How Johnny had fun on the farm down at Emmerdale
“In 1974 I was working the clubs in England and I kept meeting other acts who were also working during the day as extras on television, so I decided to do it as well, so I contacted the agency ATS in Leeds, who I had worked for before.
“They said they would put my name on the list, and just three days later they rang to ask me to go to Granada Television in Manchester, not as an extra, but to audition for a part in a major production they were doing of an AJ Cronin classic The Stars Look Down.
“I drove there, and had my audition, which went so well that a week later they asked to see me again.
“As I had never acted before (I’d never even been in a school play) I didn’t know this was normal when casting parts, so I said they had already seen me so if they wanted to see me again I was appearing the following week at a club called Blighty’s, near Manchester, with Alvin Stardust.
“Apparently they came in on the Wednesday night and watched me work, then the following day rang my agent and offered me the part of Slogger Leeming in episodes one, three and five.
“I was in a dilemma, as I had never acted in my life, so I decided that Sid James was always himself, likewise John Wayne, so I would become a re-actor and react naturally to the situation they put me in, using their words.”
As Johnny goes on to reveal, it worked well.
“The director in episode one, Roland Joffe (who went on to be Oscar-nominated for The Killing Fields and The Mission), was very encouraging.
“When I finished The Stars Look down, Granada TV wanted to keep me interested in the acting side of my career, so they cast me in Crown Court then Coronation Street, Stay Lucky and The Practice.
“I also did Truckers for the BBC, plus I did training films for B&Q and beer adverts for Worthington Bitter,
“In late 1983 I appeared in cabaret at Weybridge in Surrey, and drove home overnight to be told at 6am that I had to be at Yorkshire Television for 9am, regarding an interview for Emmerdale Farm.
“I really didn’t want to go, as I was tired from driving all night, and I would have another hour’s drive to get to Leeds, but as the agent had taken the trouble to organise the interview, I felt I owed it to her to go.
“On arriving at YTV I walked into the meeting with the director, Alistair Clark, and Linda, the casting director.
“I didn’t really want the part, and when the director said ‘We are looking for a cowman for Emmerdale, and in one episode you might have to stick your hand up a cow’s backside. How would you feel about doing something like that?’
”I said ‘give me enough money sunshine and I’ll stick my hand up your backside’.
“Well, I got a very severe look from the casting director, while Alistair was falling about laughing,
“Anyway, the rest of the interview went well, and three days later I was offered the part of Bill Middleton to be Mr Turner’s cowman and Seth’s best mate for six episodes.”
When Johnny finished the six episodes, the producer said he thought he’d fitted in so well that he was asked to stay, which he did – for nine years!
“I had some great times in Emmerdale, and lots of laughs with Richard Thorpe (Mr Turner) and Stan Richards (Seth Armstrong), as we were always trying to get each other to laugh, and so forget the lines.
“On one occasion I really got Seth, as we had a scene where we were being used as beaters at Mr Turner’s grouse shooting day.
“We were driving the grouse towards the guns and one of the shooters kept shooting ‘low’ and being warned not to do so by Mr Turner.
“The shooter again fired low, and I was to let out a yell and fall on my knees with my hands on my face and blood running through my fingers.
“Seth then had to run up to me and say ‘are you all right Bill? The scene would then end. But the director said ‘one last rehearsal before we film it’.
“So he shouted ‘action’ and the shooter fired low. I fell to my knees with hands on my face, and Seth came running up, stopped at my bloodied crumpled figure and said ‘are you all right Bill?’
“At that, I rolled over with a big arrow stuck in my chest and said ‘tell General Custer there’s thousands of the buggers out there!’
“After that, it took ages to get the scene in the can because when Seth ran up and got to me to deliver the line he kept bursting out laughing.
“I was at the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas in February 2005 when I got a text to tell me that Seth had died, so I raised a drink to my old mate, who was a privilege to know and work with.
“After nine years, I became sick of driving up the M1 to Leeds and back again, so without being killed off or written out, I just left, which left it open if I wanted to return.
“But in the meantime, I had an offer to play Mr Grable in The Gambling Man with Robson Green. It was written by Catherine Cookson who, of course, was born in South Shields.
“I was still working in cabaret up and down the country, writing songs and bringing more singing and guitar playing into the act, which I enjoyed more than acting, as there is a lot of hanging around on a TV production.”
* Find out what happens next in Johhny’s fascinating career in tomorrow’s Time Of Our Lives.