As her breakthrough TV performance is repeated and she leads the cast of Top Girls in the West End, Suranne Jones talks to Matthew Amer about pigeonholes and pyjamas.
It is remarkably apt that as Suranne Jones leads the cast of Top Girls into the West End, ITV has chosen to rerun Unforgiven, the drama that saw Jones turn the corner from former Coronation Street star to bona fide leading British actress.
Jones’s portrayal of a woman freed from prison after 15 years served for killing two policemen was a watershed moment in her career that made both critics and the public sit up and take note of the Manchester-born actress.
Yet even with stage credentials – including A Few Good Men in the West End – and a number of television hits to her name – Single Father, Scott And Bailey – the ‘former soap star’ tag is a difficult one for Jones to shift.
Of course, in writing that, I have become part of the problem, as Jones points out when we grab a snatched chat at a time when she is balancing moving to London, transferring Top Girls into the Trafalgar Studios and still trying to fit in meetings about future projects. If the media continues to refer to her as a ‘former soap star’ then she will continue to be known as such.
It is a bit of a puzzle, to be honest. Jones has done enough quality work since leaving the cobbled streets of Weatherfield in 2004 to have moved on in the minds of many, yet such was her impact in the soap that fans still talk to her about it. That popularity was what placed her in the spotlight in the first place, and she is fondly remembered for it, but that same popularity makes it difficult for her to ever fully move on. Especially when journalists insist on returning to the subject…
In Top Girls, she has a project that could not be more different from Coronation Street. Caryl Churchill’s seminal play features a dinner party attended by influential women from across history and fiction. You wouldn’t find that in the Rover’s Return.
“It’s a piece of theatre you could put on in a gym in 20 years time and it would work as it worked when it was first on,” she says of the dinner party scene that forms Act I of the show. Act II and III are quite different, featuring the more realistic story of Marlene, played by Jones, a female businesswoman at the top of her profession. Rooted in the 1980s, it is inextricably linked to Thatcherite Britain; a period piece from just 30 years ago. Yet the capitalist world is still the capitalist world, women still face challenges at work and an emotional, familial drama is universal.
“It’s a nightmare to learn, but once it’s there, it’s a real spectacle”
“It’s a nightmare to learn,” she tells me of Churchill’s writing, which is littered with battling, overlapping sentences, vying for attention “but once it’s there, it’s a real spectacle.” Luckily enough – or maybe not – Churchill was on hand to attend rehearsals of this revival directed by Max Stafford-Clarke, who directed the original production when it premiered at the Royal Court in 1982. “She noticed when one of us was coming in even a second late with our overlapping dialogue. It was hilarious.”
It is too easy to draw parallels between any successful woman and the characters in Top Girls. Each of the dinner party guests has an intriguing story to tell, but each has also been damaged in getting to where they are. Sacrifices have to be made. Jones, who spent her early adulthood in the glare of the celebrity spotlight, can surely relate to that idea.
“You make it work,” she says of the intrusion into relationships and the nomadic existence of actors, moving around the country or the world from one job to the next. “Obviously [in Top Girls] we’re talking about a glass ceiling and it being in an office situation, so it’s different to my situation, but there are certain themes in it that struck me. That’s why I felt connected to the play. But believe me, I’m not complaining, I’ve got a brilliant life with lots of wonderful opportunities.”
That she has that life and those opportunities is down to Jones’s character and integrity. On leaving Coronation Street, she received the usual reality television offers that gravitate towards soap leavers like children to a playground fight, but turned them down. She received offers to play partners or mistresses, but didn’t fancy those either. She held out for the jobs that really interested her and that allowed her to grow. As her self-belief increased, so did her choosiness, leading to her casting in Unforgiven.
“Going into a soap at a really early age, discovering the world through that medium, you don’t know who you are in a way. The last three years has seen me growing in confidence, looking at scripts, having the confidence to turn stuff down and actually just do the stuff that I really want to do.”
But what of Unforgiven? Written by Sally Wainwright, who Jones had worked with previously on Dead Clever and since on Scott And Bailey, Jones fell in love with the character and “wanted to tell the story about this woman who would be socially unaccepted; who wouldn’t know how to live in the world she was an outcast in after 15 years away”.
So affecting was the performance that in addition to the written plaudits and the viewing figures, its success was measured by the fact that Jones was nominated for a South Bank Show Award. The category? Breakthrough Award.
“I went for a meeting this morning dressed in what could be described as my pyjamas”
“You do question ‘What am I breaking through?’” Jones admits, having received the nomination a decade after her Coronation Street debut. “Am I breaking through the perception of people who just thought I was a screaming banshee in Coronation Street? Is it that I’ve worked hard and I’ve got better? Is it that now it’s alright to say that I’m alright? I don’t know what I was breaking through, but I knew that it was nice to feel included and patted on the back for a lot of hard work.”
That hard work certainly paid off, as following Unforgiven Jones began to pick up memorable roles in Five Days, Single Father and Doctor Who. Before Unforgiven, though, she had sat down with fellow actress Sally Lindsay, decided the roles they were being offered were not good enough and decided to do something about it. The result, after half a decade of discussion and refinement, was recently recommissioned ITV cop drama Scott And Bailey.
The decision, she says, was about “taking things into my hands, giving something a go and saying ‘What about if we do this?’” While much has changed in the finished series to the first ideas that Jones and Lindsay concocted – for a start, Lesley Sharp is now playing Lindsay’s character after childbirth prevented the co-creator from starring – the heart of Jones’s character, Rachel Bailey, has remained untouched. She has “the traits that we usually see in a male character, but is also emotionally messed up when it comes to her home life”. She is the female equivalent of so many ‘troubled’ male detectives.
With its trio of strong female characters – Jones and Sharp are joined by Ameila Bullmore as their superior officer – and its female writing team, Scott And Bailey is doing its bit to redress the gender imbalance often cited within television. It is fuelled by women at the top of their field, which, in the context of Top Girls, makes you wonder what they have sacrificed.
The answer, most recently, in Jones’s case, is possibly a little dignity. The actress is now such hot property that in amongst the hustle and hassle of moving house and transferring a show, she has had to squeeze in meetings about possible future projects. As anyone who has ever moved house will know, finding everything you need at such a time can be difficult. The result? “I went for a meeting this morning dressed in what could be described as my pyjamas. It was the only thing I could get to hand… I think it broke the ice.”
I imagine it could well have done, certainly if she was wearing…
“… Don’t picture me in a Wee Willie Winkie outfit turning up at meetings.” Oh. “I mean like a T-shirt and jogging bottoms.”
The Wee Willie Winkie nightwear confusion cleared up, Jones relaxes. “People could have thought I’d gone completely mad. It’s not that bad yet, although if I keep taking things on it could get worse.”
If I was a betting man, with Jones’s star very much in the ascendency, I’d be tempted to have a flutter on seeing the Top Girls leading lady running through the town, upstairs and downstairs in her nightgown, in the not too distant future.