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KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES

She was a long-time resident of Coronation Street who became one of the country’s most sought after actors. Now starring in Gentleman Jack, we catch up with Suranne Jones.

T he path after starring in a successful soap is littered with cautionary tales, from the failed music careers and aborted attempts to crack America to the ill-advised forays in reality TV (Adam Rickett, Jennifer Ellison and Sid Owen, we’re looking at you). Suranne Jones then is one of an elite group, an actress who became a household name in her early 20s as Coronation Street’s Karen McDonald but who somehow managed to escape the shadow of Weatherfield.

Back in 2004, more than 16 million of us were tuning in to see Karen’s second marriage to the hapless Steve McDonald derailed by arch nemesis Tracy Barlow. Described as a ‘bulldog in hoop earrings’, Jones had spent much of the previous four years screeching down the cobbles and when filming stopped, she had continued to play the archetypal soap star.

There were the lad mag shoots for FHM and Loaded; if there was a red carpet, Jones was generally on it and for a while she looked set to become part of Corrie’s fixtures and fittings. However, just as her star was in the ascendency, Jones pulled the plug.

“I just thought while Karen’s brilliant and I am enjoying it I need to get out,” she said at the time. “I wanted to pursue other acting opportunities.”

While there was no doubting Jones’ talent, most expected the tabloid favourite would be next seen on the wards of Holby City or confessing all in Big Brother’s diary room. Jones though had other ideas and sidestepped offers to appear in a succession of reality TV shows to do something much more interesting instead.

There was her portrayal of cop killer Ruth Slater in Unforgiven, her ambitious detective with a complicated personal life in Scott and Bailey and her chilling portrait of the wronged wife in Doctor Foster. Those roles won her numerous awards and she’ll likely have to make even more room in the trophy cabinet following her latest performance in the title role of the Sunday night drama Gentleman Jack.

“I’ve made a decision that I want to go after roles like this more than the ones that kind of steal your soul a little bit,” says 40 year old Jones. “You give your soul to roles like this and you fight for the character in a way because there’s a cause to it all.”

Based on the real-life diaries of Anne Lister, a 19th century Halifax landowner, traveller and unapologetic lesbian, Gentleman Jack is one of the most talked about TV series of this year. It’s the brainchild of Sally Wainwright, who Jones worked with on both Unforgiven and Scott & Bailey, but she admits she wasn’t necessarily the screenwriter’s first choice.

“I remember Sally saying at my audition, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to find someone who’s going to do this part because they need to be big, energetic, they need to be fun, they need to be dark, they need to be Heathcliffian…’ She went on and on and then said, ‘Anyway, do you want to have a read?’

“I thought, ‘How am I going to do all that?’ I don’t know if I have done it, but Sally is happy and that’s good enough for me.”

Much of the series was filmed in Shibden Hall where Lister lived until her death in 1840 at the age of 49. It was there her diaries containing an estimated four million words were discovered by the hall’s last inhabitant and Jones says having the estate as a backdrop helped bring an added element of realism to the drama.

“It still blows my mind when I say that we filmed at Shibden,” she says. “When I’m walking in Anne Lister’s footsteps, I am literally walking into her house, up her stairs, eating in her dining room, doing business deals where she did business deals, surveying the same land and walking where she walked.”

While there are a few bonnets and bustles, Gentleman Jack isn’t your average Sunday night fare. There’s the lesbian sex scenes for a start and with Lister regularly breaking the fourth wall, one critic has described it as Regency Fleabag in a nod to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s hit.

“By 41, Anne had found a certain amour, a way of dressing and presenting herself,” says Jones. “Even though she wasn’t out as a lesbian, she had found a way to navigate her relationship quite confidently under the radar of society.

“She knew that she was different and was happy knowing that. She was an oddity, certainly in her own town, she was a curiosity to be stared at. People would ridicule her. She had the nickname Gentleman Jack because of how she looked and the rumours of what she did with women around the area.

“She came back to Yorkshire in 1832 following another failed relationship and met Ann Walker played by the brilliant Sophie Rundle. That gave Sally a way into the story which could build her back up and we could really cheer her on. I think the story is really life affirming.

“Sally is such a brilliant storyteller, she’s married this arc over eight episodes and has managed to give us this human adventure and this human thrill. The two of them – Sally Wainwright and Anne Lister together – is just pure gold.”

While Jones, who is married to magazine editor turned screenwriter Laurence Akers, is best known for gritty, contemporary dramas, she admits that she has enjoyed the challenge of bringing the historical tale to the small screen.

“I hope audiences will see this as a modern period drama,” she says. “I think period drama can sometimes lack fun and emotion and it’s as though we are almost looking at a painting. Sally doesn’t do that, she makes her characters feel. That allowed Sophie and I to discover what our characters were like when they were just hanging out being girlfriends, what they were really like when the corsets are loosened.”

Gentleman Jack is on BBC1 on Sundays at 9pm.

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