Janet Dibley at home in Eastbourne

PUBLISHED: 14:07 16 August 2010 | UPDATED: 11:50 16 March 2018

Janet Dibley, at home in Eastbourne

Janet Dibley, at home in Eastbourne

Sussex actress Janet Dibley made her name performing opposite Nicholas Lyndhurst in the ITV sitcom The Two of Us, before shattering her homely image by playing an alcoholic down and out in EastEnders. She returns to our screens this month...

Sussex actress Janet Dibley made her name performing opposite Nicholas Lyndhurst in the ITV sitcom The Two of Us, before shattering her homely image by playing an alcoholic down and out in EastEnders. She returns to our screens this month...

Janet Dibley will never forget shooting to fame in the popular Eighties sitcom The Two of Us opposite housewives’ favourite Nicholas Lyndhurst. Until then, she had been just another jobbing actress. Suddenly, her face was recognisable to millions. “I don’t think anybody realises quite how difficult that is for actors,” she says. “You get pushed into a different world and you’re on your own. You’re no longer anonymous. You can’t join the group at the swimming club like you did before because you’re set apart. You’re hoisted by your own petard.”

Not that Janet isn’t grateful to the ITV sitcom, which ran for four series in the late Eighties. It made her name and people still remember it fondly.

She and Lyndhurst played Ashley and Elaine, an unmarried couple sharing the same roof. “Co-habiting was the buzz word back then and living together was much more of an issue than it is now,” she says. “Looking back, they seem like innocent times. The pay off for my character was getting married in the last episode, which now seems absurd.”

She adored working with Lyndhurst and says the chemistry worked from the off. “We were on Nick’s home turf – he was the master of the sitcom, having enjoyed huge success with Only Fools and Horses and Butterflies. And he was a very generous and warm actor.  I had a huge crush on him. There’s an aura around him and because he’s a very private person, you feel privileged to be in his company.”

Janet, who has appeared in many popular television series including Band of Gold and Fat Friends, is chatting at the Eastbourne home she shares with her husband, fellow actor Tyler Butterworth. Best known for playing the Rev John Candy in The Darling Buds of May, he is the son of the Hove-based actress Janet Brown, famed for her impersonations of Margaret Thatcher, and the late Peter Butterworth who appeared in many Carry On films.

Janet is taking a short break from filming, having recently joined the BBC daytime soap Doctors, which is set in a fictional Midlands practice. From early September, she will be playing Dr Elaine Cassidy, who will bring an ‘alternative’ energy to the practice.

“She’s a bit New Age and heavily into meditation, and soon starts to clash with her colleagues,” says Janet. “Doctors is filmed in Birmingham three months ahead of transmission and the schedule is very intense. We have to be on set by 7am and work with three film units at three different locations, juggling up to 12 scripts at any one time. But I’m loving every second of it.”

Ironically, Janet dislikes watching television. “The pleasure for me is in the moment; in performing for the cameras. I hate watching it back, particularly now I’m older. I find myself asking: ‘Who is that old woman?’”

Janet is being unduly modest because she’s in terrific shape, but admits to working hard at it. “I run to Belle Toute lighthouse and over those damned hills, come rain or shine,” she laughs. “It’s good for my head, although it gets harder and harder as you get older.”

She will never succumb to Botox injections. “I’m rather looking forward to playing older character parts. Roles do diminish as you get older, but you just have to be a bit cleverer. It’s about keeping the doors open mentally, as much as anything. You get to a certain age and you have to work very hard at not being cynical.”

Janet got hooked on acting in her late teens while studying drama at summer school in her home city of Leeds. As the youngest of four children, performing gave her the chance to shine. “We were a noisy family, but I was much quieter than the others and tended to lock myself away.” The turning point came when she played Demetrius (yes, Demetrius, it was an all-girls school) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I loved it and thought if I was going to have people notice me, then I was going to do it well.”

After training at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent, she later joined the National Theatre company where the highlight of her tenure was taking the title role in Cinderella. Later, TV producer Marcus Plantin saw her perform in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and subsequently asked her to audition for his new sitcom, The Two Of Us. Her television career took flight.

But if you’re not quite old enough to remember The Two of Us, then you probably equate Janet with her other best-known role – as the homeless alcoholic Lorna Cartwright in EastEnders. It was a brave move. The make-up department did their worst and she looked rough as hell most episodes, something she revelled in – “I do a good line in damaged women”.

The main purpose of her character was to break up Phil and Kathy’s marriage – something she did spectacularly. After meeting Phil (alias Steve McFadden) at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, they began a torrid affair, and many anxious months followed before Phil finally revealed all to Kathy (aka Gillian Taylforth) in an explosive series of episodes filmed in Paris in 1997.

Viewers identified so closely with Janet’s character that she was taunted in the street, but worse was to come when she discovered that there were plans afoot to make her character a prostitute and the victim of a gang rape. By this time, Janet had a six-year-old son, Bobby, from a previous relationship, and fearing the harrowing scenes would lead to him being bullied and teased at school, she quit amid rumours that she had turned down a £130,000 pay offer.

Janet shakes her head: “They didn’t offer me a cash incentive and in hindsight I didn’t handle it very well. They should have discussed the storyline with me, but equally I should have talked to the producer. Instead when my contract ran out and they asked whether I wanted to stay, I said: ‘No, I’m going’.”

Her decision was widely supported by MPs and women’s groups, who condemned the shocking plotlines that were taking over the soaps. It even prompted a leader article in one Sunday tabloid newspaper which congratulated her on making a stand when, they argued, producers were prepared to risk exposing children to gratuitous sex and violence in a bid for ratings.

“I wish I had been a great moral crusader, but the truth is the whole thing was taken out of proportion,” says Janet. “For a while, I wondered what the hell I’d done and if I’d ever work at the BBC again.”

Throughout the ups and downs, Janet has been sustained by her marriage to Tyler, whom she met while working on the LWT drama The Gingerbread Girl in 1992. “I played a single mum and Tyler played the guy next door, but off screen we didn’t like each other at all. We had a scene where we were supposed to fancy each other, and it just didn’t work. He was very nice and I didn’t trust nice people. I thought I liked mean and moody types.

“But then we met again while working with Sir Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough in his play Absent Friends. I was a single mum by then – in fact, we’d both left our previous relationships – and initially we were a bit disappointed to find ourselves in the same cast. But I realised there was more to this chap than I’d thought and by the end of the run we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.”

Shortly afterwards they moved to Eastbourne and had a son, Todd, now aged 11. “Tyler grew up on Ashdown Forest, so he’s very much a Sussex man, and Eastbourne reminds me of the northern seaside towns of my childhood.”

Janet is heavily involved in the life of the town. As well as co-running workshops which encourage local schoolchildren to read by bringing classic literature alive through drama, she is a volunteer for her local branch of Samaritans.

“It all started when I sat in on a few Alcoholics Anonymous meetings while researching my EastEnders character. There was a reality about that world I simply didn’t encounter as an actor and I realised I was living in a bubble. I don’t know if I’ve saved lives, but Samaritans is about providing a support network for people who are at rock bottom – and that can be anybody at different times of their lives.”

Eastbourne is perfect for family life, she says.  “I had panic moments when I left London because I felt I was leaving the acting world behind. I was, but what I’ve found is another world – our family. It’s so good to have something other than just London and acting.” She pauses: “And besides, London isn’t so very far away.”

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