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Johnston grew up in Prescot, Lancashire and attended Whiston Infants School, Eccleston Park Junior School and Prescot & Huyton Grammar School for Girls - leaving at the age of seventeen after only one year of her "A" level course. She worked as a tax inspector before enrolling at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London - at the age of twenty-one.
Her many other TV and film credits include roles in Goodbye Cruel World, In Suspicious Circumstances, Inspector Morse, A Touch of Frost, Full Stretch, Medics, Brassed Off, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, Crime Traveller, Verdict, Duck Patrol, The Jump, Sex, Chips & Rock n' Roll, My Uncle Silas, Cutting It, The Street, Little Dorrit, Jam & Jerusalem, The Turn of the Screw, A Passionate Woman, Sugartown, Lapland and Gates.
After her stint on Coronation Street, Johnston joined the cast of Downton Abbey for its fifth season.