Suranne Jones is One Of Those Actors. A recognisable presence whose name seems to guarantee quality, whose face on the TV promises the viewer: “This is going to be good.”
Jones, who was born and raised Middleton, Greater Manchester, has been a reliable and frequently electrifying mainstay on British screens for over two decades, after beginning her TV career in earnest on Coronation Street. Since leaving her role as the soap’s Karen McDonald in 2000 – for my money, one of the canonically great soap performances, like if Posh Spice ever trod the cobbles and worked in the knicker factory – she has gone on to fill a varied host of parts in theatre and television, including formidable characters in the high-profile shows Gentleman Jack and Doctor Foster (she’ll also head up the much-anticipated Vigil, a BBC drama from the makers of Line of Duty, later this year).
Her latest TV outing differs from the leading roles in glossy marquee series that her admirers have become accustomed to, however. On Thursday (5th August), Jones will appear in I Am Victoria, the first instalment of the second series of BAFTA-winning director Dominic Savage’s I Am… anthology project for Channel 4.
Each episode of I Am is a standalone film crafted around a different woman actor (this year’s series stars Jones, Letitia Wright and Lesley Manville, while past cast members include Vicky McClure, Gemma Chan and Samantha Morton). The aim is to tell personal stories about women, life and the world we live in, with each actor co-authoring the plot of her own episode, alongside Savage.
Jones’ raw, often viscerally uncomfortable I Am Victoria explores mental illness in a house-proud mother who’s suffering while trying to present a picture-perfect image of herself and her family to the world (her husband is played by Top Boy actor Ashley Walters). When we speak over the phone one Friday morning in July, she explains why the topic felt prescient.
“Each I Am comes from your own experience,” Jones explains, adding that “the story that I thought I wanted to tell wasn’t the one I ended up telling”.
She was swayed from her original concept when she had her own experiences with mental illness, she says. “I did [the Bryony Lavery play] Frozen at the Haymarket Theatre, and had my experience of what I now know to be something that triggered anxiety and depression. Then I went on to do Gentleman Jack, the first series. And then, after Gentleman Jack, I ended up having to go and see a doctor, with anxiety and depression.
“Then I did another job, and then we had lockdown. I was speaking to Dominic, and I said, ‘I want to change the story, and I want it to be about modern life, anxiety and depression.’ It became about talking to friends, other mothers, and what they were talking to me about. So actually, it’s a story about me and my friends, and what they’ve told me affects them. Hopefully people will see themselves in it.”
I Am Victoria follows Jones’ character around her family home in close, improvised takes so claustrophobic you can almost smell the breath and the sweat on them – which sometimes took an hour at a time during filming last August – as she struggles with the mental toll of being a working wife and mother. Jones wants to give voice to older women, who shoulder many societal expectations and burdens, but despite the increased public conversation around mental health, may not consider themselves to have a personal relationship with their own.
“I think it’s a love letter to people,” Jones reflects. “Maybe a friend has said, ‘How are you doing? How are you coping?’ It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t think I am very well.’ It’s not a badge of honour to just carry on.”
In order to depict Victoria’s increasingly pressurised mental state as she does attempt to “just carry on”, Jones and Savage worked on a number of motifs. “We filmed a lot of stuff where Victoria was constantly scrolling through her phone to look at what other people had,” Jones recalls. “It didn’t read so much on camera, but you get the idea that she’s looking outward as to what she should be – what the house should be like, what she should be doing.”
Throughout the film, viewers will notice Victoria returning again and again to gruelling exercise and to shakily applying makeup – both indicators of her desire for control over how she’s perceived.
“She’s using all of these tools to try and control what she thinks she should be, and the expectations of who she should be, what she should look like and dress like,” Jones tells me. “And none of it is her, because she’s completely lost her own originality. And I think that’s because we don’t see women age, we don’t see women relaxed. I think that the modern world is not kind to anybody, but certainly not women my age.”
Throughout her long and wide-ranging career, Jones seems to have had a sixth sense for playing characters who, in various ways, find themselves pushing up against the multiple boundaries which hem women in, and I Am Victoria fits this mould as well. Why, I ask her, do such roles appeal?
“I’ve never felt conventional,” she says. “I’ve never felt like I fit in. Growing up working class northern, you fight a little bit harder to get seen, and get the roles. And I think then you do something like Karen, and it’s great, and you get to be this strange, funny, sexy, crazy girl that’s very vulnerable. It’s about showing sides of women.”
Citing two of her best known parts as examples of the multi-faceted women she loves to inhabit, Jones continues: “Even now, people say to me ‘Oh my god, Doctor Foster – bloody mad, weren’t she?’ Well – why was she? She was sent mad because of circumstances. Gentleman Jack is the same thing – it’s a beautiful story about a woman who’s just pushing through what society tells you you should be. And I think that’s really interesting. It speaks to my wanting to make people understand other people who are slightly different.”
Jones is an actor who wants her work to spark discussion and appreciation of others, and the ending of I Am Victoria – which sees Victoria seeking therapy – is testament to this. “We didn’t want it to be a chocolate box [ending], because you can’t just fix yourself,” she says, explaining that she and Savage ultimately wanted the film to zoom out and bring attention to the mental health treatment crisis currently afflicting the UK.
“There are different types of therapy – there’s private therapy, there’s therapy on the NHS, which I think we need to start a bigger conversation about,” she says. “Because, obviously, people go on a waiting list, or you only get a certain amount of sessions.
“‘How are people supposed to access help?’ is something we wanted to open up, and I think being on a Channel 4 show is a great platform, because a lot of their programmes are about societal problems. And I think that that is the big question: how do people help themselves? We don’t know the answer, and at the moment, the government certainly don’t know the answer. They don’t know the answer to a lot of things.”
For now, Jones is pleased that I Am Victoria might at least get people talking: “We wanted it to be a conversation,” she says. “Or, the start of a conversation.”
I Am Victoria airs on Channel 4 at 9PM on Thursday 5th August.