”

She also really appreciates the company of others who have been around the block a few times, which is one of the reasons why filming her latest role in the series Truelove with a bunch of septuagenarians has been a refreshing experience.

Among her fellow cast members in the six-part Channel 4 drama are the veteran actors Lindsay Duncan, 73, Peter Egan, 77, Clarke Peters, 71, and Karl Johnson, 75.

“It’s very movingly written but then there’s a thriller element to it too,” says Sue of the drama, which features late-life romance and sets out to challenge ageist clichés.

“The humanity is extraordinary and the acting is pretty damn good as well. If younger viewers are put off by the major characters being in their seventies, it’ll be their loss.”

That’s not to say the cast’s advanced years didn’t cause some issues during filming.

“We had fun off-set because none of us could remember names, and it made us all laugh,” Sue recalls. “The conversations would go: ‘Oh, do you remember whatshisname, he was in that, you know, with the other one, thingy?’ Then suddenly someone would remember and shout: “Oh, Robert Carlyle!”’

“It’s their life, it’s their choice”

In the first episode of Truelove, Sue’s character, Marion, is reunited at a funeral with a group of old friends, who begin to discuss what an ‘ideal’ death might look like.

They make a drunken pact that, rather than letting each other suffer a slow and painful decline, they will assist one another’s deaths, should a time come when their suffering becomes too much to bear.

It’s a hot topic and Sue, although happy to report she is in rude health herself, supports the idea of assisted dying being available for terminally ill people who seek it. And she’s not alone, as 80% of the British public are said to be in favour.

The first House of Commons inquiry into assisted dying – which is now legal in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and some US states – was launched last year. It is expected to be published next year.

“I think it’s an option that people should be able to have – it’s their life, their choice,” says Sue.

“I don’t know whether I’d want it myself, but then I’m not in a position where life is intolerable. Of course, people can be ruthless, and they may take advantage of a change in law to get rid of people, so it would all have to be safeguarded. But it would be, there’d be laws.

“I have animals and when they’re in terrible pain, we put them to sleep. It’s heartbreaking but we do it for their sake, because we want to spare them the suffering.”

Indeed, Sue had to make a decision to have her beloved German shepherd Betsy put to sleep two years ago. “She got cancer and deteriorated very quickly. She was just in such agony, so she was put down.

“It’s painful saying goodbye to your pets and we wonder why we put ourselves through that. And then we get another one.”

Which is exactly what Sue did and her replacement German shepherd, Poppy, now two, jumps onto her lap as we speak over Zoom, while her 11-year-old cocker spaniel, Lexie – both are rescue dogs – sits patiently nearby. ‘

“I find a home isn’t a home without animals in it,” she says, smiling and rubbing Poppy’s fur fondly.

“I love being Granny”

Sue has been single since her second marriage, to David Pammenter, the father of her only child, Joel, 44, ended in 1980 and she feels the absence of a partner.

“I would have loved to have a long-term relationship,” she says. “I really envy friends who have because it can get lonely. You tend not to go out for meals and things as much because you’re just there on your own. I’m not sad about it, I just get on with it, but it would have been nice.

“I had a few boyfriends (after my marriage ended) but nobody I would have wanted to set up house with again. I couldn’t bear to have a man in this house. Certainly not in my bed.”

What brings Sue the greatest joy now is her grandchildren. Joel has two sons, aged six and 11. Her goddaughter, Gemma – whose parents were Sue’s best friends and died some years ago – also has two boys, aged nine and 12, to whom she is ‘honorary granny’.

Joel, a fashion photographer, and his family live nearby, and she sees them every weekend, while Gemma lives in Stoke. The two grew up “like siblings”.

“I think grandchildren are the reward you get for getting old,” Sue says, beaming.

“There’s something so special about them. I was always a single parent to Joel and can remember that feeling of responsibility, always thinking, worrying, which you never lose. But the joy is you don’t have that with your grandchildren. Of course, you care and worry, but you don’t have that awful knot of responsibility. You can just be Granny and I love being Granny.”

Sue admits to feeling guilty – though she knows it was due to circumstances outside of her control – that Joel grew up without his dad, a theatre director who walked out when his son was three months old. He didn’t see him for years. She describes Joel, proudly, as ‘a lovely guy, so kind, caring, loving and loyal’.

“Joel is a lovely father, he loves his boys,” she says.

“I find it very moving because his dad was never around and he’s now a father and must sort of feel like he missed out. I feel a little bit of guilt about that, but there’s not much I could do about it. Thankfully, he’s very happily married to a beautiful wife.”

“I’ve no plans to retire”

One of Sue’s favourite quotes is from actor Bette Davis – ‘Old age ain’t for sissies’ – and her friend bought her a tapestry of it when they were both 50, which has hung in her kitchen ever since.

“I only understand it now,” she says. “It’s hard work being old. There’s the decline in hearing and eyesight and physical fragility. And I’m always falling over. Luckily, I’m quite tough so I get up and I’m able to carry on.”

But, she adds, one of the upsides to ageing is the increased inclination to speak your mind. She puts this down to having less patience and “knowing too much”.

Truelove, she explains, has been a long time in the making as Julie Walters was originally cast in the role of retired police chief Phil.

During filming, Julie became unwell with crippling back pain – she was treated for advanced bowel cancer in 2018 – and was unable to continue. The series, filmed in Bristol, was then completely reshot with Lindsay Duncan in the lead role.

“I’d finished my bit of the filming and the plan initially was to wait for Julie, but then she just felt she couldn’t come back,” says Sue.

“She was in a lot of pain and I felt really bad for her, so I’m glad she’s now OK.”

Sue’s character becomes more prominent from episode three when, she says, we realise that “there’s something not quite right with her relationship or with her and the plot takes an extraordinary twist.”

Sue also has other projects in the pipeline, including comedy drama Generation Z, which is set in a care home, and a travel show, Ricky, Sue And A Trip Or Two, alongside her Royle Family co-star, Ricky Tomlinson, both for Channel 4.

“I can turn in a day’s work without a problem,” says Sue, who has no plans to wind down. “The day I can’t learn the lines that will be the day I’ll have to retire, presumably, but at the minute, thank goodness, I can still do that.”

Long – as Sue’s millions of fans will undoubtedly agree – may that continue.

Truelove begins on Channel 4 this month.

Written by Helen Carroll