Sue Johnston: ‘Reindeer tastes like filet steak!’

Actress Sue Johnston tells us about her new NNC1 Christmas comedy Lapland and what it’s like playing This is England star Stephen Graham’s mum…

So tell us about Lapland?

“It’s about a family from Birkenhead who travel to Lapland for Christmas. I play Eileen, head of the Lewis family, whose husband died six months earlier. It’s going to be too sad to see his empty chair at Christmas, so the whole family decides to travel to Lapland to meet Santa and see the Northern Lights. It’s a lovely family story for Christmas.

Is it quite sad, then?

“It’s very poignant, but also very funny. Everybody is dealing with grief in a different way and they’re all hiding it under the Christmas facade. But it’s not a tragedy as all their tensions come out in a very funny way. Everything goes wrong from the flight onwards.”

Are they the kind of family you wouldn’t want to sit next to on the plane?

“Part of the family is definitely a bit loud and uncouth! Stephen Graham plays my son and his wife (Julie Graham) has some killer funny lines. She doesn’t want to be there at all and her kids are very, very naughty. Then there’s my daughter and her husband, who’s a boring know-it-all who keeps going on about seeing The Northern Lights, plus their two children who are lovely.”

Is this the first time you’ve worked with Stephen Graham?

“Yes and he’s wonderful! He said he wanted to be in this as he’s always wanted me to be his mum! He often texts me, ‘Morning Ma!’ He’s a delight and so funny. In the film he plays a man who’s really under the thumb.”

Did you film in Lapland?

“No, we shot it in the far north of Norway. We flew to Tromso and then traveled an hour north and stayed on an army barracks. It was very remote and beautiful. We got to do lots of great things like husky sledding and I got to stroke a reindeer. I also got to eat one!

“The chef in the camp said he’d cook reindeer for us on the last night. There’s a lot in the film about us eating Reindeer and not wanting the kids to know! When they find out they’re horrified: ‘You’re eating Rudolf!’ But it was beautiful, like the best filet steak!”

Do you enjoy Christmas time?

“I adore Christmas because I had such lovely times when I was growing up and I’ve passed that on to my son. It’s a wonderful time of the year, but sometimes it can be the loneliest. The worst Christmas I ever had was when my dad died. He was buried on Christmas Eve so there was my mum, my son and me looking at an empty chair where my dad should have been. You know that will be happening over Christmas for so many people who are recently bereaved or have split from partners.”

Were you disappointed that the Royle Family Christmas special was cancelled?

“Well, it’s been postponed because the writing team had too many other commitments. I was only disappointed because it means I won’t see all the cast this year. Christmas starts for me on that sofa with those terrible decorations, including the bauble with Nana’s face on it. Christmas with The Royle Family has become traditional for me over the years – Jim in the same T-shirt and underpants. Thankfully, he puts a T-shirt on at Christmas rather than the usual grey vest!”

Lapland screens on BBC One on Christmas Eve.