Ruth Jones: 'Gavin & Stacey generated a lot of warmth. It's good to warm your cockles'

The shy star of 'Gavin and Stacey' talks about her latest role, writing with James Corden and the pleasures of 'nice-com'

Oh, what's occurring? The actress and writer Ruth Jones has been quite taken aback by the extent to which this catchphrase from her hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey has caught fire. A fan-site on Facebook called "Oh! What's Occurring?" boasts some 30,000 members, while people are using Jones's memorable rendition of the phrase as a mobile ringtone. She is constantly stopped in the street by strangers chanting it at her. As Nessa, her character in the series, would put it: tidy.

In BBC1's Gavin & Stacey, which Jones co-writes and co-stars in with James Corden, the very conventional title characters – Essex man Gavin (Mathew Horne) and his beloved Stacey (Joanna Page) from Barry Island – are in theory the leads. But in practice, the figures who steal the show every single week are their highly idiosyncratic best friends, Smithy (Corden) and Nessa (Jones).

Nessa, in particular, has built up an impressive cult following. A compelling comic creation, this denizen of Barry Island's pubs, clubs and the arcade (where she works) has really captured the public imagination. Viewers relish her invincible self-confidence, her unique use of language and her fantastically casual attitude to sex. And then there's Nessa's astoundingly colourful past. Rumours of a liaison with Nigel Havers just won't go away, and she admits at one point that, "if it wasn't for my relationship with John Prescott, I'd probably still be in that jail". There were also her three trips round the globe as a deck-hand, her time in All Saints – before a big bust-up with Shaznay – and a shady period when she did unspeakable things with Mars bars in Amsterdam.

Female columnists trumpetNessa as the new role model for women in the 21st century. She's clearly the sort of real, non-rake-thin woman that people can connect with. To underline the character's authenticity, the real-life amusement arcade in Barry is bombarded with so many people wanting to meet her that it has put out a sign which reads, "Nessa is not working today."

Nessa has also helped to catapult Jones into the big league. Since breaking through in Gavin & Stacey two years ago, the actress has landed an impressive array of parts, from Joan, the heroine's grasping mother, in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, to Flora, Arthur Clennam's lovelorn ex, in Little Dorrit. Now she's taking her bow in The Street, the outstanding series of BBC1 single dramas written by Jimmy McGovern (Cracker, The Lakes, Hillsborough). The series is shot on meticulously created sets at a studio called the Pie Factory in Manchester. After filming, Jones and I talk, and the conversation wanders down The Street and far beyond. "I love the fact that I'm getting such variety now. It's a huge compliment to be seen as a dramatic actress and not just a comic actress," says Jones who, off-screen, is as bashful as Nessa is brazen. This appealingly shy, self-effacing and softly spoken actress is the polar opposite of the stereotypical, exhibitionist, "look at me" performer. Even her clothes are understated – you wouldn't catch Jones in any of Nessa's out-there PVC gear.

In The Street, Jones plays Sandra, a lonely minicab controller. She falls for her colleague, Eddie (Timothy Spall), despite the fact that he is married to the long-suffering Margie (Ger Ryan). When Eddie succumbs to Sandra's advances, their liaison has drastic consequences. "It's not happy ever after for either Sandra or Eddie. They are both forced to reassess their lives", says Jones. "In Jimmy's work, there are always consequences. He has a real knack for depicting anti-heroes and locating the heroic in a non-hero. Jimmy throws you in at the deep end with a character, and yet you instantly know where you are."

The double-Bafta-winning drama, which is now entering its third series, also affords access into what may be occurring, unbeknownst to us, right next door. "The Street is an excellent precinct for a drama because no one truly knows what goes on behind closed doors in any particular road," says Jones. "We all put on very different faces in public and in private."

Jones's own private life is fairly quiet. The actress, whose father was a legal executive for British Steel and whose mother was a doctor, hails from Porthcawl. She now lives in Cardiff with her producer husband David Peet and has three grown-up stepchildren, Fiona, Louise and Alex. She met Peet on a comedy pilot in the early 1990s and now runs the aptly named Tidy Productions with him. They made her BBC Wales radio chat show, Ruth Jones' Sunday Brunch, and have several other productions in the pipeline.

For now, she's concentrating on making the eagerly anticipated third series of Gavin & Stacey. She first met her co-creator Corden while working on four seasons of the ITV1 drama, Fat Friends. They soon realised they shared a sense of humour and were urged by then BBC3 controller Stuart Murphy to write Gavin & Stacey after showing him just a few pages of outline ideas.

The co-writers are very different – she a 42-year-old wife and mother based in Cardiff, he a 31-year-old unmarried London man about town – but perhaps it's that very difference that helps them remain so close. They both say that their friendship always comes before everything else. "James and I often don't see each other for long periods – we're both so busy – but we have always had this great chemistry."

Jones is delighted to be back in Nessa's knee-high boots again. "People love her," she says. "Some see her merely as an old slapper, but I don't think she's that easy to define. She's actually a very strong-minded person. She has a heart of gold and will always defend her friends in a fight. And she has this self-assurance that's very attractive. Nessa's a huge enigma who has led this life you can't believe. There's this wisdom about her that people are drawn to. She's deeply philosophical, a Barry Buddha."

So do the actress and her alter ego overlap at all? Jones gives a self-deprecating laugh. "There's very little of me in her. I wish I was more like her. I worry all the time about what people think of me, but Nessa doesn't care at all."

In fact, it seems as if there are still some striking similarities between Jones and her fictional creation. Like Nessa, the actress has lived a bit and has something to say for herself. She offers the world a wise, witty personality, rather than the vacuous twitterings of a twentysomething model. And how refreshing to meet someone who has become a star after passing the age of 40.

All the same, Jones remains astonished by the way in which Gavin & Stacey has taken off. The series has won two Baftas and four British Comedy Awards – unheard-of accolades for a show that debuted on BBC3. The weirdest by-product of the show's success is that total strangers now think that they know her. "I was on a train the other day, and the man sitting opposite me said, 'Hi, Ruth, how are you? Well done at the Comedy Awards. What are you up to at the moment?' What was really embarrassing was that at that moment, I was checking something on the Gavin & Stacey DVD. I'm normally very careful to hide it, but this time it was blatant. The bloke saw it and asked, 'Watching your own programme, are you?' It looked like self-glorification city."

That is not where Jones dwells, though. Even after such acclaim, she remains rather abashed, almost embarrassed about her success. "I still can't get my head around it. Whenever someone asks for my autograph, I still think, 'Do you really want it?' I'd never take it for granted – God, no! My default setting is 'they don't really like me'."

Gavin & Stacey has continued to do attract the good wishes of complete strangers in part because it's a response to the prevailing trend for comedies that are blacker than a raven's wing. Gavin & Stacey very much falls into the category of "nice-com." The actress, who had a big hit for Comic Relief earlier this year performing "Islands in the Stream" with Tom Jones and her Gavin & Stacey co-star, Rob Brydon, agrees. "It wasn't as deliberate as us saying, 'Right, we're going to react against cynical comedy'. We just wrote what we wanted. And it just so happens that the show does generate a lot of warmth. People seem to like that, especially when things aren't terribly jolly. It's nice to have your cockles warmed."

In contrast to many comedies that leave a bitter taste in the mouth, "the characters in Gavin & Stacey do like each other", continues Jones. "Every day you read these awful stories in the papers that make you want to weep. You think, 'Why has this happened?' But at the same, people can also be lovely to each other. They like their families and friends. We think there's humour in that – it doesn't have to be nasty to be funny. James and I hope that we have created something that isn't cynical. Steve Coogan [whose company, Baby Cow, makes Gavin & Stacey] said that he really liked the show because it's about people laughing together. Nobody is the butt of the jokes."

The series underlines that people are naturally funny. "We are often hilarious without even realising it," reckons Jones, who has also had roles in East Is East, Saxondale, Nighty Night, Torchwood and appeared in Little Britain as Myfanwy, the down-to-earth barmaid always puncturing Daffyd's (Matt Lucas) claims that he is "the only gay in the village".

"The other I day I was talking to a friend's dad, who never swears at all. Then out of the blue, he said, 'That's just a load of bullshit.' He didn't even realise he'd sworn. On Gavin & Stacey, we aim to capture nuances of character like that."

Gavin & Stacey has also helped contribute to the sense that Wales is a creative hotspot right now. "Wales is on a real high at the moment," asserts Jones, who studied at Warwick University and the Welsh College of Music and Drama. "Our rugby team have won two Grand Slams in four years, we [BBC Wales] make Doctor Who, and the music coming out of Wales is terrific. We've got Duffy, the Manic Street Preachers, the Stereophonics, and Tom Jones. He's nearly 70 and he's just made a brilliant album. I hope Gavin & Stacey is part of that boom."

The actress is also hopeful that the series overturns some of the more egregious stereotypes about her country. "I'm very proud of the fact that we have a Welsh flavour without playing up to that boisterous Welsh image. I don't like the clichéd portrayal of the Welsh on TV – that thick, unlikeable, sing-song accent and everyone saying 'boyo' all the time. I think we've dispelled that."

Jones looks back with justifiable satisfaction on the last 12 months. "What a year," she beams. "It's been absolutely incredible. To have done a Charles Dickens, a Thomas Hardy and a Jimmy McGovern all in one year is great. It feels like an Oscar Wilde line: to get one would be considered a joy, but to get three is positively delirious. I'm really chuffed."

Then, all of a sudden, Jones's default vulnerability setting kicks in again. "But who knows? That may never happen to me again. I'm a fussy bugger, though," she adds with a smile. "So I don't want to go away for a while yet."

Jones is talented enough to be around for quite some time yet. She is also very canny, well aware that the greatest enemy to her longevity may be over-exposure. "I hate the thought of people saying, 'Oh God, not her again!' So now I'm going to be quiet for a bit. I'll emerge in a little while like a tortoise coming out of hibernation."

'The Street' begins on BBC1, 13 July at 9pm

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin