‘He may be older, but I’m the grown-up’ He was a famous actor and friend of her parents; she was a wild child 25 years his junior. Forty years on, Sarah Standing explains why marrying Johnnie was the making of her
- I’m 63 now, but I’d first met Johnnie when I was five and living in LA
- The age gap meant nothing to me. When you’re in love, who cares?
- READ MORE: Cancer taught me what really matters in life
My dad inadvertently set me up with my husband, the actor Johnnie Standing. I was 21, living in London and had tickets for the movie premiere of Fame, but no one to go with.
‘Why don’t you go with Johnnie Standing?’ said Dad. ‘I saw him the other day and he’s not with anyone. Johnnie’s a real gentleman.’ He was also 25 years older than me and close friends with my parents – the director Bryan Forbes and actress Nanette Newman.
I’m 63 now, but I’d first met Johnnie when I was five and living in LA where my dad was making his first big Hollywood film King Rat. The cast were over for supper – Johnnie was starring in it.
A few days later, he and his wife took me to Marineland (an oceanarium). We still have the photo of me grinning wildly beside Johnnie’s Mustang. To me, he stood out as one of those adults who was great fun and talked to kids without being patronising.
By the time I was 21 and working as a scriptwriter, Johnnie was divorced, with a son, Alex, who was five years younger than me, and he was starring in a TV show, The Other ’Arf, with Lorraine Chase.
We got married a few years later. The age gap meant nothing to me. When you’re in love, who cares? Pictured: their marriage in 1984
He was quite a man about town, and if he was surprised to be asked out by the daughter of his friends, someone less than half his age, he didn’t show it.
Nor did he bat an eyelid when I turned up in fishnets and a skintight vinyl skirt from Vivienne Westwood’s shop Sex, which I could only get on by lying on the floor and smothering myself in talcum powder.
We had a blast and I wrote in my diary, ‘At last! A date with a brain.’ We got married a few years later. The age gap meant nothing to me. When you’re in love, who cares? But what you don’t expect when you marry someone 25 years older is that, nearly 40 years later, he’ll have to look after you.
In November 2020, during Covid, I was diagnosed with cancer. I’d gone into hospital alone because of breathlessness, and, weirdly, the consultant knew Johnnie as he’d treated him for bronchitis.
When he gently told me I had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, one of the first things he added was, ‘I’m worried about your husband. This is going to be very hard on him.’ I was worried, too.
Johnnie was 86. He couldn’t cook anything except for eggs. He doesn’t know how to use the washing machine. I was keeping him bloody healthy! This wasn’t part of the game plan.
When we’d first got together, I don’t recall any horrified reactions to the age gap. Maybe I was just oblivious. In retrospect, my parents were amazing.
I’d been a bit of a wild child and had endless disastrous relationships. One was with an illegal bookie. I’d been engaged to Elton John’s manager John Reid at 17.
I think they were just pleased I was going out with someone who was incredibly kind to me. My dad had always said, ‘Never go to bed with someone who doesn’t make you laugh.’
Well, Johnnie really did that. It was a glamorous time. Johnnie lived in a studio on the King’s Road, with wonderful paintings and a pitiful fridge with maybe two dead tomatoes and a couple of eggs.
He’d be in a play and I’d meet him afterwards. I made no concessions for the age gap. I’d take him to see David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen and he’d take me to see Maggie Smith. We both liked Frank Sinatra.
: Sarah and Johnnie with three of their children, (from left) Tilly, India and Archie, 2012
I enjoyed having one foot in pop culture and the other in the past. In those early days, Johnnie certainly didn’t want to get married again or have more children. He’d never been out with a much younger woman and he told me, ‘This is your obligatory affair with an older man.’
It wasn’t the age gap that worried him, it was the fear of failing. My parents were happily married for 60 years – and that was my blueprint. He had about ten divorces in his family, so his thought was, ‘What if it goes wrong?’
Elton John, a family friend, was the catalyst for our marriage. After learning he was marrying Renata, I walked into the bathroom where Johnnie was in the bath and said, ‘If Elton can get married, why can’t you?’ He just stood up and said, ‘OK, but we have to go on a honeymoon first as it’s going to make me so nervous.’
We went to Bali, then got married at Fulham register office the day we got back. We had three children in four years. I relished playing Lego and pushing broccoli into their mouths. If I’d married someone who was 25 I’d have had eight! Johnnie was an amazing father – funny, outrageous, always on their team.
Maybe when you are a father again at 49, you’re at a point in your career when you’re not as driven and have more time. We have two grandchildren now and he’s ridiculous as a grandfather.
Our grandson Huck calls him ‘BoomBoom’ because he used to take Huck to see the changing of the guards all the time. ‘BoomBoom, can I show you something on your phone? This is what I really want!’ ‘But how do I get it, darling?’ ‘You just press “Buy now!”’ He’s a sucker! Johnnie’s useless with money, form-filling or house maintenance.
Perhaps one of the reasons actors become actors is so they don’t ever have to grow up. When a burst pipe sent water gushing through our ceiling and I told him to turn it off at the mains, he said, ‘Darling, you married an actor, not a plumber! I don’t know where the mains are!’
I co-owned a toy shop for 20 years and I loved the nine-to-five existence. I was the organiser, the caretaker, and Johnnie was Minister of Fun. I used to say I was the mature one in the marriage. I’ve sort of blanked out the call I made from hospital to tell him the diagnosis.
It was the worst one I’ve ever had to make. It was during Covid so he was on his own and I knew I was going to shatter his life. A long time later, he told me that, afterwards, he lay on the bed and howled – it was the first time he’d cried in 50 years.
He’s the stiff-upper-lip generation. We haven’t had any ‘big talks’ about the future. Johnnie has stayed unbelievably optimistic: ‘We’re going to get through this together.’
He kept forgetting what I had when people called, so for about six months, we had a piece of paper in the kitchen that said, ‘NON-HODGKIN LYMPHOMA’. Without humour you’re sunk and when I was bald, withered and wearing wigs, we always made each other laugh.
He has been an excellent carer, making the cups of tea and the bed comfy, trying to get me to eat more, buying me flowers and an electric blanket because it was so cold without hair. He does everything except the cooking – unless it’s eggs.
Cancer is brutal, it comes back to bite you. I had four months of chemotherapy, a year of immunotherapy, then a scan in September showed it was in my diaphragm. I’ve just completed four weeks of radiotherapy. We’re waiting to see what comes next.
Through Covid, cancer and lockdown we’ve been together 24/7 and that’s been one amazing bonus. I’m so glad we had that opportunity. We’ve done 50 jigsaws, watched so much TV, had so many dinners, taken so many walks.
Johnnie is 88 now and back acting. He’s just finished a film with Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine. He’s fit, slim and healthy – he’s like Teflon. The age gap means nothing. You love who you love.
- Dancing With The Red Devil by Sarah Standing is published by Headline, £20*
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