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FRENCH AND JOHNSTON; PARTNERS IN TIME; IN EASTENDERS HE BROKE EVERY HEART IN TOWN. NOW HE'S UNDER THE THUMB OF A REFUGEE FROM BROOKSIDE. BY HILARY KINGSLEY . MAIN PICTURE BY TOBI CORNEY.

It's the sweetest U-turn in TV history. In EastEnders he was usually on the wrong side of the law - not to mention the wrong side of most of the women he loved, lied to and left. But in Crime Traveller, the BBC's major new Saturday series, the man who played dangerous David Wicks is a dedicated police officer.

And instead of reducing half of Albert Square and most of Britain's female population to tears, this time it's the handsome-as-hell hero who suffers at female hands.

Not only are his charms resisted by Holly, the beautiful colleague who helps him solve crimes before they happen using her amazing time machine. He also endures weekly humiliation by Kate Grisham, his tough, sarcastic female chief.

She's played with gusto by Sue Johnston who, in another soap life, was long-suffering "saint" Sheila Grant of Brookside.

"Most weeks I bawl him out in front of the whole department and suspend him for being useless, not following orders and wearing a shabby old suede jacket instead of a smart suit," Sue reports. "And in the first episode I actually sack him."

The irony is that Michael, a 34-year-deeply private man, might not have given up his secure EastEnders job but for the advice of two strong women - his new "boss" Sue, and his Albert Square "mum", actress Pam St Clement.

Sue, a slim, bubbly 53, and now a close friend of Michael's explains: "I first met him at the party after my friend Pam's This Is Your Life. I spent about an hour talking to him and liked him enormously. He was thinking about leaving EastEnders and I know he'd talked to Pam about it too.

"He asked me about leaving Brookside and how hard it had been, so I told him the truth -that it had taken me two years to go. I'd been happy there, I enjoyed the series, and I loved the security it brought for me and my son Joel.

"But I was getting depressed by what was happening to the character and when I learned that John McArdle, who played my partner, was leaving I just couldn't bear to act out another tragedy and put Sheila through the wringer again.

"For me there was a lot of guilt, because I was giving up a secure basis for my child, the most important thing in my life.

"But for Michael, who's young, free and with no responsibilities, that didn't apply.

"I told him, `You'll always have a few regrets - I know I certainly did - but you've got a great talent and great looks, so the world's your oyster. Why get stuck?'

"I wouldn't say that to anyone. It's easier for people from Brookside, I think. Our faces are not so familiar because we're on Channel 4. But lots of people in soaps are just very lucky to be where they are.

"They may be good in that particular role but they have to consider whether they are useful to television as a whole? Many of them aren't because it's a very cold and calculating business these days."

When, only weeks later, Sue learned that she and Michael would be working together in Crime Traveller, she was thrilled.

By the time 19 million viewers were riveted by dodgy David's exit from Albert Square the new pals were on location in the Reading area, preparing for a script full of mind-boggling time travel, car chases, punch-ups and crime-solving.

"Michael and I watched that EastEnders' episode together in a trailer on location. I think he was tremendous. There's always so much going on behind his eyes.

"Being a huge soap fan, I found it such a strange experience. I was thinking about Cindy and Carol and Bianca, the women characters who would miss him so much, and pinching myself that he actually was there with me!"

"He's great company, too. We went to the theatre to see Guys And Dolls the other week and we can't stop singing the songs together."

Sue is just as enthusiastic about Michael's performance in his new role as policeman Jeff Slade as they work together on the show's amusing scripts by top TV writer and children's author Anthony Horowitz.

Crime Traveller comes after a busy 1996 for the Warrington-based actress. As well as stage work and guest TV roles, she also appeared in two feature films - the much-praised comedy Brassed Off and an off-beat tale called Preaching To The Perverted, due out soon, in which she is reunited with her original Brookside "husband" Ricky Tomlinson.

"But Kate Grisham is my dream role. I love dominating a roomful of tasty young men," she says, laughing.

"She's very tough - woe betide anyone who calls her Kate. She's sometimes cruel but she's also fair and she likes them all. really.

"I don't know yet if a Mr Grisham is going to turn up out of the blue, but Kate is lovable, far more so than my character in Medics, Ruth Parry. She was a Margaret Thatcher. Kate's more of a Clare Short."

There's no special "Mr" in Sue's own life at the moment, apart from son Joel, who is now 17 and preparing for A-levels and university.

"When he's through that," she sighs, "I'll probably go wild . . . if I've still got the energy."
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Kingsley, Hilary
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 23, 1997
Words:881
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