"Marks & Spencer's in Cardiff is a really good place to get recognised," Ruth Jones says, beaming, and I laugh. Not just because of her small, private joy at being the pride of the city but also because if a shop can be a person, then Ruth Jones is a Marks & Spencer. We may have got to know her as Nessa in Gavin & Stacey, the chain-smoking, leather-wearing former All Saints member who has had affairs with everyone from John Prescott to Dodi Fayed, but the 51-year-old mother of three is warm, approachable and just the right side of show business. She's a Gü Pud, a bag of Percy Pigs and a good pair of cotton knickers rolled into one person.
"I love it if someone comes up to me and says, 'I really, really love Gavin & Stacey,' or, 'I'm really enjoying the new season of Stella,' because it's a compliment about my work," she says. "But sometimes they just say, 'You're Ruth Jones!' and I say, 'No, I get that a lot. A lot of people think I'm her.' Sometimes I put on a Scottish accent. Once I ran away. I ran away from somebody at a rugby match. She just screamed, 'It's Nessa!' and I ran. It's very childish."
You're able to get inside their heads in a different way
The actor and screenwriter is here to talk about her debut novel, Never Greener, which is typical of Jones's work in its cheerful domesticity. In Gavin & Stacey two families are haplessly smashed together when two young lovers meet and get married. In Never Greener two families are obliterated by an affair ruled by manipulation, obsession and deceit. It follows Kate, a famous TV actor and low-level sociopath, who relentlessly pursues her ex-lover, Callum, a married school teacher who got her pregnant 17 years earlier.
"It kind of happened by accident," Jones says. "I took a break a couple of years ago and decided to look through my laptop for any creative ideas I might have started, and I found this screenplay that I'd written called Never Greener. And, y'know, it was only all right. I wrote it 15 years ago, so there were obvious flaws to it. I've learnt a lot about screenwriting since then."
This, she says, is the reasoning for the book's unusual timeline, which alternates between 1985 and 2002. The characters live in a world where mobile phones have just arrived and Friends Reunited takes precedence over Facebook.
“But the story was good,” she says. “So I adapted it to prose fiction just as an exercise. You have a different, much more intimate relationship with the characters in a novel than when writing a screenplay. You’re able to get inside their heads in a different way. You can understand their motivations more. I haven’t quite achieved that in screenwriting.”
Ruth Jones, it should be pointed out, has an MBE for her services to entertainment. But, perhaps because of the collaborative nature of TV work, she seems rarely inclined to take credit for her work. Unlike most artists, she appears cheerfully distant from her art, holding it at arm’s length in a way that is both charming and frustrating. I ask her about Kate, the selfish, neurotic actor who is the book’s main character, and why she is the way she is.
“I’m not a psychologist,” Jones says, happily. “I wouldn’t even begin to explain why she behaves how she behaves . . . but I like that, too. There doesn’t always have to be an explanation.”
Doesn’t there, though? In fiction, at least? Isn’t the point of a novel that you get under people’s skin so that all of their actions seem fluid and believable?
The cliche with first-time novelists is that they tend to borrow heavily from their own lives. Jones, however, is insistent that virtually nothing from Never Greener has any root in her experience, despite Kate and Jones sharing a background in the British television industry.
“I’ve obviously witnessed the world of TV production, and I’m just a bit fascinated by people being a bit awful,” she says. “I’ve taken my knowledge of how things work and put it on to the character, and how someone as awful as Kate would react.
The whole fame thing is very different now
"The whole fame thing now is very different, with social media," she says, referring to Kate's 2002 timeline. "You still have paparazzi. But, before, things would end up in the papers but wouldn't be on people's phones or on Facebook or Twitter. You just think, How far is it going to go? And so many people are famous now."
Including Jones, I point out. "I don't get recognised much outside of Cardiff," she says, laughing. "You don't get many paparazzi on your doorstep. They probably couldn't be bothered to pay the Severn Bridge toll, frankly."
Although Jones has an aversion to the kind of fame she writes about in Never Greener, her former writing partner and costar, James Corden, has embraced it. The star of the US talkshow The Late Late Show has shot into orbit since they worked together on Gavin & Stacey, and Jones beams with pride at hearing his name.
“James is just so good at handling it. He’s just nicer to people than I am!” she says with another laugh. “He’s comfortable with being famous. And, also, he’s in a different level of fame to me. I might get a couple of people coming up to me, but you couldn’t walk down the street with him now. You’d be mobbed.”
James Corden is a brilliant actor, brilliant presenter
While Corden has gained multitudes of fans worldwide, there’s a pervading sense of tall-poppy syndrome around his success. For whatever reason, bringing up his name seems to incite huge reactions from the English: they’re either breathlessly loyal or have a vague hatred they can’t quite explain.
"He's a talent house. And, the thing is, no one can take that away from him. No one can say: how did he get to be so successful? Because he's completely talented. He's a brilliant actor, brilliant presenter, his wit is so quick. He's interested in everything."
Her love for Corden is obviously genuine, and is quite unusual for a celebrity interview. Typically, if you’re interviewing a famous person, and you bring up another famous person they used to work with, the shutters comes down on the conversation. The unspoken taboo of celebrity interviews is that you cannot bring up another, more famous person. Jones, on the other hand, lights up when talking about other people. She must be an invaluable friend.
“James and I are so different. There’s 13 years between us, so we’re like brother and sister. I hate it when people slag him off. I just want him to be happy, as you would be about any friend. And he is my friend.”
Corden isn't the only friend she talks about this way. Never Greener is dedicated to one of its first readers: Lucy, a close friend who died in January. "She was having chemo while I was writing it, and so I would send it to her in chunks," she says. "And she was a brilliant reader, Lucy, so I knew that her opinion on it would be honest. And she was just delightful about it. I was so grateful she could know that I dedicated it to her before she died."
But as new as the experience of writing a novel is, the experience of being read as a novelist is equally daunting for Jones.
“I’d written 10,000 words, and that’s when I gave it to people to read. That’s always the worst moment,” she says, shuddering. “And it reminded me of being at university after turning in my first essay and thinking, If I don’t pass this I’m not meant to be here, I’m not meant to be at university. Then getting it back, and thinking, Phew, I am meant to be here.”
How could someone as successful as Ruth Jones ever feel as if she didn’t belong? That’s the charm of the Welsh writer and actor, and why her characters sing so sweetly: she’s just another woman in the Cardiff Marks & Spencer, pleased you want to talk to her.
- Never Greener is published by Bantam Press