‘Years after Caroline death I still can’t delete her number from my phone’
Royle Family star Sue Johnston was so heartbroken by co-star Caroline Aherne’s death that she couldn’t bring herself to delete her number from her phone.
And the thought of watching an episode of the hit comedy – in which they played mum and daughter for 14 years – was a definite no-no.
Sue avoided reruns of the show for three years after Caroline died from cancer in 2016, aged just 52.
Then, by accident, Sue stumbled across a repeat episode.
She found herself glued to the box – and in floods of tears.
Sue, 76, says: “I didn’t watch it for a long time but then I caught an episode one night and I just watched it – I cried a lot. It was one in the very first series that I couldn’t even remember.
“Seeing Caroline made me cry, just her not being here any more – and for the memories. It was happy crying too, not breaking down.
“I was sad because I missed her so much, because she was so special.
“People are always saying to me, ‘Will there be another Royle Family?’ and I say, ‘We can’t because most of us are dead, sadly’.”
Co-star Liz Smith, who played Nana, also died in 2016, aged 95.
But then Liverpool-born Sue has faced the deaths of many close friends, including fellow actress Lynda Bellingham, 66, who passed away in 2014.
Sue appreciates her own longevity – and still being in demand as an actress.
She says: “I owe it to my girlfriends who didn’t make it to 76 to appreciate life. I’m still here and I’ve got lines and I can still do things, because they never got the chance. I just feel very blessed.”
Sue’s career went from strength to strength after her turn as Barbara, long-suffering wife of Ricky Tomlinson’s couch potato Jim Royle.
There were major parts in Waking The Dead, Coronation Street and Downton Abbey – and now Channel 4’s hard-hitting new drama The Cure.
Sue plays Bella Bailey, who died at Stafford Hospital in 2007 – during what became known as the Mid Staffs NHS scandal. Bella, 86, died from heart issues that developed while being treated for a hernia.
Her daughter Julie Bailey – played by Sherlock actress Sian Brooke – accused the hospital of malpractice and an inquiry unearthed catastrophic failings in patient care.
Sue, a former Labour campaigner, says she felt invested in the role from the moment she read the script. She says: “I really cared about this role.
"The injustice of it – and how Julie was strong enough to take them on. What she’s achieved is colossal for an ordinary woman.
"Wanting justice for her mother, that’s always so powerful for me.
“You see it with the people in Hillsborough, the people who continue to fight because the injustice done to their families, that overwhelms me.
“I think it’s so admirable and extraordinary and I wanted to weigh in with it.”
Sue has rarely been out of work since being thrust into the limelight in Brookside in 1982 as Sheila Grant – with long-time pal Tomlinson, 80, again playing her hubby.
Sue admits she would have liked a part in a Hollywood blockbuster.
But fame was never a motivating factor and she adds: “I just wanted to act. So it comes as quite a shock when you are famous, when people look you up and down and talk about you. I live a very normal life.”
- The Cure is on Channel 4 at 9pm, Thursday, December 19
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