Suranne Jones doesn’t want to scare me, she says in between sips of fruit tea, but she’s going to get “a bit Zen. I believe that you have to think that you’re on the right path and things will come to you when they do,” she explains, aware how cheesy this sounds. “When I look back at the child I was, the girl who wore the mouse ears in the chorus line and got in trouble for not pronouncing her Ss right, it’s hard to believe that girl had all that ahead. But here we are.”
Here we are indeed, sitting in a bustling bar-restaurant round the corner from Jones’s house in south Manchester. As she explains her attitude to life – one that’s seen her go from soap star, as Coronation Street’s Karen McDonald, to Royal Television Society Award-nominated actress (for Unforgiven) and hugely popular TV detective, courtesy of Scott & Bailey, which she co-created – Jones sounds surprised that she’s done so well.
Certainly, her path didn’t always seem so assured. Though she attended that northern star factory the Oldham Theatre Workshop, with the likes of Anna Friel, Corrie’s Antony Cotton and Lisa Riley, late of Strictly Come Dancing, Jones wasn’t a driven child.
“My brother got As in school and ended up going to university, whereas I had no interest in any of that,” she says. “I was bunking off to work in a hairdresser’s, getting detention for swearing at teachers, and getting bullied. I remember arguments with teachers and not feeling nurtured. Like a lot of children, the strictures of the education system just didn’t suit me.”
So was it performing that saved her? Jones pulls a face, but doesn’t disagree. “My mum did two jobs – as well as her day job, she was a cleaner at night – to support me and my brother. When I wanted to go to drama classes, my dad would come home from work, get his tea, take me on the bus to class, come home and then come back to pick me up. Without him doing that and my mum working so hard, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They believed in me in a way that I didn’t feel I was believed in at school.”
The involvement with Oldham Theatre Workshop was undoubtedly the first step on Jones’s path to success. But there was a diversion along the way. “After I left school, I was going to manage a pub. Having got a job, I had a Filofax as soon they came out, and a mobile phone and a car – and I bought all those things myself because independence was important to me.”
But then along came Coronation Street. Jones’s four years as Karen McDonald changed her life, at only 20. “I looked 29 when I was 12 – big boobs, the lot – and was always being cast older than my years. So when Karen came along, though I might have been a bit young to play her, I jumped at the chance.”
Jones’s Karen quickly became one of the soap’s most popular characters. Off-screen, this brought choices. “I learnt early on that the ‘lads mag’ route – going to all the parties, getting photographed in a bikini and stuff – is certainly one route to being visible. I did that, for maybe a year, and realised that it wasn’t for me. When I worked out that the Corrie writers were responding to things I did as Karen and taking me seriously, I took me seriously, too. I dumped all the going-to-Barbados freebies and the parties and focused on Karen McDonald.”
It paid off. Along with the hard graft that working on a soap demands, Jones learnt and matured. “Being part of a team, working hard and not moaning, being punctual and knowing your lines – that, for me, was the lesson Corrie taught me. Basically, that hard work pays off.”
Of course, Jones being Jones, it wasn’t long before she yearned for a new challenge, and in 2004 she left Coronation Street without another job to go to. And again there were choices to be made. “Around that time, I was offered every reality show you could mention – Dancing with This, That and the Other, Swimming with Sharks, Get Drunk for a Month. If you’d added up all the money I could have earned from doing those, I could have been really rather rich. I’m not saying any of these are bad, but they weren’t right for me. It’s the same with selling stories about yourself. I’ve never been tempted to do that because it doesn’t feel right; it doesn’t feel like a job to me.”
Jones’s work ethic drove her on, first to Vincent (2005), co-starring with Ray Winstone, and then to some less successful dramas, such as 2008’s Harley Street. But it was her role in Sally Wainwright’s brilliant drama Unforgiven that was Jones’s “game-changer”.
“I’d come so far from Karen McDonald and I’d been taken seriously as a serious actress,” she beams. Certainly, without the success of Unforgiven, Scott & Bailey wouldn’t have been commissioned. But did she think it would be such a big hit?
“You have this horrific worry that you have a good time making something, but no one will be interested in watching it. So you ask yourself questions: ‘Is it dark enough? Is it funny enough? Is it Cagney & Lacey? Does it know what it is?’ In the end, though, it was a success because audiences really took to Rachel, Janet [Scott, played by Lesley Sharp] and their boss Gill [DCI Murray, played by Amelia Bullmore]. It’s really Scott, Bailey and Murray – what’s unusual about it, I suppose, is that it has three female leads. It isn’t self-consciously ‘funny’ and it isn’t self-consciously ‘dark’, it’s just life.”
It’s true that one of the brilliant things about Scott & Bailey is that it manages to be a thrilling police procedural as well as a truthful portrayal of the relationship between its three protagonists and an honest examination of those characters. For Jones, Rachel Bailey’s journey in the third series is a fascinating one.
“The first season was, in broad terms, about Rachel’s trouble with men, the second was Rachel’s drinking, and this third series is about her history catching up with her. I think the only way that Rachel deals with success is to press the self-destruct button, so that everyone around her feels the fallout and she can say, ‘See – I’m an idiot.’ She’s very questionable in season three, to a point where the audience might not like her. But I don’t mind being that person. I’m drawn to damage and dysfunction. Just look at Carrie in Homeland. How brilliantly flawed is she!”
As Jones looks back on the decade since she left Coronation Street, it’s with an evident mix of pride and excitement. Very much a self-made woman, she has a lot to be proud of. “You do have to concentrate on what you’re doing career-wise, though by doing that, time can pass really quickly and other things slide.
“I’m quite traditional in that I do want a family and a husband, but I’m single and I have been for a while. And I don’t want to get all Zen again, but you have to think that you’re on your path and you don’t question it. I’ve got a lovely life – great friends and a brilliant family – and all that other stuff will find me when it finds me.”
Putting down her tea, Jones pauses and leans forward conspiratorially. “Of course, this is what I believe right now, but talk to me when I’m 60 and I’m saying, ‘Oh let’s get married!’”
Scott & Bailey continues on Wednesdays at 9:00pm on ITV