It’s such a dramatic place, the South Wales Valleys. I’m on my way to Ferndale at the top of the Rhondda Fach – or the little Rhondda Valley – with Ruth Jones, and through the mist and drizzle the bald mid-Wales mountains loom into view. The road winds higher and higher, past the telltale conical mounds of former slag heaps, now greened over, and street after street of terraced houses crammed improbably on to the valley side, and a massive chapel, and a huge, derelict Working Men’s Institute, one of the so-called cathedrals of the Valleys, and it’s not hard to see why you might want to film an actual drama here.
Or, in Ruth Jones’s case, a comedy drama: Stella, her first major comedy outing since Gavin Stacey, which she not only devised, and wrote four episodes of, but has also produced with the production company she owns with her husband, David Peet.
Right at the top of valley, where there’s just mountain left, we finally pull up at Elm Street, a row of terraced houses on the kind of hill you wouldn’t want to forget to put your handbrake on, and Ruth hops out of the car. “I’ll just go and see if Linda is in,” she says. Linda, it turns out, lives in the house which, in the new series, is the fictional Stella’s home. She’s not there, but within moments one of the neighbours, Alan Jones, pops out for a chat instead. “Hello, hello!” he says. “How you doing?”
The series consists of 10 hour-long episodes for Sky, so filming took months, and was obviously a great spectacle round these parts. Jones (Alan, that is, not Ruth) is a former miner who worked in the Maerdy pit up the road until it closed, and when Ruth comments on how cold it is, he says, “It’s always colder up here, and an overcoat colder again up in Maerdy. The boys used to wear tights under their overalls.”
It’s still such a distinctive world unto itself, the Rhondda Valley, a world that Ruth Jones has lovingly attempted to recreate in Stella. She plays the title role, a single mother of three, struggling to get by in a composite Valleys setting, the fictional Pontyberry – a place where Stella’s best friend and sister-in-law (played by the wonderful Elizabeth Berrington), a functioning alcoholic, runs a funeral parlour, and the neighbours keep a horse in the house.
“We thought initially that we were going to have to be set somewhere different because we thought if it is in Wales everyone is going to go, ‘Oh, it’s just like Gavin Stacey.‘ So we very briefly thought about Bristol just because I was thinking practically, and if we filmed there we could go home every night. Then I realised I don’t know anything about Bristol so it would be silly to do that.
“So I thought, why not just embrace the fact that I am Welsh and I know I’m good at the Welsh voice? But shift it up the Valleys. I know people from the Valleys and it is just a joyously colourful place and full of characters. My sister is actually a GP up there and the stories are fantastic. In fact the horse in the house came from her. She went on a house visit and that’s exactly what happened. There was a horse in the house. So little things like that were our kind of starting point.”
And while there are similarities to Gavin Stacey – Stella’s house in Ferndale is not so very dissimilar from Stacey’s house in Barry, and the sweet-naturedness of Gavin Stacey is there, too, in Stella – in many ways the new show is a different sort of beast.
It’s an hour long for a start, rather than a half-hour format comedy, and its roots are definitely in comedy drama, rather than sitcom. It does have some brilliantly funny comic moments, though, many of them involving Steve Speirs, whose hangdog face (he’s unrequitedly in love with Stella) seems built for comedy, and the funeral parlour (“I do think the Welsh have a special enthusiasm for death,” says Ruth. “My father’s always going to funerals of people he doesn’t know very well.”)
She’s been understandably nervous about its reception. It’s the result of two years’ work, the first big series that her and her husband’s company, Tidy, have produced, and the first comedy she’s written since Gavin Stacey. And it’s by herself. She’s a reluctant interviewee – I’ve interviewed her before, but it was on the understanding that she’d only do it with James Corden. She’s simply not a natural at putting herself forward. She’s never courted publicity, squirms at personal questions, remembers slights from articles from years ago, and is what she calls “a real home bird. I love living in Wales. I mean I love visiting London, but I love coming home.”
But doing Stella is forcing her out of her comfort zone. And in many ways it feels like she’s finally coming into her own.
“I feel it’s really a bit wanky for me to go on about lacking confidence. Because I just think on, ‘Pull yourself together, Ruth. There are a lot worse things in life.’ And I get on my own nerves when I hear myself saying that. But it’s true, it’s silly, and it’s a shame. And I do feel strongly about teenagers who can get into this whole self-loathing thing, and you just want to go, ‘Oh sweetheart, honestly, go grab it because you will really feel later on.’ I wish I had. I think we waste a lot of time being under-confident.”
Gavin Stacey was, of course, a huge boost in confidence. And so is Stella: it was commissioned by Stuart Murphy, the head of Sky, who had previously been at the BBC and commissioned Gavin Stacey. When he arrived at Sky, determined to bring more comedy to the channel, one of the first things he did was to take Jones out for dinner.
“His actual words were that he wanted to ‘see what was in my mad head’. He had this idea of a kind of British Roseanne and was thinking of a studio-based comedy.
“And it wasn’t anything that I had ever contemplated writing so I went away and had a think about it, and I said to David, ‘I can think of the person.’ Because I had this idea for somebody who’s my age, but had got pregnant young, and it had affected the journey their life had taken.”
Stella is more like her, she says, than Nessa, her character in Gavin Stacey, but their life paths are dramatically different.
“That’s true,” she says. “You never do know what will happen to you. And when you’re growing up, you have certain ideas. I thought I would be married with four children when I was 24 because that’s what my mother did. But it didn’t turn out like that. There’s no reason why. It just didn’t happen. But I’m very happy with how things are.”
She’s a stepmother to David’s three grown-up children “so I’ve done the mum thing. I’ve done my stint at GCSEs.” And although she comes from a comfortable middle-class background in Porthcawl, and studied drama at Warwick University, she knows something of Stella’s career frustrations; she was going to give up acting and re-train as a solicitor.
In some ways, it’s tempting to see Stella as Ruth, in some sort of a parallel universe. Not least because much of the pathos of Stella’s situation is her wondering what might have been. And there are, perhaps, what-might-have-beens in Jones’s life, too. A week before we meet, she’s been splashed all over the papers for looking slimmer and trimmer than she’s been in the past.
“It did make me laugh. There were all these headlines saying: ‘Ruth Jones’s sudden weight loss.’ It has taken me nearly two years to lose four and a half stone and I still have a way to go. I wanted to comment on it, because otherwise people will make comments anyway, and I just did it very slowly and gradually. But because it’s not sensational enough, they still say, ‘I bet she’s had a gastric band.’ And in the end, I kind of go, ‘Say what you bloody well like.’”
Has it affected the sorts of parts she’s being offered? “I don’t think it has really kicked in yet. And to be fair, I wasn’t really getting offered roles that said: ‘Fat, ugly and whatever.’ Though I did early on.” Did her heart sink at the time? “Well yeah. But then again, you have to be realistic about this profession. I remember being asked to audition for a TV version of the Fat Slags, for example.”
A year ago, she played Hattie Jacques in a BBC biopic, and spoke about how Jacques had deliberately pigeonholed herself as “fat and funny”. Does she think that’s something that she did, too? “I think it is easier to put yourself down before anyone else does. Or to laugh at yourself before anyone else does. But then, I also just love making people laugh.”
What it’s hard not to wonder, though, is if her career might have had an entirely different trajectory. Gavin Stacey for one thing, might never have happened: it was on the set of Fat Friends, after all, that she first met James Corden. “I don’t know, to be honest,” she says. “I just don’t think you can think like that. Though I know at drama school, I can remember thinking: I will never be Juliet. I will always be the nurse.”
There’s a strong thread of loyalty that runs through Ruth Jones. Her friends are mostly ones she made at school and university. And the new ones seem as solid as a rock – James Corden and his partner Julia have asked her and David to be godparents to their new baby, Max.
And, while Sky has done her proud with a big series going out at primetime in its Friday-night comedy zone, it’s come about because of her relationship with Stuart Murphy, because he believed in her and James Corden and commissioned Gavin Stacey.
At the same time, there’s no getting around the fact that not everyone has a Sky dish. Including her parents. “My dad won’t get it. He’s always going, ‘I’m not having one of those dishes on my roof!’ I said, ‘Dad, you can have it at the back.’ But he won’t be told, so he’s going to my brother’s to watch it.”
It does seem a shame. I attend a screening in Cardiff with the cast and crew – it’s been a major source of employment for Welsh media types – who are practically rolling in the aisles at it, and afterwards my mum and sister ask me about it, and I tell them they’d enjoy it. They’re a natural audience for it, not least because they’d enjoy all the slyly inserted Welsh-isms, the twp-s (stupid), and the cwtch-es (hugs) and the Stan Stennett cameos. But they don’t have Sky either.
“It’s true. Let’s be realistic. On BBC, if you get a show doing well, it’ll get 10m views. A good audience on Sky is 1.5m. But you never know. Maybe Stella will inspire a few people to buy dishes…” It’s not out of the question, in Wales at least. We stop for a coffee in a hotel on a road leading out of the Valleys, and first she swaps seats because a group of people at another table start taking photos of her with their phones, and then the waitress rushes up to me.
“Is that Ruth Jones?”
“It is,” I say.
“Oh my God! I love her. Do you think I can go and talk to her?
And she dashes off. I only catch the end of it, but I hear the words “absolute” and “idol”.
“It’s much worse in Wales than anywhere else,” Ruth says. “Not worse, I mean it’s lovely, but I get recognised much more.”
But then, she has, more or less single-handedly, helped to redefine the country. When I asked Rob Brydon, during the filming of Gavin Stacey, if he ever thought he’d live to see a hit television comedy set in Wales, he said, “I thought we’d have hover boots first!”
“I do love it up here,” she says as we prepare to leave the Valleys and return to Cardiff. “When the mining industry stopped it was like nothing was going on up here, but it’s absolutely stunning. We really fell in love with it.”
When I meet her husband David, at the couple’s offices, he agrees. Though he possibly goes a step too far. “It looks a bit like Tuscany sometimes.”
Hmm. Well, it’s a bit of a stretch, but I can’t help but hope that Stella does for the Rhondda what Gavin Stacey did to Barry Island and puts it on the map. And that people across the nation learn the meaning of “twp” and “cwtch”. Just don’t hold your breath for “the new Tuscany” travel piece to appear.
Stella begins on at 9pm on 6 January on Sky 1