Sit-com star Sue Johnston says filming while her dog was put down was hardest thing ever
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Because, while the award-winning actress was on the Isle of Wight filming this summer, her much-loved dog had to be put down and, to Sue’s deep distress, filming commitments meant that she was unable to be there at the end.
“My beautiful eight-year-old German shepherd Betsy had to be put down,” says Sue. “She had cancer. I thought she’d been doing OK as she was having treatment, but within three weeks of her diagnosis… it was very swift.
“We hardly knew there was anything wrong with her. I knew she was poorly and she was having treatment but I never thought she’d die. I thought she’d get better and then I had that conversation with the vet that every pet owner dreads. The ‘Well, if it was my dog…’ one.”
Sue had to take the decision knowing she would not be able to say goodbye.
“I couldn’t get back home to see her,” the 77-year-old recalls. “It was horrendous ‑ especially knowing I had to get back on set and be funny. I think it must be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Fans who tune into The Cockfields could be forgiven for thinking someone has done a Royle Family remake, so similar is her new character to put-upon mum Barbara Royle.
But then it is hardly surprising given that the sit-com was written by Royle Family mega-fans David Earl and Joe Wilkinson, who starred in Ricky Gervais’s Afterlife.
And Sue was so grateful to have the support of such a tight-knit and familiar cast around her when Betsy died.
“The cast and crew showed me so much kindness and love when I received the news,” says Sue. “The Cockfields’ team put their collective arms around me that day and gave me a massive hug.”
Having finished filming with the starry cast ‑ including Gregor Fisher (of Rab C. Nesbitt fame), Nigel Havers and Sarah Parish ‑ Sue had to return to her house in Manchester, a home that suddenly had no Betsy in it. Her other dog, cocker spaniel Lexi, was also missing her companion.
“It was awful walking in and knowing she was no longer there. Lexi was quite needy because she was used to Betsy being there all the time,” says Sue, visibly trying to pull herself together.
“Anyway, there’s just the two of us now and we’re getting used to being a duo rather than a trio. Thank God for dogs. They kept me sane during the lockdowns.”
The first series of The Cockfields aired in 2019 and finally ‑ after a long pandemic-related delay ‑ fans can catch up with the family again next month.
For Sue, filming the second series has been like coming home, so familiar is her character, also called Sue, to the other much-loved TV mum.
“I can see The Royle Family running through it with all the relationships,” she says. “It’s all about how family members love each other but also drive each other mad.
“It’s something all families can relate to ‑ I certainly can. There’s a smug ‘know-all’ husband in every family, we’ve certainly got one in ours. My character is similar to Barbara, just more anxious and needy. But it’s great writing, very funny.
“The Royle Family and this show are definitely in the same vein,” adds Sue.
“While the Cockfields don’t sit and watch telly at home all the time, the show is all about families
“When I start burbling on about something to my son Joel ‑ like Sue Cockfield does with her Simon (played by Wilkinson) ‑ Joel’s eyes start rolling, just like Simon’s do.
“I can see myself in her and see my own mum, too. Sometimes, it’s like there’s not a lot of acting required.”
Havers stars as Larry, Sue’s first husband ‑ and Simon’s father ‑ a fey, flaky, self-obsessed man with a shallow, self-obsessed fashionista girlfriend, Melissa, played by Parish.
Gregor Fisher replaces the late Bobby Ball, who died last October from a Covid-complicated illness, as Sue’s husband.
Sue says the second marriages and stepchildren are what make The Cockfields so relatable. “There’s a bit of every family in The Cockfields.”
And while Barbara Royle was very down to earth, Sue Cockfield also has a slight tinge of the Hyacinth Bucket [Patricia Routledge’s social ladder-climbing character] about her ‑ although in the very nicest possible way.
“Well, she does like to shop at Waitrose,” says Sue, laughing. “Or rather Waitrose and Partners as she insists on calling it.
“She’s slightly batty, although she’d be very offended if I said that to her. She’s very well-meaning, but kind of stuck in the mud.
“She’s very anxious to please her son, and particularly his latest girlfriend, Esther ‑ Sue’s hearing wedding bells and can’t wait to get stuck into the arrangements. Poor Simon and Esther!
“She loves her husband but I would say she’s slightly scared of him because of his moods. They live in a funny little world of their own but they’re very happy.
“She’s kind and well-meaning but she gets carried away. She’s not dissimilar to Barbara Royle but Sue’s much more anxious and needy. Barbara was quite laid back.”
Sue moved from London back to her native North several years ago to be closer to son Joel, a photographer. She raised him as a single mother after her marriage to his father ended while he was a baby.
But even with Joel and his children nearby she still found lockdown difficult. There were no new hobbies or skills for her.
“No!” she exclaims. “The world would have to be crashing in to make me do something like that, I’m afraid. I’m hopeless at stuff like that.
“During the first lockdown, I made the most of the good weather ‑ it was such a beautiful spring.
“The joy of it was the peace and quiet, hearing the birds sing, seeing blossoms come out, taking time to appreciate nature. And I cooked a lot.
“But because I couldn’t see anyone ‑ I was in isolation due to being susceptible to chest infections ‑ I ate a lot, too.
“Having to have my shopping left on the doorstep made me feel helpless and humiliated. I also felt guilty a lot of the time because I kept thinking about the people in high-rises with kids who couldn’t get out.
“It’s beyond me how they coped during those months. I felt bad because I was having it relatively easy.”
Now she is enjoying a return to near normality and spending quality time with her beloved grandchildren.
“I have four,” she says. “Joel and his partner have two, while my honorary daughter Gemma also has two.
“Gemma is my goddaughter but I became like Gemma’s mum when her real mum, who’d been one of my close friends, passed away when Gem was a teenager.
“The grandkids are all boys and range in age from four to 10. They’re as good as cousins as Gemma and Joel are just like sister and brother. I am pretty indulgent with them ‑ I love them, spoil them and play games with them. ‘Granny, come here! Granny, come and play!’ they’ll say and I’m like, ‘Ooh just let me sit down for a minute!’ I must admit I become very silly when I’m with them ‑ they bring out a childish side in me.
“It’s just joyful being a grandparent. Joel and his family live near me in Manchester while Gemma and her lot are in Stoke-on-Trent which is only about 40 minutes away.”
A versatile actress who has done everything from Coronation Street to Downton Abbey and Waking the Dead, Sue has rarely been off our screens since the 1980s.
What does she have up her sleeve next?
“I’m filming a new ITV show which I can’t say much about yet and the Downton Abbey film is out in March 2022 ‑ yes, devious lady’s maid Denker is back,” she says. “But first there’s The Cockfields Christmas special.
“We all know how triggering the festive season can be for families so it’s just perfect for mining for comedy value ‑ and was so funny to make.
“And then, next year, I’m very much hoping we’ll film another series. Sue sticking her oar in with Simon and Esther’s wedding plans? Now that really will be comedy gold.”
The Cockfields airs nightly from Monday November 8 at 10pm on UKGold
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