Image of the gates of Liverpool Cathedral

Sue Johnston OBE

Oration

Presented by: Professor Frank Sanderson

Honorary Pro-Chancellor, I have great pleasure in presenting Sue Johnston for the award of an Honorary Fellowship of Liverpool John Moores University.

Merseyside's favourite actress, Sue Johnston, has rarely been out of work since she made her name in Brookside. Her versatility is clear, with credits including such varied programmes as acclaimed drama Goodbye Cruel World; the 50s feel-good nostalgia series Sex, Chips and Rock 'n' Roll; the cult comedy The Royle Family and, most recently, the psychological thriller Waking the Dead

She was born in 1943 in Warrington and was brought up in Whiston, the daughter of Fred and Margaret Wright - and it is a very happy coincidence that Margaret is here today on her 89th birthday.  We wish her a Very Happy Birthday.

At Prescott & Huyton Grammar School, Sue can remember the moment when she decided, at 16, that she wanted to act. "I was in a school production of The Tinderbox, and I suddenly thought, 'I love this!' I felt I'd come home."  Her parents were not altogether impressed. "Dad wanted me to go to university, because he'd never had the chance. And I think they both felt that acting was a weird sort of job and that actors were a bit dubious." They did change their minds.

After leaving school, Sue got a job in the pensions department at the Pilkington Glass Factory just so that she could join their amateur dramatics group. But she then became absorbed by the Merseybeat scene at the Cavern. It seems that absolutely everyone in Liverpool who was a teenager in the early 1960s claims to have been acquainted with the Beatles at the Cavern Club, but Sue can truthfully claim such acquaintance. 

She was a fan of various bands, including The Beatles, and worked in Brian Epstein's record shop. But her acting ambitions were undiminished, so when The Beatles relocated to London she took her first job in theatre - as an acting assistant stage manager in weekly rep, which translated as actor, set-builder, wardrobe mistress, props girl and general dogsbody. 

This experience inspired her to apply for drama school. She describes her time at the Webber Douglas Academy in London, as "two of the best years of my life".

Following graduation, Sue worked in theatre-in-education. After a short-lived marriage which produced her son Joel - who is also present today - Sue found the prospect of single-parenthood "very scary", and decided she needed a change for the sake of financial security.

She planned to retrain as a teacher but then, almost miraculously, everything fell into place. She was offered a small part in Coronation Street, which led to the audition for Brookside. She won the role of Sheila Grant when Joel was three.   

She remembers:

"The timing was extraordinary. If I was a fatalist, I'd say it was meant to be. I was working near my parents, so I had all their support. And it was five days a week - as near to nine-to-five as an acting job gets. It was just blissful."

But there was a less welcome side to her success. She bought a small house in Warrington which very soon became a goldfish bowl. By all accounts, weekends were spent crawling around with the curtains drawn and fans sitting outside believing that she actually was Sheila Grant. 

It was a difficult decision for Sue when she left Brookside after eight years. But she desperately needed a change and fortunately, since then the work has shown no signs of drying up. Her first role was as a motor neurone sufferer in Goodbye Cruel World, for which she was Bafta nominated and she has been in demand ever since in television, theatre and film.

She was also Bafta nominated for her role as lovable super-tolerant put-upon chain-smoking mum Barbara in The Royle Family, which in 1998 and 2000 won British Comedy Awards. Shooting The Royle Family proved a particular challenge for Sue who is a fervent anti-smoker - she coped by smoking low tar cigarettes - and not inhaling.

Her choices for Desert Island Discs give an insight into the person behind the actress: her selection included Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, Twist and Shout by the Beatles, and her favourite record, You'll Never Walk Alone by Gerry and the Pacemakers, the latter choice revealing (as does her Fellowship gown today) her devotion to Liverpool FC.

What does the future hold for Sue Johnston? What she'd really like to do is a big blockbuster movie, or a really good British film. But she's actually not desperately ambitious, "I just love to work", she says, "If you read a script and you're hooked, you don't care if it's theatre, film or television." 

You get the impression that, whatever happens, she'll cope. It's hard to imagine many situations that Sue couldn't handle.

Sue Johnston is a great actress who has brought pleasure to literally millions of people over the past two decades, and we in Merseyside are particularly proud of her achievements. 

Thus I have great pleasure in presenting Sue Johnston, distinguished daughter of our region, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of this University.