Obituary: Sandy Ratcliff, original EastEnders star whose life away from the soap was as dramatic as it was on screen

Sandy Ratcliffe with EastEnders co-star Nejdet Salih.
Sandy Ratcliffe with EastEnders co-star Nejdet Salih.
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Sandy Ratcliff, actress and model. Born 2 October 1948 in London. Died 7 April 2019 in London, aged 70.

Sandy Ratcliff’s life was as dramatic as that of any character in the soap opera EastEnders, on which she played the role of Sue Osman throughout the second half of the 1980s, beginning with the very first show.

A former model, Ratcliff was hailed as one of the “Faces for the Seventies” by photographer Lord Snowdon, and appeared in a string of films, including Ken Loach’s Family Life (1971) and the cult football movie Yesterday’s Hero (1979) with Ian McShane.

Even before she was cast in EastEnders Ratcliff had had her troubles and been to jail for drug dealing. But her co-star Leslie Grantham had done time for murder. The cot death of Ratcliff’s character’s son and its impact on her life was one of the big early storylines that dramatised a serious issue and had the general public talking about it.

But Ratcliff struggled with drink and drugs and was unreliable and unpopular on set. She did not exactly go out of her way to curry favour, saying of Wendy Richard that she had “a face as long as a wet weekend, on camera and off” and calling Gretchen Franklin “a right old dragon”.

The producers decided enough was enough. Her character, Sue Osman, had a nervous breakdown after her estranged husband snatched her child away. Sue ended up in a psychiatric hospital and Ratcliff was sacked from the show.

She was soon back in the newspapers and in court, this time as a witness when her boyfriend was on trial for the murder of another girlfriend and her flatmate. Ratcliff claimed that he was with her at the time of the killings.

But under cross-examination, she admitted she used drugs and had shared a cannabis joint with her teenage son, that she had considered suicide and that she had got the timings wrong. The boyfriend was duly convicted.

After being sacked from 
EastEnders and attracting further negative publicity, Ratcliff’s reputation preceded her and she found other acting roles elusive. She owed the Inland Revenue substantial back taxes and worked as a minicab driver. She had her own mental and physical health problems, including three strokes, she ended up on benefits and she had recently been diagnosed with cancer.

She was born Alexandra Ratcliff in London in 1928. Her father was an insurance salesman and the family lived in a council flat in Islington. She did well academically at school, but was repeatedly in trouble for her behaviour, was expelled from one school for smoking cannabis and left another as soon as she was old enough.

She worked as a waitress and disc jockey in a club, played bass guitar in a couple of bands and had some success as a model. She married photographer Peter Wright in 1968, but the union was short-lived, and she had a relationship and a son with the theatre director Terence Palmer.

Reputedly Ratcliff went to meet Ken Loach simply to talk about general opportunities in the film industry rather than to audition for a role. But Loach, who had just had a hit with Kes, asked her to improvise a scene and concluded she would be just right for the part of Janice Baildon, the troubled, schizophrenic young woman in Family Life. She is dominated by her mother, forced to have an abortion and subjected to electric shock treatment.

Later, Ratcliff said Loach refused to allow her to wash her hair or wear make-up, even off-set, and she found it difficult to shake off the character. “I took Jan home with me a little bit and found it really hard,” she said.

“When filming was over, I felt abandoned and got quite depressed for a while. Then, for a couple of months when the film came out, I was being invited to every party going, but I wasn’t working most of that time and there were times when I didn’t have the bus fare to get to places I was supposed to be going.”

Ratcliff’s naturalistic performance won her glowing reviews and led to other film and television roles. She worked steadily throughout the 1970s. She appeared in the science-fiction film The Final Programme in 1973 with Jon Finch, played a recurring character on Crossroads the following year - going out with the motel barman and then marrying his dad – and made one-off appearances in such hit series as The Sweeney and Minder.

Her acting career seemed to survive her various personal problems and even a spell in Holloway. EastEnders and the role of café owner Sue Osman raised her profile enormously. But the popularity of the soap brought with it unwelcome tabloid attention, revelations about her past and new headlines about her drinking and lifestyle.

Suddenly Ratcliff was living her life under the glare of constant publicity and it all proved too much. She appeared in more than 250 episodes of EastEnders between 1985 and 1989. After leaving it, her career stalled and she suffered several nervous breakdowns. She overcame heroin addiction, she worked as a minicab and ambulance driver and reportedly trained as a counsellor.

In 2005 it was reported that she was living on £70 a week disability allowance. She remained bitter about her treatment by the EastEnders producers. Latterly she could not stand even to hear the EastEnders theme tune and refused to take part in a reunion. She is survived by her son.

Brian Pendreigh