FEATURE: From life on ‘the cobbles’ to starring in The Muppets
Actress Abby Johnson has starred with everyone from Coronation Street legend Hilda Ogden to Miss Piggy in the Muppets.
Now she runs dog kennels and cattery Rover’s Return in Swineshead, fondly named in honour of her time on ‘The Street.’
When someone mentioned to me that Abby had been in Coronation Street, I had to get in touch with her to find out more.
And what stories she has. Her memories include meeting Bet Lynch actress Julie Goodyear in her dressing room for the first time, not being able to get rid of Sir Elton John on The Muppet Show and actress Raquel Welch being a bit of a diva and “not liking Miss Piggy”.
Abby recalls: “The first time I met Julie Goodyear she was in her dressing room and said ‘come in chuck’ and I saw a woman with an abundance of blonde hair stuck on her head!”
Originally from Macclesfield, Abby starred on The Street as Nurse Kaye, a pretty nurse, given the thankless task of nursing Stan Ogden.
But Stan’s wife Hilda suspects something is going on between the two when Abby’s character has to go upstairs to give Stan his injections.
“There’s a scene where I have to say ‘drop ‘em Stan,’ to give him the injection in his bottom,” she laughs.
Hilda quickly puts her foot down and insists the injections are done downstairs.
Abby played the part back in 1975 for six months and only left the soap as she was called back by her agent to tour the world performing on Royal Viking and P&O Cruises.
Jean Alexander called from the back of the room: ‘Have you got your needle, Abby?’
She said: “If I’d stayed on The Street, who knows... It was a part that could have run and run. I drank many pints in the Rovers!”
She also starred with Barbara Knox who plays Rita in the long-running soap.
Abby said: “Barbara had been a singer in the clubs in Manchester and when I left to go on the cruise ships she said to me ‘I do envy you.’”
Another memory is of Street legend Pat Phoenix who was going through her ‘big diva’ phase at the time and had her very own dressing room.
It was while on the cruise ships that she met her late husband John.
He was a coxswain (navigator) and like Abby had travelled the world.
But when they finally decided to go ‘shore side’ and were asked by family ‘what are you going to do with your lives?’ John said ‘Abby keeps going on about having a kennels.’
Abby, now 75, said her mum used to breed setters and she had always said she would love to look after other people’s animals.
The dream became a reality and after finding the perfect home at the right price in Lincolnshire, Abby and John moved to Swineshead and opened Rover’s Return in 1982.
“It was John who came up with the name,” said Abby. “He came running in and said ‘I’ve got it - Rover’s Return.’ It links to my time in Coronation Street but also says it’s a place that Rover returns to.”
Sadly, her beloved husband John passed away in 2010 after suffering a heart attack.
She now continues to run the kennels and cattery with her friend Graham Armer.
Actress Jean Alexander, who played Hilda Ogden, opened the Rover’s Return after keeping in touch with Abby when they met again on the Sea Princess ship.
Abby said: “She was a lovely lady. I was performing Friday Night is Music Night and I heard a voice call from the back of the room: ‘Have you got your needle Abby!’ (a reference to the scenes Abby played as Nurse Kaye in The Street). It was Jean and we re-connected from there.”
In between running the Rover’s Return, Abby has kept her toe in the theatre world with performances in ‘Hello Dolly,’ by Spalding Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society and performing with Blackfriars Theatre in Boston.
Her incredible career also includes singing with the famous D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, appearing in the West End, in Crossroads and Emmerdale Farm and, of course, in The Muppets.
She did many of the female voices, including the chickens and Zelda Rose.
When Sir Elton John appeared on the show, ‘he just wanted to keep on singing,” she said.
But star Raquel Welch was a bit of a diva.
Abby said: “She was this big LA film star and did not like Miss Piggy. She found it all ‘a bit silly.’
That’s show business!
Abby was first interviewed by our sister paper the Lincolnshire Free Press back in 1986, in the early years of the kennels and cattery.
She took her first steps into show business after being encouraged by her school teacher Joyce Wood.
“I said to my teacher I wanted to sing for a living and go on the stage,” Abby recalls.
She studied at the Royal College of Music in Manchester and won a scholarship to the Royal Academy in London.
Early acting days were spent duping unsuspecting members of the public, working for TV’s Candid Camera team.
Joining the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company she played many of the leading Gilbert and Sullivan soprano roles.
Filming on the Coronation Street set was fun but could also be frsutrating.
“One day they got me up there to do a scene in an old Morris Minor. I drove up the street, had to reverse and mount the kerb and that was that. They said ‘thank you, we’ve got what we need.’
“They had all the scenes they later needed of Nurse Kaye going down the street. I was paid one day’s work for that.
“My agent was quite cross about it.”