Music

Sue Johnston: "I toured with The Rolling Stones. That was quite a week!"

Acting royalty Sue Johnston on working for Brian Epstein, her local MP George Osborne – and why Liverpool FC need her!

We were the first people to become teenagers. The name wasn’t in the English language before then. It was a period of change, and I could feel that myself because I had gone to a grammar school, which nobody in my family had done. I realised my options were far more open than my mother’s. I turned 16 in December 1959. It was such an exciting time. We didn’t realise we were at the centre of this revolution. Everyone got a conscience, we marched against the Vietnam War, the change was phenomenal: socially, politically, musically.

When I said I wanted to be an actress, the careers officer nearly fell off her stool. Choices were still limited for women. Our generation was told we could be nurses, teachers or secretaries but change was coming. Women were thinking about being educated. It was all bubbling under the surface.

Sue Johnston with her mum

At 16 Elvis was our big hero. I bunked off school to go to a matinee of GI Blues. The more our parents thought he was disgraceful, the more we loved him. Elvis, Eddie Cochran and the guys out of America seemed much more exciting than homegrown ones like Cliff Richard.

I would tell my younger self that you don’t need a ring on your finger. I was part of a generation of women that thought you needed to be married. It was the first thing your auntie or cousins would ask: have you got a boyfriend? Is it serious? If you weren’t conforming, it was odd. I rushed into relationships just so I belonged to somebody. That was a pattern I repeated. But it is a lovely feeling to know you are totally okay on your own. I have no regrets. I didn’t meet someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

When I was 17, I left school because I wanted to act. I worked as a tax inspector, which pleased my parents. The office in Liverpool was on the corner of Mathew Street, where the Cavern Club was. The girls in the office invited me along at lunch. It was about being in the right place at the right time. I fell in love with the music. When I first went, the Cavern was more of a jazz club. At a guest night I first saw The Beatles with Pete Best on drums. Oh, I loved them.

Sue Johnston in The Royle Family

I went to work for Brian Epstein and got immersed in it. I put acting to one side and was practically living in the Cavern. These were brilliant times. I took a week off work to go on tour with The Rolling Stones. I was going out with the drummer from the Swinging Blue Jeans, who were touring with the Stones. That was quite a week! When you are younger you live for the moment. I wasn’t thinking of the future. My mum and dad were cross with me. I suppose I was quite a rebel.

I was ashamed of my working-class roots. I am not now. I am very proud.

I did things that make me look back and think I had courage. I got myself to drama school in London, which I’d wanted since playing the witch in The Tinderbox aged 15. I remember it precisely, sitting on the stage and realising I felt like me there. I belonged. My English teacher encouraged me to take it further, whereas my dad was saying I should go to university because he never had the chance.

I wish I hadn’t been so conscious I was working class. At drama school there were a lot of posh people, and I was so embarrassed about my Liverpool accent. I was friends with a girl from Birkenhead and a boy from Birmingham, and the three of us clung together because we were, I suppose, ashamed of our working-class roots. I am not now. I am very proud. And I’m proud of my parents. I have their work ethic.

George Osborne should be ashamed there is such poverty in his constituency.

My mother found my being educated difficult. I think a lot of women did. She told me, later in life, that she felt she had lost me. Suddenly you had these girls being educated free-thinkers, going off to live in London and leaving them behind. It must have been very hard. They never had the opportunities. She used to say: “I wish you’d married a local lad and lived around the corner.” You feel a bit selfish but it is your life and you have to follow your dream.

George Osborne is my MP. He should be ashamed there is such poverty in his constituency. Wilmslow is supposed to be posh Manchester – and there is a foodbank, which helps lots of people. It shows how bad it is if it is happening here. But Osborne is not even looking. I have never known such a gap between wealth and poverty. The austerity cuts are tragic. People are suffering beyond belief and this government is getting away with it.

I still get up and shout when I feel something needs to be done. I was so behind the Liverpool supporters about the ticket prices. They behaved with terrific dignity and won their case. At the minute I’m supporting the junior doctors all the way in their fight. I never grow tired of that first rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone at Anfield. It gives me shivers. To be part of the crowd is a wonderful feeling. It is very empowering. I shout and swear but that sort of language stays in the stadium. And now, when it is boring, I can watch Mr Klopp on the touchline because he is so extraordinary. I moved to London for a while but came back. My football team needs me at the moment!

Sue Johnston in Brookside

I would have been very excited as a 16-year-old to think this is the life I was going to have. My career would have blown my mind. It still does. My younger self wanted to be an actor and I have become one. I would think, gosh, is that really going to happen to me? I have been lucky to be at the beginning of things. Not just The Beatles but Brookside. My 16-year-old self would have loved that role. We filmed it just near where I went to school. And I was proud of us all in The Royle Family. To be there at the start, creating a new thing, has been a real joy.

I have wonderful childhood memories. I know I was totally loved. Although it was hard, we always had books. My dad loved Shakespeare and could quote anything. He had such love of language. They made me care about things, gave me good manners and gave me love. I was a very lucky girl. Although, as a rebellious teenager, you don’t feel that when your dad has locked you out because you missed the last bus home.

Love in Recovery starts March 15 at 11pm on BBC Radio 4

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