"It does basically take over your life," says Ruth Jones of her hit comedy drama Stella. Series two is in the can – it begins on Sky1 tonight at 9pm – but as the show's star, head writer and producer (with her husband David Peet, via Tidy, their production company), the work never stops. Series three has already been commissioned: Jones finds time to talk to RadioTimes.com on her way back home to Cardiff from a London casting session.
If you don't have Sky1, Jones has virtually disappeared from your screen since Gavin & Stacey ended three years ago. A handful of one-off chat shows for BBC2 and a memorable turn as Hattie Jacques in a 2011 BBC4 bio-drama, and that's your lot. Stella is her baby.
"I’ve been offered a couple of theatre jobs and there have been TV offers as well," she says. "I’m complimented to be thought of, but it just wouldn’t work. You know, 'I’ll try and fit in a day’s filming' but it’s never really a day’s filming. It requires a lot more work than just turning up on the day. I just think there’s no point in spreading yourself thin. You’ve got to commit wholeheartedly to what you’re doing and do a good job at that rather than do an average job on lots of things."
She's done a good job so far. Set in a Welsh valley town and centring on Jones herself as a divorcee with a chaotic extended family, series one of Stella kept the warmth, slyly filthy humour and brash but believable characters of G&S, extending its scope from sitcom to comedy drama. Simple and watchable but too funny to tip over into soap, it was a critical and ratings hit – maintaining that is the task that now takes up all Jones's time and effort.
At one point in our conversation she says "There wouldn’t be Stella without Gavin & Stacey and I’ll always be grateful for that", almost as if one of the biggest sitcoms of the past decade was merely a stepping stone to the one she really wanted. She doesn't feel that way about G&S at all, of course, but the statement's a measure of how much of herself Jones has poured into Stella.
So when it came to the second series, was it easier because the characters were all in place, or harder because they needed reinventing? "Because series one ended on such a cliffhanger [the love triangle between Stella, her boyfriend Shaun and her old flame Rob] we knew where we could take the second series. But we wanted to look at other characters’ lives for storylines, so that’s why Paula and Dai [Elizabeth Berrington and Owen Teale] get a very strong storyline in series two, which very much starts in episode 1 and finishes in episode 10. Same with Emma and Sunil [Catrin Stewart and Rory Girvan].
"It’s always good to throw things at characters that they’re not normally used to experiencing. I’m talking about them as though they’re real people..."
The focus, however, is still on Stella herself. Jones runs the show behind the scenes, but her performance as the titular lead character is just as important in terms of setting the programme's tone. It's an unselfish bit of self-casting. I ask Jones: you had carte blanche to create whichever role you wanted for yourself, and you chose someone unglamorous and crumpled who makes a lot of mistakes. You could have played someone sexy and successful.
"She is sexy! She’s not aware of her sexiness, it's a natural thing because of somebody loving her. And she’s this lioness of a mother so it’s her default to put her kids first."
If you could sit down with Stella, what advice would you give her? "I really like her because she is so fallible, and she’s got a good heart. She thinks of other people but she’s not totally downtrodden. My advice would be for her to carry on as she is. Her attitude to life is amazing, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She’s a good friend and a good person to be around. I love her compassion."
Some writers would spend a long time thinking about what message they were sending out with their female protagonist – particularly a 40-something single mother (and now grandmother) protagonist. They'd want to be making a statement about her, and real people like her. But that's not how you work, is it? "It doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel any responsibility to use Stella to make a point to tell people how to live their lives. For me, she’s a human being with the frailties and the great things that human beings have. She is a very loving person, she’s loyal. She gets a bit paranoid sometimes, she thinks she knows what’s right and she doesn’t."
I think the best thing about Stella, and Gavin & Stacey, is how unashamed they are about featuring nice people who love each other and regularly express it. Is any part of you hankering to change tack and write something where the people are absolute bastards? "I don’t know if I’d be any good at it! I think it would end up sounding a bit comedic. I had to write a script once where some scenes were set in the Houses of Parliament - it was a government initiative about teenage obesity and it was dreadful because I didn’t know what I was talking about."
Shows with no baddies could easily turn to mush. Stella doesn't. But it could. "We have got a couple in this series. But you have to be true to the style and tone of the show. There’s a boxing match in episode 8 and we could have made it really horrible, which might have been right for another show but it wouldn’t be true to Stella. It is what it is. There’s no point in trying to make it Boardwalk Empire."