Pic © Ken McKay, ITV, REX
Words by Alison James
Think Sue Johnston and images of television period dramas don’t immediately come to mind. Her list of TV credits is choc-a-bloc with sitcoms such as The Royale Family and Jam and Jerusalem, comedy dramas Lapland and Being Eileen and straight dramas such as Goodbye Cruel World and A Passionate Woman, not to mention her appearances in Waking The Dead, Hetty Wainthrope investigates, Brookside and Coronation Street.
Sue’s done the odd period drama – such as Little Dorritt in 2008 – but she’s about to hit our screens in the biggest costume drama of them all, Downton Abbey. She will play Gladys Denker, the lady’s maid of Maggie Smith’s dowager Duchess, Violet.
While we can’t help wondering just how Violet has managed to get in and out of her elaborate Edwardian costumes without help for the past four-and-a-half series when her granddaughter Lady Mary requires hours of assistance, we’re willing to overlook this minor detail. We’re just so excited to see Sue in Downton and she’s pretty chuffed, too!
“I’m delighted and very excited to be a part of Downton Abbey,” said Sue, when news broke of the casting in May. “I cannot wait to start filming. I have some lovely friends in it that I’ll be so happy to be working with.”
One of those friends is Lesley Nicol who plays cook Mrs Patmore. “She’s one of my dearest friends,” Sue reminisced recently. “We’ve known each other for 40 years since she worked at the Oldham Theatre Royal. Mrs Patmore, however, does not like my character, Denker, very much!”
So what is the lady’s maid actually like? “She’s really quite formidable and complex – you’re in for a few surprises. She’s very efficient but runs into conflict almost immediately with Spratt, Violet’s butler. He thinks he runs the place and she thinks she does.
“The dowager Duchess has to keep stepping in to sort them out like a couple of children. Denker would never lock horns with Violet, though. She’s typical of a maid of that day, knows her place and is very respectful.”
Acting opposite Dame Maggie Smith who plays Violet is another treat for Sue. “Working with Dame Maggie was fantastic,” she said recently. “I’ve loved her from afar for years. She’s the master of her craft but great fun. Her character has some amazing lines and she delivers them with perfection. It’s hard keeping a straight face.”
'I’ve loved Downton Abbey from the start – like most of the world, it seems’
Having filmed her episodes – three including the Christmas special – Sue reflects on her time at Downton with great fondness. “It was brilliant to be offered the part. I’ve loved Downton Abbey from the start, like most of the world, it seems.
“One day at rehearsal, the graveyard was already full of locals when a coach full of fans turned up. They were very well behaved, but I felt sorry for Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) and Jim Carter (Carson) who had to do their lines facing a huge audience.”
Sue hasn’t said whether she and Denker will be returning to Downton Abbey in any future series – but Corrie fans everywhere would be overjoyed if she returned to the Street to reprise her role as brassy, outspoken Gloria Price.
Gloria was the mother of former Rovers’ landlady, Stella, and spent two years upsetting everyone before going off with Dennis Tanner, the husband she’d stolen from Rita. Gloria wasn’t killed off, so theoretically she may return one day. But Sue made it clear she left Corrie to pursue other roles and it seems she may have found the level of fame rather too much.
“The profile of the Street is far bigger than anything I have ever experienced,” she has said. “It’s extraordinary.”
What is clear, however, is that she has no plans to retire – even though she’s 71 in December.
“I just feel very fortunate to still be employed. And I feel blessed that I have managed to earn a good living out of doing something I love. Hopefully my brain will stay with me and I would like to work for as long as I can.
“I won’t retire unless I have to, and that will be when I can’t learn lines any more or I can’t speak or walk. None of us know what delights are in store for us when we are old but you have to get on with it – until you can’t get on with it anymore.
“I love working, it defines me, it’s what I’ve always done. I’ve done other things, but only as a means to an end and I don’t know what I’d be if I wasn’t an actor. My family is very precious to me (son Joel, his wife and their young son live close to Sue in Manchester) and keeping the right balance is very important.”
We couldn’t agree with her more.
- Missed Sue’s first Downton episode? Catch it on ITV player
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