My dad inadvertently set me up with my husband, actor Johnnie Standing. I was 21, living in London and had tickets to the premiere of the film 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 is a real gentleman. He was also 25 years older than me and a close friend of my parents, director Bryan Forbes and actress Nanette Newman.
I’m 63 now, but I first met Johnnie when I was five years old and living in Los Angeles where my dad was shooting his first big Hollywood movie King Rat. Casting was done for supper – Johnnie was playing there.
A few days later, he and his wife took me to Marineland (an oceanarium). We still have the photo of me grinning wildly next to Johnnie’s Mustang. To me, he stood out as one of those adults who had a lot of fun and talked to the kids without being condescending.
By the time I was 21 and working as a screenwriter, 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 difference meant nothing to me. When you’re in love, who cares? Pictured: their wedding in 1984
He was a real city man, and if he was surprised to be invited by his friends’ daughter, someone less than half his age, he didn’t show it.
He also didn’t bat an eyelid when I showed up in a fishnet and skintight vinyl skirt from Vivienne Westwood’s Sex Shop, which I could only put on while lying on the floor and smothering myself in talcum powder. .
We had a blast and I wrote in my diary: ‘Finally! An appointment with a brain. We got married a few years later. The age difference 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, almost 40 years later, they will have to take care of you.
In November 2020, during Covid, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had gone to the hospital alone due to shortness of breath and, oddly, the consultant knew Johnnie as he had treated him for bronchitis.
When he gently told me I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, one of the first things he added was, “I’m worried about your husband. It will be very hard for him. I was worried too.
Johnnie was 86 years old. He couldn’t cook anything except eggs. He doesn’t know how to use the washing machine. I kept him healthy! It was not part of the game plan.
“I would take him to see David Bowie, he would take me to see Maggie Smith”
When we first met, I don’t remember any horrified reaction to the age gap. Maybe I was just oblivious. Looking back, my parents were amazing.
I had been a bit of a wild child and had endless disastrous relationships. One was with an illegal bookie. I had been engaged to Elton John’s manager, John Reid, at 17.
I think they were just happy that I was dating someone who was incredibly nice to me. My dad always told me, ‘Never sleep with someone who doesn’t make you laugh.’
Well, Johnnie really did that. It was a glamorous time. Johnnie lived in a studio apartment on King’s Road, with beautiful paintings and a pitiful fridge with maybe two dead tomatoes and a few eggs.
He would be in a play and I would meet him afterwards. I made no concessions for the age gap. I took him to see David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen and he took me to see Maggie Smith. We both loved Frank Sinatra.
: Sarah and Johnnie with three of their children, (from left to right) Tilly, India and Archie, 2012
I liked having one foot in pop culture and the other in the past. At that time, Johnnie certainly did not want to remarry or have any more children. He had never dated a much younger woman and he said to me, “It’s 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 married for 60 years and that was my plan. He’s had a dozen divorces in his family, so his thought was, ‘What if it goes wrong?’
Family friend Elton John was the catalyst for our marriage. After learning he was going to marry 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 our honeymoon first because it’s going to make me so nervous.”
We went to Bali and then got married at the Fulham Registry Office the day we returned. We had three children in four years. I loved playing Lego and shoving broccoli into their mouths. If I had married someone who was 25, I would have been eight! Johnnie was an amazing dad – funny, outrageous, always on their team.
Maybe when you’re a new father at 49, you’re at a point in your career where you’re not as motivated and have more time. We now have two grandchildren and he is ridiculous as a grandfather.
Our grandson Huck calls it ‘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? That’s what I really want! “But how can I get it, darling?” ‘Just press ‘Buy Now!’ It’s a sucker! Johnnie is useless with money, filling out forms, or maintaining the house.
Maybe one of the reasons actors become actors is because they never have to grow up. When a burst pipe squirted water through our ceiling and I told him to turn it off at the mains, he said, ‘Honey, you married an actor, not a plumber! I don’t know where the pipes are!’
I co-owned a toy store for 20 years and loved the nine-to-five existence. I was the organizer, the caretaker, and Johnnie was the recreation minister. I used to say I was the most mature in marriage. I kind of masked the call I made from the hospital to tell her the diagnosis.
It was the worst I’ve ever had to do. It was during Covid so he was on his own and I knew I was going to smash his life. A long time later he told me that afterwards he lay on the bed and screamed – it was the first time he had cried in 50 years.
This is the stiff upper lip generation. We didn’t have “big talks” about the future. Johnnie remained incredibly optimistic: “We will 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’S LYMPHOMA.” Without humor you sank and when I was bald, withered and wearing wigs, we always made each other laugh.
He was a great caregiver, making the tea cups and the bed comfortable, trying to get me to eat more, buying me flowers and an electric blanket because it was so cold with no hair. He does everything but cook – 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 CT scan in September showed it was in my diaphragm. I just completed four weeks of radiation therapy. We are waiting to see what happens next.
Thanks to Covid, cancer and lockdown we have been together 24/7 and that has been an amazing bonus. I’m so glad we got this opportunity. We’ve done 50 puzzles, watched so much TV, had so many dinners, taken so many walks.
Johnnie is now 88 and back. He just finished a movie with Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine. He’s fit, lean and healthy – he’s like Teflon. The age difference means nothing. You love who you love.
- Dancing With The Red Devil by Sarah Standing is published by Headline, £20*