You can take the actress out of Coronation Street, but can you take Coronation Street out of the actress? Suranne Jones thinks you can – and that she has. For four years, until a memorable brawl on the roof of the Underworld knicker factory with Tracy Barlow signalled her departure, Jones's character, Karen McDonald (née Phillips), lent a vital spark to Britain's best-loved soap, as a Victoria Beckham wannabe from the wrong side of the tracks.
All Karen wanted was a fancy wedding, and for her and Steve McDonald to become the Posh and Becks of Weatherfield. Unfortunately, Steve turned out to have a Rebecca Loos in his closet, getting the Barlow minx pregnant after a one-night stand. Hence the rooftop tussle that led to Karen's exit from the Street on Boxing Day 2004.
"Karen McDonald was brilliant for three years and I loved playing her", says Jones, who was only 21 when she took on the role 10 years ago. "Then I think you start to repeat yourself, because in soaps you have to. I think they thought I was quite good at emotional stuff and I was doing a lot of crying. Then I'd go to the pub and look at the scripts and there'd be more crying the next day. And I just thought, while she's brilliant and I'm enjoying her, I've got to get out."
I hadn't met with Jones just to reminisce about her long-concluded soap career, however, but to hear about her latest role, heading the cast in BBC1's Five Days – the same title and concept as the Bafta- and Golden Globe-nominated 2007 drama, but with a new cast and story. This one involves ' the discovery of a newborn baby in the toilets of a Yorkshire hospital. At the same time, a trans-Pennine commuter train is halted by a suicidal jumper. Are the incidents connected?
As with the previous series, Five Days will air over five consecutive nights. Jones plays a policewoman who happens to be on the train at the time. "She's 36, was married to a policeman and is now divorced," she says, offering a brisk character breakdown. "She was a detective; she leaves London and returns to her home town in Yorkshire after nearly 17 years to live with her mum, who's got early-onset Alzheimer's. She's in a single bed, in a bungalow, in her mum's house at 36... she's a career woman with flaws. A lot of women out there will relate to that."
And a lot of women out there relate to Suranne Jones (or Sarah Anne Jones, to use her real name; Suranne was adopted from her great-grandmother), judging by her steadily evolving post-Corrie career. She played Ray Winstone's private-eye sidekick in two series of ITV1's Vincent, a bisexual sex therapist in Kay Mellor's Strictly Confidential, appeared opposite Helen Baxendale in the black comedy Dead Clever and played a posh private medic throwing Botox parties in the execrable Harley Street. All this in tandem with a theatrical career that included A Few Good Men with Rob Lowe, and touring the UK as Linda Gray's cancer-stricken daughter in Terms of Endearment.
But what really made critics sit up and take notice was Jones's gawkily raw performance last year in Unforgiven, Sally Wainwright's ITV drama about a woman released from prison after serving 15 years for killing two policemen. "A stunning performance", wrote Brian Viner in his Independent review. "The stuff of Bafta nominations if ever I saw it. Heck, on the back of it she might even get propelled into the movies, and bring a bit of north country sense to the Golden Globes."
The movies can wait – Jones is not the sort to get ahead of herself – but Unforgiven almost certainly secured her the lead in Five Days. "I loved that role", she says. "They don't come along that often. It was seen by the broadsheets as well as the tabloids. It gave me a little bit of credibility, I suppose. The label 'ex-soap star' that the media gives to people... even Anne Reid, who plays my mother in Five Days – she left [Coronation Street] 39 years ago, before I was born, and people are still asking her about her character today. Some people have been at the RSC for years, then get a part in Coronation Street, so it's unfortunate that we have this tag, but we do."
Rather more bothersome than the "soap" tag was the suspicion that she'd picked up some bad habits amid the fast-churning world of continuing drama. "I was very aware of it, so I went to an acting coach, who I still use, and I said, 'I'm worried that I've got all these things in me that I've been switching on because soaps are so fast.' You get directed but sometimes you self-direct as well, so I was just worried that I had all these afflictions. And he said I did."
Jones moved to London, but missed her family and friends in Manchester, finally moving back and buying a house for herself and Baxter, her Jack Russell. Her boyfriend, a half-Italian plumber called Lorenzo Giove, moved out last year. "He never did fix the bathroom", she laughs. "No, we're still friends. We'd known each other for 10 years and that friendship became a relationship then became a friendship again. I work a lot, I work away a lot. It's just me and the dog now."
Not that she's short of male company, having several good gay friends, including her former Street co-star Antony Cotton (camp as Christmas Sean Tully), whom she first met when attending that hotbed of local talent, the Oldham Theatre Workshop – alma mater of Anna Friel, Sarah Lancashire, Jane Danson and Kevin Webster himself, aka Michael Le Vell. ("I first met Antony when I was 12 and he was a tap-dancing rabbit and I was a fireman in a play.")
Another gay friend is John Barrowman, and I was curious about something I'd heard about Jones offering herself as a surrogate mother should Barrowman and his civil partner Scott Gill decide to start a family. What was she thinking? "It may have been fuelled by a few G and Ts", she admits. "It's difficult to remember. We got on like a house on fire and I think it started when we were talking one day and said, 'If we ever had kids, wouldn't they be gorgeous?' And they'd be talented and all singing and dancing, and then, a few G and Ts later... But he's never turned up at my house with a turkey baster.
"In fact, I never get to see him – he's always working, he's the biggest workaholic I know. I've just been doing a Doctor Who spin-off (The Sarah Jane Adventures) and he called me, and said in the way only John can... he calls me 'Pookie', and he said, 'Hey, Pookie, I bet you're in my make-up chair. I bet your bumhole is been where my bumhole has been.'"
Lovely. Jones's plans for 2010 mostly involve charitable work – walking the Great Wall of China for a fireman's charity, and running the London Marathon for a children's cancer charity. She also visits Africa for Christian Aid and conducts musical-theatre workshops for children in Belfast. "I've been going to Belfast now for seven years, twice a year, and love it. In fact, musical theatre is my first love.
"I'm very greedy – I'd like to do everything, or at least give it a go. My plan is to keep doing things that interest me. Ray Winstone – he was dry for a long time after he did Scum, selling things out the back of his car – he said to me [putting on a Cockney accent], "Sare – do the things that you like. It don't matter if it's film or telly or whatever – or if people pay you peanuts – do whatever you like and then you'll be 'appy.'"
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