When I speak to Suranne Jones in early July, the star of Channel 4’s new drama I Am Victoria is self-isolating. She’s currently in the middle of shooting the second series of BBC period romp Gentleman Jack, which has been forced to pause production amidst the ongoing pandemic. “It’s a bit of a mess,” she admits. “Gentleman Jack should have been done by now but we’re not – it’ll have taken over a year by the time we finally finish at the end of October. It’s crazy. And you get to a place where… I said to my husband, I’m frightened to go to work – obviously I’m double-jabbed and I’m in a testing regime, but it’s this thing that everyone’s going, ‘You may have been in contact…’
“Hopefully, it’ll change. But at the moment, we’ve been sent home for 10 days, and, you know, you can’t go out of the house – it’s madness, really, but let’s hope it changes. And that we all stay sensible.”
I Am Victoria, the first in a second series of one-off dramas created by BAFTA winner Dominic Savage, is not explicitly about the pandemic but the arc of its central character, Jones’s Victoria, feels especially resonant set against the backdrop of the past 16 months. Indeed, Jones tells RadioTimes.com that her own experiences with mental health over the last year-and-a-half helped shape the drama, which like every instalment of the I Am… series is mostly improvised and draws from ideas contributed by its lead actor.
“My agent called and said that Dominic wanted to meet me – and I said yes, because I knew of his work, though at the time, I didn’t know the I Am series. But when I went to meet him, he told me about [the first series]. And I was just fascinated by the fact that he took women’s stories and then he kind of shaped them into something that… it wasn’t exactly their story, but it came from them. I thought, oh my God, that’s amazing. I definitely want to do that.”
Jones’ initial ideas for her episode involved themes of motherhood – having given birth to her first child in 2016, only to lose her own mother 10 months later. Then, in May 2018, she pulled out of the West End show Frozen after collapsing backstage, telling The Guardian a year later, “I’d been feeling edgy. Nervous around people. Not being able to converse properly. Not being able to get my points across. And being in the theatre didn’t help. I don’t think theatre was the cause, but I think it heightened it.”
By early 2020, she tells me, “I felt that I had just got hold of my own anxiety and depression, and then the pandemic hit. My father was in ICU three months in. And during that time, me and Dominic, we were talking about what modern life does to people, and how the claustrophobia of the pandemic has really brought into focus who people are, and what they were defined by – people who’ve been defined by their work, and then no longer had it, people looking to social media to who they should be, and losing themselves completely. We talked about what modern life does to people, certainly women of my age, who come from a different generation, and they’re now kind of a little bit lost as to who they are, what they should look like, who they should be.”
This “big mishmash” of topics, coupled with Jones’ “own personal perspective of being a working mother, and what that means” all ended up fuelling I Am Victoria, which was filmed in a single location due to COVID restrictions. “So even though it’s not about what happened, the lockdown, it has resonance of that.”
The claustrophobic film sees Jones’ character struggle to keep up appearances as her underlying anxieties bubble to the surface, impacting her relationships with her friends, her husband Chris (Ashley Walters) and her sister Deborah (Alice Feetham). “Victoria doesn’t see that she has a problem,” Jones explains. “But I think it’s really important to say to people that’s it’s OK to talk about these things, these things that are affecting us. And also, modern life is great, all of the advances in technology are wonderful, but it does affect us as human beings. And it does affect who we think we should be. I think a lot of people are lost. And Victoria is lost.”
Jones hopes that I Am Victoria will help those who have been suffering in silence to realise that there are ways of getting help, but also that it sparks a discussion about better resourcing for mental health treatment. “Mental health is something that affects everybody, it isn’t ‘us and them’. And I think that’s what we need to recognise, that it isn’t something that affects some people or that labels certain people. It is an everybody thing.
“I think the larger question, which is why it sits so well on Channel Four, is that you can pay for private therapy, but it costs a fortune. You can go to the NHS, and you can get a certain amount of sessions, but then it stops, or you’ll go on a waiting list. So the resources for help… that’s a conversation Dominic and I wanted to open up. And I think it needs to be addressed, certainly, given that we’re still in the pandemic, and that people’s lives have been so affected by this. That I think is something that the government really need to address on a bigger level.”
Pulling from her own experiences with mental health to formulate the story and to play Victoria felt “exposing”, Jones admits – “I’d come home to my husband and say, ‘God, we did a scene today, and it was really raw, because I’ve been through it’, I’d already lived it as me.” – but she also describes the experience as “cathartic” and “therapeutic”, allowing her to channel the anxieties that had been exacerbated by the first lockdown. “By the time I got to do Victoria, I was ready to just open up and scream and let it all out,” she says. “Which I certainly did.”
The fact that I Am Victoria was almost entirely improvised, with Jones, Walters and their cast-mates working only from a “skeleton outline” and shooting takes that were sometimes up to an hour long, further blurred the line between truth and fiction. “It verges on this kind of weird place where you step into your own reality as Victoria and Chris, and you forget that you’re making this show. Because you’re so in it, and the stuff that you’re saying becomes so real, because you’re not learning lines, you’re not repeating things, you’re not doing things from different angles.”
“There’s a certain level of panic,” Jones admits. “You’re like, what if nothing comes out? And then, of course, because it’s so close to my experiences, something does come out. But it’s really scary. It’s like a f**king triple X ride at a crazy theme park – you come off and you’re absolutely shaking. You’re like, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done or said’ and Dominic’s like, ‘But I do and it’s all good.’
“It was so thrilling, exhilarating to get it out in that way. I would feel like that again in a heartbeat.”
Jones filmed her I Am… episode during a COVID-enforced break in filming for upcoming BBC drama series Vigil, in which she plays a police officer investigating a death aboard a submarine, and says that returning to the rigidity of more traditional filming was challenging – particularly with new restrictions now in place. “It’s hard. You’re always battling with lines, or repeating scenes, or – certainly during the pandemic – how things can be filmed. God, it was really hard going back to a submarine show where everyone is really close together in a claustrophobic set. And then doing Gentlemen Jack, this huge period drama, under the constraints of how we now have to live and work.”
While I Am Victoria was emotionally demanding and Vigil is, Jones says, a “real thriller” which required her to be “physically fit”, playing force-of-nature Anne Lister in Sally Wainwright’s returning BBC series is challenging in a different way again. “Because she speaks really fast, she walks really fast, she has all these props – a hat and a cane and this and that. So you’ve got to be match fit to do all of those things and then entertain at the same time.
“The last few jobs I’ve done have all been so different. And I feel really blessed, especially given the time that we’re in, to be able to do three amazing jobs that all challenge me in different ways.”
Is there any part of her, though, that yearns for something that’s purely fun, perhaps a return to the flat-out slapstick of 2012-14’s A Touch of Cloth? She laughs. “I loved A Touch of Cloth! I often think Charlie [Brooker, writer] should bring us back to go again. But, y’know, Gentlemen Jack’s fun, so I’m getting to tickle my funny bone with that…”
She pauses, then continues. “Actually, I’ve always wanted to do a musical. That is still my big thing. I just want to sing and dance and be like, y’know… tits and teeth! So that’s still on my bucket list. It would be great to just do something that’s balls-to-the-wall fun.”
I Am Victoria airs on Channel 4 on Thursday (5th August) at 9pm. Read more of our Big RT Interviews.