Friday Hoyden – The cracking Ruth Jones

Ruth Jones in costume as Nessa (Gavin & Stacey)

Ruth Jones in costume as Nessa (Gavin & Stacey)

Oh, what’s occurring?

I first remember noticing Ruth Jones as a performer in the darkly grotesque comedy Nighty Night, penned by the brilliantly odd Julia Davis, where Jones played a much put-upon and not terribly bright assistant to Davis’ manipulative monster Jill.

Jones stole every scene she was in, so I was glad to see her pop up a few years later as long-suffering barmaid Myfanwy in Little Britain, forever unable to get Dafydd to accept that he’s not in fact the only gay in the village at all.

She recently popped up on my radar again as one of the principal characters in the British hit comedy Gavin & Stacey (playing Stacey’s best friend Nessa), but it wasn’t until I researched her for this post that I realised she’s actually a co-writer/creator of the show.

Ruth Jones as Linda with Julia Davis as Jill (Nighty Night)

Ruth Jones as Linda with Julia Davis as Jill (Nighty Night)

Matt Lucas (Dafydd) with Ruth Jones (Myfanwy) - [Little Britain]

Matt Lucas (Dafydd) with Ruth Jones (Myfanwy) - (Little Britain)

Jones and acting friend James Corden (who plays Gavin’s best friend Smithy) came up with the concept for a one-hour special about a wedding, and when they pitched it to the BBC it was suggested that they turn it into a 6 episode series showing how the couple met and ended up walking down the aisle. They haven’t looked back for the last three years, so hugely successful has the show been. Corden in particular has enjoyed the high life in London, while Jones is more grounded in Wales where she and her husband have a production company which aims to promote Welsh culture and talent.

James Corden and Ruth Jones
James Corden and Ruth Jones

James Corden and Ruth Jones

I largely started watching it because it was at least partly about the cultural divide between England and Wales, and my husband is Welsh, plus it had Rob Brydon, Alison Steadman and Julia Davis as part of the ensemble cast – who could resist? As expected, such a cast provides plenty of eccentricities, foibles, peccadilloes and faux pas to strew across the path of true love for English Gavin and Welsh Stacey, who despite being the title characters are in many ways the least interesting relationship in the show – it is the reaction of their friends and family to the situation where one of them is going to have to move away from kith and kin to be with the other, everybody trying to make the best of things and not everyone feeling happy with decisions that are made, that provides the continuing emotional drive of the plot.
Nessa (Ruth Jones) with Stacey (Joanna Page)

Nessa with Stacey

It’s refreshing to see a romantic comedy where the lovers are still concerned about the feelings of friends and relatives, and where it’s simply taken for granted that they expect some mutual understanding that these pre-existing relationships don’t just wither away simply because they have become enthralled. It’s also bracing to see two fat characters for once written for themselves to perform by fat actor/writers, who never ignore their fat but who never make it ridiculous just for the sake of a cheap laugh, either. And just to get the obBechdel out of the way – if this wasn’t a show entirely about the complications of relationships, so that nearly every conversation is about a relationship, this show would pass with flying colours – the women continually have real and meaningful conversations with each other, and so do the men.
Nessa holding a bowling ball decorated with a Welsh dragon

Nessa Bowled for Wales? - of course!

But now, let’s get on to the sheer awesome that is Vanessa “Ness” Jenkins, who has a past so chequered that I can’t find an effective simile, and whose intimidating string of achievements is incrementally revealed by casual nuggets of conversation about international travel and top celebrity encounters/liaisons.

Cover for Comic Relief single

Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon recorded a single with accompanying video for Comic Relief

Nessa is all woman, with a cleavage to die for, but eschews most other feminine mannerisms – she sees no need to smile ingratiatingly, expresses her opinion forthrightly, refuses to take crap from anybody, drives an articulated lorry and makes the first move in seduction. She is an intimidating yet irresistible femme fatale, who finds life too short to play manipulative games when she can just be bluntly honest in letting people know what she does and does not want from them. Tidy.
Rob Brydon as Bryn and Ruth Jones as Nessa

Rob Brydon (Bryn) and Ruth Jones (Nessa) have been close friends since schooldays

The final season of Gavin and Stacey has just aired in the UK (they wanted to end it on a high while it was still fresh, and have not ruled out the occasional special in future years). I can’t wait to see what Ruth Jones does next.

Categories: arts & entertainment, work and family

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15 replies

  1. She’s also appeared in Torchwood, as Nikki in the episode Adrift. While this episode has been rightly criticised for some horrible disableism, I do think that Jones did a great job there acting-wise.

  2. I am also a little bit in love with Nessa from Gavin and Stacey. I think it’s the flames shooting across the side of her articulated lorry.
    There is no doubt that Ruth Jones is the brains behind that show although predictably enough it is Corden that seems to get the most adulation. One of the things I like best about it is the portrayal of Stacey and Nessas friendship. I really feel that only a woman could have understood and managed to portray so beautifully the bond between two women in such a way.

  3. …I never realised Nessa and Myfanwy were played by the same actress. Consider my mind (pleasantly) blown.

    • @Beppie,
      I’ve never seen that episode of Torchwood – I’ve actually deliberately avoided it because of the disableism issues. If I’d realised Jones was in it I would have given it a go.
      From interviews I’ve read I get the impression that Corden contributes at least his fair share of plot ideas, character “business” and punchlines. They don’t say it, but I suspect it’s mostly Jones who does the fine detail work in the scripts. [Edited to add – he’s also a party-hearty chap, while Jones likes a quiet life in Wales, so he’s just the one who’s out and about for interviews and chat shows.]
      She also played Magz in Steve Coogan’s Saxondale, a show I watched for about 3 episodes more than I otherwise would simply because she was in it. Steve Coogan has done some great stuff, and British Comedy would be a poorer place without Baby Cow productions, but that just wasn’t one of his better efforts.

      • I really like this quote from an interview with Corden in 2008 (just after he and Jones won their BAFTAs) where the writer focuses much more on Corden even though Corden himself obviously wants to give full credit to Jones. Eventually the journo gets down to describing what makes the show work, and it seems about right to me:

        Funny, truthful and at times jaw-droppingly subversive, it’s the writing that dazzles. Hardly surprising when Jones has worked with the cream of alternative comedy, from Coogan in Saxondale to Julia Davis in Nighty Night (she is also, of course, barmaid Myfanwy, in Little Britain). In turn, Corden has learned from auteurs such as Leigh, Bennett and Shane Meadows – ‘people who hold the mirror up and find the extraordinary in the ordinary’.

        I also like this quote from Corden:

        ’Why write about shooting and killing when you can write about love,’ he insists? ‘And it’s happening all the time right now, someone says, I really like you, I love you and someone else says, I love you, too. Let’s spend the rest of our lives together if we can,’ he says incredulously. ‘That’s far more interesting to me than people running around with guns, or any Matrix thing. I don’t know why anyone needs to make anything up. It’s all there.’

  4. I adore Gavin and Stacey. I hadn’t heard about it all, then we just put the television on one night and there it was. And yep, she stole our hearts.

  5. I love, love, love, Ruth Jones and am hoping that they concede to popular demand and write a little bit more of Gavin and Stacey. A Christmas 2010 special maybe???
    What I found bizarre was how James Corden launched off Gavin and Stacey his comedy duo with Matt Horne. Horne & Corden was a massive flop and got cancelled after 1 series. For me, the comedy genius spark was in the relationship between Jones and Corden, not Horne & Corden. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, maybe she didn’t want it to continue, but I felt that as a feminist commentator the success came and the female of the partnership was ditched, the two males making a new partnership which did not have the same writing quality. I’m sure it may have been perfectly explainable, but it’s hard to read it otherwise.
    Like Gappy says about Ness and Stacey’s friendship, you can really sense that a strong female writer has masterfully depicted aspects of womanhood that you don’t often have in mainstream TV, let alone mainstream comedy.

    • @frank,
      It’s fairly typical in the UK for people to do several different shows during a year, especially given the BBC penchant for short and sweet 6-episode comedy series. The actors would hardly be making a decent income if that was the only thing they did in a single year! Mixing and matching partnerships (think French & Saunders and their respective Absolutely Fabulous and The Vicar of Dibley) is the industry norm in the UK – I would be immensely surprised if Jones and Corden only stuck to working with each other. My fingers are crossed for Jones to work on writing something with Julia Davis, actually – I would love love love to see that.
      That said, I agree that the Horne & Corden sketch show was largely a dog. Probably the TV honchos meant to cash in as much on their existing Big Brother’s Big Mouth partnership as on their Gavin & Stacey partnership, and I suspect that the lead time was rushed so that the sketches were not adequately polished before they were filmed. If somebody offered Jones the same opportunity it doesn’t surprise me that she might have turned it down purely on the grounds that the material was not adequately prepared to the standard such an excellent performer expects, and if that’s the case then I applaud her wisdom.

  6. @tigtog
    Hi tigtog, I’m in the UK so am aware of what you mention. Also, I wasn’t trying to criticize the fact that they need to do other shows to make a living! This I know. But in the popular mind, G&S was the making of Corden and Jones, and from that, in the popular mind at least, Corden then suddenly joined with Horne to launch a sketch show which was based and named around the H&C partnership, comedy duo style. Big Brother has been crashing and burning for some time here, so Big Brother’s Big Mouth hardly makes the radar of the public consciousness.
    As for mixing and matching partnerships, I don’t think that is quite the case here. I think, like you say they often do other things, but once they market themselves in a partnership they wouldn’t go and then try to market themselves in a different one. There is a definite sense of comedy duos becoming successful and sticking with that as their main identity, from which they then might do other things off the springboard of. Ant and Dec, the Two Ronnies, Vic and Bob, Little Britain are a classic examples.
    Interesting what you say about the lead time though, you may be onto something there. Market forces and all that. I felt that the final series of G&S was treated very badly in light of market forces. The DVD was out before it had finished airing so that the Christmas market could be picked up. I think something went badly wrong in programming. I for one bought it and couldn’t resist watching the whole lot in a couple of days . But I thought releasing it early did it a disservice, especially as it was the last ever.
    I don’t know what Ruth Jones has moved onto now, do you?

  7. @frank, I do see what you mean about the traditional comedy duo, but I never saw Jones and Corden as that, and I don’t think they do either. They are a writing partnership primarily, rather than a performance duo first and foremost – Gavin & Stacey was quite deliberately named after characters that other performers were playing, and Jones ventured off-piste from G&S with Rob Brydon for Comic Relief while Corden went off-piste with Horne – so they both have other performance partnerships (with people their own age, and they are all about truth in character).
    I also see Jones as making very sensible decisions for the longevity of a higher-profile career, building on her existing solid CV of reliably compelling performances with the cream of alternative UK comedy – if she shows that she can now write a successful show with her good mates Julia Davis and/or Rob Brydon and/ or Steve Coogan, that’s actually great for her and I bet she’s considering it. She’s doing character roles in period dramas as well – that’s good reliable income and keeping your face in front of the casting people. She’s playing a long game.
    Corden is by contrast a relative newcomer, his first big gig being History Boys on stage in 2004 and film in 2006. He’s still got a lot to prove to the industry about his range as a performer, so he’s keener for the spotlight right now and jumping at passing opportunities, compared to Jones building strong foundations for a career that lasts into her old age.
    As for any future for G&S:

    ”Having filmed the third series, in November 2009 Corden and Jones ruled out any future series. Corden said “There will never be another series of the show, I think Ruth and I are definite about that. As far as specials are concerned, I think if we had an idea for a story with these characters then maybe, but I don’t think that’ll happen any time soon.”, while Jones said, “Where would we go with it?…No, it’s really time to say goodbye to these characters now”. Jones ruled out a film version, declaring the show “very much belongs to the little screen, not the big one”.”

    They’re apparently working on a movie script together, but it’s not G&S and I don’t think that they’re writing it for themselves necessarily to perform in.

  8. P.S. Also, the Horne & Corden sketch show did only go out on BBC Three – they were flying a kite, and it didn’t work out. It’s not like they put it up on BBC One. And Corden had hardly any input into the writing of it – it looks like it was a show already written and ready to go just looking for a couple of likely lads to be the front-men, and the producers slotted Horne & Corden in.
    By contrast, I would expect anything new that Ruth Jones writes (either solo or in partnership with Corden or anybody else) to air on BBC Two right from the off.

  9. @tigtog
    thanks for the comments. I’m sorry, I think you misunderstood what I was trying (albeit badly) to say. I did not see Jones&Corden as a comedy duo, and they did not present themselves as such. My issue was with the H&C duo launching off the back of the G&S success, to which Ruth was obviously integral. I think people just expected it to be as clever/funny/entertaining as G&S and it wasn’t (for all the reasons you mentioned). My reflections were purely from an outside perspective, noticing that the “lads” from G&S went off and tried to launch a program together, but actually Jones was part of the success of G&S. The next I saw of Jones was stacking loo rolls in a dreadful Welsh Christmas program, which didn’t do her ability justice at all!
    Anyway, it’s nice to chat to someone who seems equally into analyzing G&S as I am!

    • @frank, I haven’t seen the Welsh Christmas program, but apparently it was produced by her very own production company (run with her husband). The company’s goals are to promote and foster Welsh talent, and it’s something close to Jones’ heart. Perhaps she wasn’t the star of it especially because her purpose was to promote other people in it.
      I do understand where you are coming from, but I just don’t think that in this particular case the “lads” going off was anything especially sexist about either the individuals or the industry (for once). Jones already had projects she was committed to with her own production company, and maybe they didn’t end up so crash-hot either, but she simply wasn’t available to go traipsing around the country for several months for a sketch show even if she had wanted to, while the young blokes with no family or other professional commitments were available, so off they went.

      • Hah! No, and much as I love my sister (out) law, she’s no Ruth Jones in the joke-cracking department. I’ll see how she feels about a red dragon tattoo, though…
        I was just so intrigued when I realised that I’d totally missed how Jones was the co-writer on G&S that I did a LOT of reading about her, to see what else I’d missed!
        Looking at what she’s been up to recently, I think she is setting her cap at being a real player in the industry, and for that you have to be a producer. I’m sure that she won’t stop writing or performing entirely, but it takes a while to build up to a level as a producer that one gets decent budgets to play with, so she’s still in the relatively early stages of that aspect of her career. At least with one’s own production company one gets a lot more control over the work one gets.

  10. I’ve got a horrible feeling you’re going to tell me she’s your sister-in-law or something… 😉

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