Ruth Jones: ‘I’m sure James Corden and I will write something together – but it won’t be Gavin and Stacey’

Ruth Jones: ‘We weren’t trying to fit into what other people’s expectations of what a comedy show should be’  (Tom Jackson)
Ruth Jones: ‘We weren’t trying to fit into what other people’s expectations of what a comedy show should be’ (Tom Jackson)

Ruth Jones doesn’t know how many times she has to say it. “It’s not coming back,” she tells me, verging on exasperation. I’ve asked her the question we’re all clamouring to know the answer to: are there any plans to bring back Gavin and Stacey, the cosy BBC sitcom that she co-wrote and starred in with James Corden? The 2019 Christmas special ended on a notorious cliffhanger. Do Nessa and Smithy get married? We must be told. But… no. “I’m really hugely complimented that people love it so much. But it is quite an extraordinary thing… it’s almost like you mention the words Gavin and Stacey and people assume it’s back.” And then, to firmly underline the point, she adds, “But it’s not.”

Since then, Jones has tended to do her own thing. She was nominated for a Bafta for Stella, a comedy-drama that she co-wrote and starred in, about a single mum with a chaotic love life. But more recently, she’s struck out alone as a bestselling author and is now on her third novel, Love Untold, released today. She specialises in the complex dynamics of family, friends and romantic relationships, writing about betrayal, forgiveness and misunderstandings with comic aplomb. Her novels don’t quite have the laugh-out-loud factor of her TV shows, but they are full of the same warmth and humour – and loveably flawed characters. She’s been a firm part of the comedy landscape for years; as the lesbian barmaid Myfanwy on Little Britain from 2003 to 2007, serving up Bacardi and coke to her mate Daffyd Thomas (Matt Lucas), the village’s self-pronounced only homosexual, and, as Linda, in the BBC’s exquisite black comedy Nighty Night from 2004 to 2005, playing the moronic PA to narcissistic sociopath Jill Tyrell (Julia Davis).

But it’s Gavin and Stacey for which she remains best known. Nessa, Stacey’s leather-clad, tattooed, “Oh!”-shouting best friend, is nothing like Jones herself. Talking to me from her home in Cardiff, she’s mellow, with a gentle-sounding Welsh lilt, wearing a loose black shirt. “I wish sometimes I was like her because she doesn’t take any s*** from anybody,” says Jones.

Gavin and Stacey won three Baftas and ran for three series from 2007 to 2010, cementing its position as one of our most successful modern sitcoms. It followed the romantic highs and lows of Gavin (Matthew Horne) from Billericay in Essex and Stacey (Joanna Page) from Barry in Wales, as well as the lives of their families, including Gavin’s excitable mum Pam (Alison Steadman) and dad Mick (Larry Lamb). It was an affectionate celebration of dysfunctional, quotidian family get-togethers, when in-laws descend from different parts of the UK, bringing with them car boots packed with food and, sometimes – to borrow a phrase from Pam – “all the drama, Mick”.

But it was Nessa and Smithy, played by Jones and Corden, who ended up stealing the show. Beer-drinking Smithy and straight-talking Nessa didn’t appear to be star-crossed lovers. However, underneath the bravado, there were hints that their true feelings ran much deeper. The 2019 Christmas special – watched by 18 million, the biggest audience for a TV comedy since Only Fools and Horses in 2002– ended with that cliffhanger, in which Nessa got down on one knee and proposed to Smithy.

Speculation about the return of the show in some form has, unsurprisingly, been rife ever since. So much so that BBC Three jokingly announced on Twitter last month that Nessa would be joining the 2022 Strictly Come Dancing line-up. Corden has said that the pair can only write together in the room with tons of Post-it notes – Zoom just doesn’t work. The announcement that he will return to the UK next year then, having quit his job as host of The Late Late Show, ignited some hope. Corden said in June that Jones will “know when it’s right” to bring back Gavin and Stacey and they will work it out together, “if that ever happens”.

From talking to Jones, you get the sense that won’t be happening. “I’m sure, at some point, James and I will write something together. But it won’t be Gavin and Stacey,” she tells me now. “Certainly, when he’s back in the UK, I would have thought we would try and get together and write again because it was such fun to do that.”

Writing does now seem to be Jones’s focus; she’s already begun work on her fourth novel. Her status as a household name on TV was secure when she became a bestselling author with her 2018 debut, Never Greener, about two people rekindling a teenage romance in mid-life. The reviews were mixed – “thought-provoking, compelling and ultimately redemptive” said one, “a soggy squib” said another – but it sold over a quarter of a million copies and topped the Sunday Times bestseller list.

Happy families: the 2019 Christmas special ended with a cliffhanger (BBC)
Happy families: the 2019 Christmas special ended with a cliffhanger (BBC)

Love Untold traverses similar territory, delving into the lasting impact of our closest relationships as it explores the complex bond between mothers and daughters over four generations. Like her show Stella and her second book, Us Three in 2020, Love Untold explores the impact of alcoholism on some of the characters – a subject she says she hasn’t experienced first-hand or in others. In the novel, Alys is a recovering alcoholic in AA who hasn’t quite got the hang of the 12-step programme. She’s been borrowing her sponsee’s credit card and lying about her mum being dead. We learn early on that she reluctantly gave up her 11-year-old daughter Elin to her mother Grace due to her destructive drinking 32 years ago, and the family hasn’t spoken since. Her teenage granddaughter Beca hasn’t even met Alys. So, when Alys turns up on their doorstep, everyone has quite a lot to talk about. There are secrets and misunderstandings, and a need for forgiveness.

The character of Grace, she says, is loosely based on her own 86-year-old mum, Hannah, a retired GP. They still go on road trips together around Wales. “My mum has got a really positive attitude and a very get-up-and-go attitude to life. And I think that inspired a lot of the characteristics in Grace, who is a little bit older. But when, I said, ‘Mum, I’ve got a 90-year-old as one of the main characters in my next book,’ and I said, ‘and she’s very active, and she does yoga. And she walks and she goes swimming in the sea.’ My mum went, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous. Nobody’s going to believe that.’”

Jones, who tends to write at home on the sofa “quite lazily”, lives with her producer husband and Stella co-writer David Peet, near to Porthcawl, in Wales, where she grew up and attended the local comprehensive with Rob Brydon. He played Bryn, Stacey’s dim-witted Uncle in Gavin and Stacey. Jones is loyal to her old friends, as she is with Corden. The pair first met on the set of Fat Friends in 2000 after her stint in the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. “We are friends more than writing partners”, she says affectionately. “So, it will just be really nice to see more of him. Because I haven’t seen him now for over a year.” Jones studied drama at Warwick University and had never written before teaming up with Corden to create Gavin and Stacey. 

‘Love Untold’ explores the complex bond between mothers and daughters over four generations (source)
‘Love Untold’ explores the complex bond between mothers and daughters over four generations (source)

The idea was inspired by a friend of Corden’s who’d had a long-distance relationship with somebody he’d met over the phone at work. After the show took off, Corden’s rise seemed exponential – but this coincided with him becoming a lightning rod for vitriol. People seem to love to hate him, so I wonder if Jones was surprised by his success. “I didn’t find it weird that James became so successful: he’s an incredible talent… He was always destined to have a stratospheric career and I’m incredibly proud of him,” she says. “I’m not aware of backlash against him because thankfully I’m not on social media and I don’t google what’s going on in his life. We are friends first and foremost.”

Even if Jones’s career has been more low-key in comparison, she is an irrefutable part of the British comedy establishment. I wonder if she’s an avid fan of TV comedies – what is she watching right now? But she looks blankly at me, as though she’s having trouble thinking of anything. Did she like HBO’s The White Lotus, I wonder? It scooped five Emmy Awards earlier this month. “I don’t know what that is?” she laughs. “I’m the wrong person to ask. My finger isn’t on the pulse.” After a moment, endearingly, she adds, “I like Curb Your Enthusiasm” – Larry David’s semi-improvised sitcom that began in 2000.

It’s easy to warm to Jones – like her work, she’s sincere, and seems unbothered by what people think. And yet it’s hard to deny that the cultural landscape has changed for comedy writers. When Little Britain was reinstated on BBC iPlayer earlier this year, having been removed from streaming services in 2020, largely due to the show’s use of blackface (in one sketch, David Walliams wore black make-up and a fat suit), many people suggested the series’ edits hadn’t gone far enough. And in 2020, there was controversy when a rerun of the Gavin and Stacey Christmas special edited out the homophobic lyrics in the Pogues’ song “Fairytale of New York” from a scene where Bryn and Nessa do karaoke. The show, some argued, certainly contained stereotypes and cliches too.

Jones as Stella Morris and Elizabeth Berrington as Paula Kosh in ‘Stella' (Warren Orchard/Sky1/Tidy Productions)
Jones as Stella Morris and Elizabeth Berrington as Paula Kosh in ‘Stella' (Warren Orchard/Sky1/Tidy Productions)

Gavin and Stacey was a very loving show – it was uncynical. I mean, we just created characters. I don’t know – we just did the best we could,” says Jones. “I think we just thought, ‘Well, if it makes us laugh, at least we will have felt we were true to it.’ We weren’t trying to fit into what other people’s expectations of what a comedy show should be.”

And one of those, it now turns out, is the way it ended. Unlike her three novels, which finish with neat-ish resolutions, Jones says she’s happy to leave audiences hanging. “I think it’s quite interesting to leave people wondering. And also, I don’t know how we could better that. It was such a great episode… I just think if we tried anything after that it would be a disappointment,” she says.

“Where on earth would you pick it up?” she then wonders. “It’s been three years since the wedding has or has not been on the cards. Somebody suggested, ‘Yeah, but you’ve had Covid – all the weddings would have been cancelled. So, their wedding could have been postponed’.”

Jones, it seems, is determined it’s over. But I still can’t help but get the impression that she might suddenly have a lightbulb moment and be convinced to bring it back. As Nessa would say… at least it would be “tidy”.

‘Love Untold’ is published by Bantam Press on 29 September