Since 2012, Sky’s flagship comedy drama Stella has provided a steady flow of laughter and tears, but the latter may be more in evidence as Ruth Jones brings her heart-warming show to a close with a final, six-part run.
The series about the fictional South Wales village of Pontyberry has been a labour of love for Jones. She’s not just the star but also the head writer and an executive producer of Stella, which she co-created with her husband David Peet for their Tidy Productions company.
So she must have mixed feelings about winding up a project that has been such a big chunk of her life? “Yes there’s a part of me that’s very sad it’s finally come to an end,” says Jones. “It’s seven years now since we started working on it and as someone pointed out to me the other day, ‘That’s basically the whole of comprehensive school.’
“It’s been a fantastic journey; I’m so proud of all 58 episodes – we’ve told some lovely stories and met some gorgeous characters, but it’s time to leave them in peace now and let Pontyberry get on with life in private!
“On the last day of filming in Stella’s street, I did shed a few tears – I’m going to miss it so much – but by the same token I’m excited now to see what the future holds without Stella Jackson in it. This final series is shorter than the others but I think it’s a cracker of a finale.”
Jones’s character ran an ironing business and is now a nurse, and at the end of the last series she finally married lawyer Michael (Patrick Baladi). The proud mother of four children – Luke, Emma, Ben and new baby Holly – Stella has a colourful array of friends and family including sister-in-law Paula (Elizabeth Berrington), force-of-nature Aunty Brenda (Di Botcher) and Valleys “princess” Nadine (Karen Paullada). Plus neighbours Glen and Marj who live with a donkey.
Have there been any additions to the Rhondda gallery? “We’ve got a couple of great new characters including Aunty Brenda’s mother, Olwen [Olwen Rees], who’s turning 100. She’s like Aunty Brenda on amphetamines. And we’ll see the return of Stella’s dad, Ken [Michael Elwyn], as well as Billy [Piers Ahia] from the first Christmas special.”
Fans of Scott Quinnell will be pleased to know the former rugby international makes another memorable cameo, while Matt Lucas turns up as a Game of Thrones obsessive. Darren Day and footballer Craig Bellamy will also appear later in the series.
But then Jones, 50, seems to have no trouble pulling in the big names. “I was laughing the other day remembering when I did a sexy scene with Jonathan Ross in series three. [Stella had an erotic dream about him after taking HRT.] I’m always shocked when big names agree to be in it – I think it’s because they’re all desperate for a trip to the Rhondda Valley… But also I think the show is just, well, kind. And uplifting and a bit daft. Also the catering is amazing!”
Home life isn’t quite as chaotic for Ruth Jones as it is for Stella Jackson – Jones lives in Cardiff with her husband and has three grown-up stepchildren – but does she draw situations from daily life? “I’ve always said that Stella and I share a sense of fallibility and getting things a bit wrong. I like to think I also share Stella’s love of family and indignation when loved ones are going through a tough time.
“I never had the sleepless nights that Stella has with a new baby, but I went through the whole uni thing when my stepkids went away. I can’t do ironing to save my life and I’d make a terrible nurse, but I think Stella and I might share the same sense of humour.”
Can she pick a favourite among Pontyberry’s lovable eccentrics? “I genuinely do love all the characters. I think it’s obligatory when you’ve created them. But the ones who make me laugh the most are Aunty Brenda and Nadine. They capture a particular spirit of Welshness that I love – it’s an adorable outrageousness and audacity that I think we’re very good at in Wales.”
So what else can we expect in Stella’s swansong? “In terms of stories, there’s a big secret about to be revealed, which will rock Stella and Michael’s world, and that’s the main thrust of the series. Ben’s off to uni, Nadine finds romance in an unexpected quarter and Aunty Brenda discovers something in her family history that throws a whole new light on her whatchacall.” [Brenda has made an art form out of poor recall.] So far, so Stella. But then Jones throws in a bombshell: “In the final episode, be prepared for a big, sad shock!”
Comedy drama is a difficult thing to get right, but Stella deftly and affectingly strikes the right balance. “I think comedy drama is a tricky one. But it’s like in real life: often really tense, dramatic situations can be punctuated with the mundane and banal, and that’s what we try to capture in Stella.”
For nearly 20 years Ruth Jones has appeared on our TV screens in a wide variety of roles, in Human Remains, Fat Friends, EastEnders, Little Britain, Midsomer Murders, Nighty Night, The Street and Hattie, as well as playing Nessa in Gavin & Stacey (“I loved Nessa – she was fabulous”) and latterly Stella. She was also the host of her own chat show for BBC2. But for the past ten she has juggled her acting with writing Gavin & Stacey (with James Corden, whom she met on Fat Friends) and Stella, as well as production roles on both.
Judged the best female comedy newcomer at the 2007 British Comedy Awards, Jones was voted Cosmopolitan’s ultimate funny woman at its annual awards in 2009, and made an MBE in 2014.
Returning to the subject of Gavin & Stacey, the 2007–2010 sitcom about a remote romance between an Essex boy and a Glamorgan girl, Jones has no idea why it caught on with the public in such a big way. “It’s a mystery. But a lovely mystery.” One thing she is sure about, however, is that it’s not coming back in any shape or form (she uses the word “definitely” 11 times).
“It’s such a massive compliment that people still want more but it’s absolutely out of the question I’m afraid. It’s great that they show re-runs of it on Dave and Gold; it’s got a whole new generation of fans now who were babies when it first came out. And I think enough time has passed for me to watch it objectively, so I can enjoy it like it was made by someone else.”
Having said that, one of G&S’s best characters did make a recent comeback… “Beth Witcomb who plays Zoe in Stella got married earlier in the year and her close mate Remy Beasley, who plays Beyoncé, asked me to film the questions for a Mr & Mrs quiz to be played at Beth’s hen night. I did it in character as Nessa and I really enjoyed getting the tatts out again and donning the leather skirt!”
Jones can’t resist one further outing for her famous creation… “O! Radio Times! There’s no more Gavin & Stacey occurrin’, alrigh’? I’m up to my eyes down the slots and Neil the Baby’s about to start Barry Juniors so I got enough on my plate at the end of the day, if truth be told. Now back off!”
Post-G&S has been a busy time for many of its stars, including Rob Brydon (Uncle Bryn), Julia Davis (Dawn), Sheridan Smith (Rudi) and Mathew Baynton (Deano). Not to mention Jones’s co-writer James “Smithy” Corden, whose Late Late Show for US television, with its Carpool Karaoke, has been quite the career move…
“He’s done phenomenally well hasn’t he? He’s gone stratospheric! But then I’m not surprised: he was always going to be a massive success. And he deserves every drop of it; he works incredibly hard and he’s hugely talented so it makes total sense. I’m over the moon for him.”
So, any thoughts of a move to Hollywood for Jones? “Good God, no!”
Rob Brydon and Julia Davis are two other friends with pivotal roles in Jones’s career. Is she still in touch? “Well, Rob and I are old schoolfriends so we go way back. We don’t see enough of each other, really, which is a shame. When we do meet up we always get a bit Welsh and emotional and nostalgic. I’m looking forward to seeing his live show again.
“Julia and I had a lovely evening recently at a Bafta tribute night honouring Henry Normal, whose company Baby Cow made Gavin & Stacey and all of Julia’s shows [including Hunderby and Nighty Night]. It was so nice to spend time with her. Julia is exactly the same as when we met at 25. I adore her. I hope we get to work together again – even in our 80s. Perhaps Jill and Linda could have a Nighty Night reunion in later life…”
Jones is a shining beacon in today’s comedy world, but who influenced her in her formative years? She mentions The Young Ones, French and Saunders and Victoria Wood. “But I also loved character actresses like Julie Walters and Alison Steadman… films like Nuts in May and Educating Rita always stayed in my head. And I never get tired of watching Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
On to more modern fare, and Jones says, “I really love The Windsors – and I do so hope the royal family love it, too. I feel that they would somehow. It’s just so extreme and the posh voices that the characters have just get me every time. I also love Quacks – it manages to be really modern and resonant despite being set all those years ago. Mathew Baynton is a joy. Upstart Crow is very clever, too.
Jones is drawn to the comedy of another strong female writer/performer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “Fleabag is genius: there’s something so brave about a character voicing what we’re all thinking but are too embarrassed to say. In terms of people to watch, I do think Remy Beasley [Beyoncé in Stella] is an incredible comedy acting and writing talent. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in the future.”
Working on the final series of Stella, a show she’s nurtured with all the love and maternal instinct of its titular hero, you wouldn’t think it possible that Jones had anything else on the go. But… “I’ve recently finished writing my first novel. It’s a relationship story called Never Greener and it’s out in April. I’ve signed a two-book deal so I’d better get on with the second one.”
Any other surprises she’d care to admit to? “I adore all the Planet of the Apes films. I think it stems from watching the TV series when I was little. The kind female ape always reminded me of Miss Ellie in Dallas… maybe it actually was her..?”
And what is Ruth Jones proudest of? “Running 10k as part of a Stella relay team in the 2014 Cardiff half-marathon. I couldn’t run ten metres now!”
Stella returns on Wednesday 13 September at 9pm on Sky1
Mark has been with Radio Times since 1996 after reporting, news editing and setting up review pages for the Oxford Mail and East Anglian Daily Times. Specialises in comedy, Euro-drama, sci-fi, pop docs and retro TV, but anything like Borgen, Rev and Detectorists will always be welcome. Fulfilled an ambition to appear on the cover of RT but in heavy, Doctor Who-related disguise.