wed 28/02/2024

Tidy: Ruth Jones gets gonged | reviews, news & interviews

Tidy: Ruth Jones gets gonged

Tidy: Ruth Jones gets gonged

O. What's occurrin' is an MBE for the co-creator of Gavin and Stacey

'I’m big, buxom and Welsh and you should see me for this production'

The late rise of Ruth Jones, who has been made an MBE, is a blessed relief. According to the prevailing rules of ageism and lookism, Jones should still be plugging away in supporting roles, typically as the large gobby sidekick which for years looked like the outer limit of her casting range.

But after 20 years in the business and at the ripe age of 41, she won best female comedy newcomer at the British Comedy Awards. The performance that swayed the jury was still a gobby supporting role. But this time Jones  – with James Corden (who won the male award)  – had written it herself. Whether by accident or design, there were few laughs in Gavin and Stacey for either Gavin or Stacey, but all sorts for their sidekicks Smithy and Nessa. “We didn’t do it intentionally,” she insists. “Everyone says, ‘Oh yeah they obviously gave themselves all the best lines.’ We literally start improvising.”

For quite a while the nation mostly knew Jones as Myfanwy, the Sapphic pint-puller of Llandewi Brefi, the unWelsh-looking village in Little Britain which has but one gay. From behind the bar she cheerfully exhorted the diffident Gareth in a sing-song Swansea accent, “You could have had a bit of cock there!” “When I was sent the Little Britain sketches I remember reading it out to my husband and going, ‘This is really rude’, but smiling when I said it. There’s something about the intention behind it.”

When I first met Jones on the set of Saxondale she mentioned something about a sitcom of her own brewing. She was in make-up, having a tattoo printed on her cleavage to play the girlfriend of Steve Coogan’s roadie-turned-pest-controller. Coogan offered her the part after she played a dunderheaded beautician from the Rhondda valley in Nighty Night for his production company Baby Cow. The cheerful, patient Magz was the snuggest fit of anything she has played. “The character in the first series was very much like me in real life.” And certainly the bright smile in that open attractive Welsh face seems entirely natural. Unfortunately, by the second series Magz had been written into the wallpaper, “which was a shame. I would have liked to have done more. I’d make little snide remarks to Steve Coogan.”

She would have minded her downgrading far more with no Gavin and Stacey up her sleeve. Jones was the driving force who made Corden sit down and write up their idea together. The series went out on BBC Three and might have remained in that ghetto but something about its big beating heart propelled it to wider popularity. Jones’s character Nessa was the most alternative thing in it. An outsize Goth with a taste for leathered adventure, she works the Barry Island slots and reminisces about a fantastical past involving, among others, John Prescott, Nigel Havers and a couple of Fayeds. In her seen-it-all Cardiff accent, bog-standard Welsh lexicon was winningly reminted as a set of catchphrases. “Tidy.” “Genuine.” “I not gonna lie to you.” “O, what’s occurrin’?” Jones defends her to the hilt. “She’s got a real soft side to her, Nessa,” Jones insists. “She is incredibly accepting of people’s faults. She says, ‘I’ve been judged myself, both inside and out, and it’s not nice.’”

Jones started out in acting on the assumption that she too would be judged. She grew up in Porthcawl, where her mother was a doctor and her father worked as legal executive for British Steel in Port Talbot. “We had seven beaches. I always felt really safe.” That sense of security didn’t entirely apply to her acting. Though the star of sundry school shows (alongside Rob Bryden), she didn’t apply to drama colleges. “Everybody else did but I was just thinking, Oh God I’ll never get in. I suppose the thought of being that competitive was too much for me. I’ve had this innate belief that other people are better than me all my life.” Having read drama at Birmingham, she remembers refusing to look at the job listings for TV on the grounds that “I genuinely thought I could never be on television.”

After her first job, she moved to London and worked for the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council in the education department. There was “quite a long period where I was thinking, I’m going to give this up. But she wasn’t entirely without courage. Roger Michell’s production of Under Milk Wood at the National in 1995 was a job creation scheme for Welsh actors. Although she didn’t have an agent at the time, Jones faxed the casting director. “I just said, ‘I’m big, buxom and Welsh and you should see me for this production.’ Completely not expecting anything. I had to negotiate my own contract, my voice squeaking on the phone. But I did actually get my money up from other people.”

The screen part which quietly ignited her career was in East Is East (pictured above left). Her gobby northern lass got her cast in Fat Friends (pictured right). For five series she played an overweight blonde from Leeds. It was here that she clicked with the much younger Corden. In Little Dorrit she is playing another sort of fat friend. Flora Finching was Dickens’s cruel portrayal of his young sweetheart Maria Beadnell, whom he remet in middle age. “Flora, always tall, had grown to be very broad too, but that was not much… Flora, who had been spoiled and artless long ago, was determined to be spoiled and artless now. That was a fatal blow.”

Jones messed up her first audition and heard nothing. Even a couple of years earlier she might have done nothing about it. But the creator of Nessa was made of stronger stuff. “I saw the executive producer a little while later and said, ‘Why didn’t I get that part? It had my name written all over it.’ They said, ‘We haven’t cast it yet. Maybe you could get re-seen for it.’ I don’t know if this is because of Gavin and Stacey or my age, but I believe in myself more. I don’t have any qualms. I don’t think it’s arrogant. It’s just a practicality.”

Overleaf: Nessa interviews Katherine Jenkins


In her seen-it-all Cardiff accent, bog-standard Welsh lexicon was winningly reminted as a set of catchphrases

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