SUE JOHNSTON is combining grandparenthood and career moves, by joining Coronation Street as Stella’s acid-tongued mother, Gloria. The Royle Family star tells Rachael Popow about her exciting return to the soap
For most people, becoming a grandparent is a sign to start slowing down. For Sue Johnston, though, it marked a new career move – joining the cast of Coronation Street. “My son has just had his baby, and they live in Manchester,” explains the Royle Family star.
“Coronation Street producer Phil Collinson had rung my agent to see if I’d be interested in coming in to play Stella’s mother. I thought, ‘That seems meant to be – a job in Manchester and my baby grandson up there’.”
Convinced, Warrington-born Sue, who shot to fame as Sheila Grant on Brookside, put her London home on the market. “I feel a bit wobbly about leaving London, because I love London, but I’m nearly 69 now and prioritising what’s important is a big thing,” she adds. And for Johnston, that means work and family.
“Work is important because I love it and I suppose it defines who I am,” she says. “Also my family is very important, so it’s keeping the balance between them. I want to keep my family close now at this time in my life.”
Luckily, while Johnston’s clearly besotted with her new grandson, Rory, she’s excited about the role in Corrie too. She’s playing Gloria, who arrives at the Rovers on 5 September, telling daughter Stella that she’s fallen into a spot of bother in Spain and needs to lie low for a while.
That’s not going to stop her making her presence felt though, as she immediately sets about interfering in Stella’s life and winding up the locals.
“Gloria’s a funny one really,” says Johnston. “She’s sort of an ageing hippy and likes to say it as it is, which for me means she’s totally insensitive to other people, particularly her daughter. She’s very different from a lot of the characters I’ve played because she’s not a very nice mother, either. She doesn’t exactly build Stella’s self esteem, she’s very critical and she’s got a quite an acid tongue. Coronation Street’s writers write brilliantly for characters like that; she has some cracking one-liners.”
While this may be viewers’ first look at Gloria, it isn’t Johnston’s first time on the cobbles – she previously appeared in the soap back in 1982. “I was Mrs Chadwick, the bookie’s wife,” she recalls. “I remember it so clearly because it was my first telly job.”
For a TV newcomer, rubbing shoulders with Corrie icons like Pat Phoenix and Doris Speed was a daunting experience. “I was very nervous of all of them because if you sat in the wrong seat you were in deep doo-doo in the green room!” Johnston reveals, smiling.
“There was a big green room and another room off it where they played bridge at lunch times. The guy who played Alf Roberts put his head in and said, ‘Does anyone play bridge?’ and I put my hand up.
“He said, ‘Would you make up a four?’ and I went ‘No’. I didn’t dare speak to them, let alone play cards with them!” It was during this stint that Johnston won the part that would turn her into a soap legend in her own right – as Brookside’s Sheila.
When she went off for the audition, about six weeks in to her Corrie job, she “didn’t really know what Brookside was”.
That quickly changed though, and the Channel 4 series turned her into one of Britain’s most popular TV stars. “It was very odd because suddenly people weren’t calling you by your real name, and that was very difficult,” she says. “I’d been an actress for 20 years, playing different roles, and then suddenly people start calling you Sheila. They’d follow you home. Then of course, you get used to it because that’s the power of television.”
Despite all this, she confesses to still being starstruck on the Corrie set, especially when she first returned. “I was a bit giddy when I saw them all,” Johnston says. “It’s a very strange feeling because you have to divorce what you see on telly and get to know the real actors. “I called Craig Charles by his character’s name – Lloyd! I apologised, but he said he’d been called worse.”
And even though she’s been watching the soap since it began in 1960, she’s not sure she’ll tune in to see her own episodes. “I’m just a bit scared of this one – I can’t imagine me in Coronation Street. It belongs to history.”
At least she’s having a great time so far, and enjoying working with the cast. “Every time I go on a different set, I meet another group of actors and I think somebody is going to be horrible, but they’re not, they’re so lovely and welcoming,” Johnston says.
She’s particularly pleased to be working so closely with Michelle Collins, who plays her on-screen daughter Stella. “I’d never worked with her before but I’d met her at a lot of functions and things, and she’s lovely,” says Johnston. “It always helps if you know someone and you like them, you can relax with them.”
It sounds like Johnston is right at home in the Rovers, but while she is signed up to Corrie for the foreseeable future, she’ll also be taking the occasional break to fulfil prior commitments.
These include a new BBC drama series based on last year’s one-off Lapland, and another instalment of The Royle Family. For Johnston, the freedom to do this was another sign that Corrie was definitely the right move.
“That made it feel like I can have my cake and eat it,” she says. “It’s a lovely job being here, it’s fab.
“And it’s like a new beginning – here we go again – another part of my life.”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east