Janet Dibley: Why older actresses need to be braver

Best-known to many as the star of the 1980s sitcom The Two of Us, Janet Dibley tells '¨Sarah Freeman why she's about to wind the clock back.

Janet Dibley photographed by Jim Holden/REX/Shutterstock.
Janet Dibley photographed by Jim Holden/REX/Shutterstock.

You have to feel a little sorry for Janet Dibley.

In the 40 or so years since she left drama school she is one of a handful of actresses who can say that she’s worked pretty much continuously. There’s been a steady string of theatre productions, she’s appeared on the small screen in everything from EastEnders to Broadchurch and yet for most people she remains “what’s her name who appeared alongside Nicholas Lyndhurst in that 80s sitcom”.

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“Ah yes, The Two of Us,” says the actress, who grew up in Leeds. “People still view it with a lot of affection, so I can’t really complain. It was right at the start of my career and it opened a lot of doors. Who knows where I would be now if it hadn’t happened?”

Chances are Dibley would still be doing alright. She is one of those actresses who can turn her hand to pretty much everything and this year, which will also see her celebrate her 58th birthday, she’s about to fulfil a long held ambition by starring in a musical.

In March, Dibley will begin a five month tour of Jackie – The Musical. It’s based on the weekly magazine for girls which closed in 1993, but which enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s, the decade when Dibley also came of age.

“Oh God, it’s completely my era,” she says. “I grew up with Jackie and when I heard what music was going to be in the show, I was hooked. Honestly, I immediately went onto iTunes and began downloading all the songs I used to listen to as a teenager. It was a dancing around the kitchen moment.

“This musical is unashamedly nostalgic. It’s about one woman looking back on her life, trying to piece together how she ended up where she did, but it comes with added Donny Osmond and David Cassidy. I have been targeting musicals for quite some time, it just felt like the right thing to do at this stage in my career and to be honest I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect fit.”

When we speak it’s just before Christmas and while rehearsals have yet to begin, being cast in the musical has already caused Dibley to be a little reflective about her own youth.

“I guess most of us look back to our teenage years with a mixture of regret, embarrassment and sheer joy. I’d like to say that I sailed through those early years, but the truth is that I was completely angst ridden. I religiously wrote a diary and for better or worse I kept them. I look through them now and they were all about boyfriends or rather boys which I secretly lusted after, but which I never dared talk to. My other obsession was food. There are endless pages of what I ate for lunch and what I was hoping to have for dinner. Who knows why I thought that was interesting, although it was probably because I had nothing else to write about.”

Jackie magazine, with its mix of fashion, beauty tips, gossip and celebrity, revolutionised the teenage magazine market. Most turned first to the Cathy and Claire problem page, which at its height received more than 400 readers letters a week.

“I still remember reading a piece in Jackie which was entitled ‘How to Handle Him’. Basically it was a bullet point guide how to spot and stop the wandering hands act. It all seems very tame now, but while it is tempting to say they were more innocent times, I suspect every generation say that.”

It was while studying for her O-levels that Dibley cut her acting teeth, first through drama classes at the old Civic Theatre in Leeds and afterwards she left her home city for London and Rose Bruford College.

“At school I was actually quite shy, but on stage I found I could really be myself. I’ve got three brothers and sisters and I am the only one who went into acting, but for me it was an escape and I just always remember feeling so excited. I caught the bug young and I have never been able to shake it off.”

While Dibley might describe herself as a wallflower in her teens, she certainly stepped out of the shadows after leaving drama school.

“Honestly, I had so much confidence in my earlier years. I would write letter after letter to directors asking if I could take them out for coffee and I had no shame at all in putting myself forward for parts.

“It’s what they call the exuberance of youth, but it disappears after a while. That’s no bad thing and as you get older, you get a different type of confidence or at least I did. You learn I think to become more content in yourself.”

Dibley was in her late 20s when she was cast in The Two of Us, a sitcom about a young couple who had just moved in together. It was 1986, when the phrase ‘living over the brush’ hadn’t quite yet disappeared into history and some still frowned on the idea of unmarried, cohabiting couples.

The show, which ran for four series, was an instant hit and while it made Dibley a household name, the fame it brought didn’t sit entirely comfortably on her shoulders.

“I went from no one knowing who I was to regularly being stopped in the supermarket by total strangers. No one teaches you how to deal with that kind of attention and I won’t lie, I did find it difficult for a while. You’ve got to remember that back then television viewing was limited to just four channels and there was much more of a collective audience for sitcoms like The Two of Us.

“However, as much as I found the fame a little difficult, I also knew that there was a flip side. This is such a huge industry and it is easy to get lost. Being a recognisable face, is a definite advantage.”

While none of Dibley’s family still live in Yorkshire, she hasn’t entirely severed her ties to the place. She has appeared in a number of shows created by the Leeds screenwriter Kay Mellor and her time on Fat Friends, The Chase and Band of Gold, which were all filmed in the region, means she often returns to see friends.

“The family I do still have up North, dare I say it, live in Lancashire, but I do still get to go back to Leeds. It’s changed hugely since I went to school there, but the spirit of the city I think is the same.”

Dibley now lives on the South Coast with her husband and fellow actor Tyler Butterworth and their two sons. Many actresses of her age complain that while the parts for older men are many and varied, the number of roles shrinks dramatically for women. Dibley, however, doesn’t spend much time worrying about what might be, preferring to focus instead on what work there is available.

“I don’t have many complaints. The simple truth is that as an actor you are a product and you have to learn to market yourself. You also have to be honest with yourself and acknowledge that you can’t hide from the ageing process. There is absolutely no point me going for or hankering after roles which are written for a 30-year-old. I am realistic and I am constantly reassessing where I fit on the spectrum, but there is work out there. It’s different to the kind of work I would have got 20 or 30 years ago, but it’s work nonetheless.

“As you get older, I think you have to be brave. It’s easy to sit in your comfort zone and wait for parts to come to you, but I find if you push yourself it brings its own rewards.”

Jackie – The Musical, Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, March 29 to April 2. 01274 432000, bradfordtheatres.co.uk