24 Feb 2008: Gavin & Stacey stars Ruth Jones and James Corden tell Amy Raphael why they feel ‘on the outside, looking in at their great big bloody stash of awards’
With the likes of Steve Coogan, Peter Kay and Julia Davis queuing up to sing its praises, Ruth Jones and James Corden are still getting their heads around the popularity of their cult comedy series. Here, the pair behind Gavin & Stacey tell Amy Raphael why they feel ‘on the outside, looking in at their great big bloody stash of awards’.
At a certain point last year, life became a little surreal for Ruth Jones and James Corden. One afternoon Jones was in a cafe in Cardiff with a friend when her mobile rang. It was a withheld number but she answered anyway. And there was Peter Kay, a stranger till that moment, enthusing about Gavin & Stacey, and explaining how he’d been busy buying DVDs of the first series to distribute among friends. The same day, Corden also got a call from Kay. ‘He said Gavin & Stacey was the show he enjoyed watching most since The Royle Family. I love Peter Kay. I’d just read his book on holiday. I didn’t know what to say.’
Jones and Corden talk about Kay as though they exist on a quite different plane to the phenomenally successful comedian. And yet in the past six months Gavin & Stacey, the series they co-created, co-wrote and co-starred in, has not only won in three categories at the British Comedy Awards but also impressively beat Hot Fuzz to Best Comedy at the South Bank Show Awards. It seems that the simplest, most traditional story – boy meets girl and marries her – still has currency. Especially when told with great charm, warmth and enough of a dark side deftly to avoid sentimentality.
When the first series of Gavin & Stacey aired on BBC3 last May, it was the cast that immediately impressed – among them Alison Steadman and Rob Brydon – but it quickly became clear that Jones and Corden, writing together for the first time, had also made a smart move with the script. They had written a beautifully observed comedy that wasn’t trying to be clever or modern or elite. It avoided excessive expletives. It wasn’t nasty. The central story, in which Essex boy Gavin (Mathew Horne) and Stacey (Joanna Page), from Barry Island, Wales, finally meet in London after only talking on the phone, is warm and sweet but carefully balanced by an edgy subplot. Gavin and Stacey bring their best mates along to the date: Smithy (Corden) is loud, vulgar, occasionally charming and scared of love; Nessa (Jones) is tattooed and likes a pint of wine. By the end of the series, Gavin and Stacey are married and Nessa is pregnant with Smithy’s child.
Jones, 41, and Corden, 29, both won Best Comedy Newcomer (female and male) at the British Comedy Awards last December. Yet both have had a strong presence in comedy since the turn of the century. They met on the long-running ITV series Fat Friends in 2000 and have since built up their own individual pedigree. Jones appeared in Human Remains, the brilliant, disturbing series starring Rob Brydon and Julia Davis. She then played the grotesque beautician Linda in Davis’s strange but compelling Nighty Night before crossing over to the mainstream as Myfanwy in Little Britain, the barmaid burdened with endlessly telling Matt Lucas’s Daffyd that he’s not the only gay in the village. She’s since been in both series of Saxondale as Magz, devoted girlfriend of Steve Coogan’s Tommy.
Corden has a more theatrical background: his first role was in the Shane Meadows film Twenty Four Seven and he subsequently appeared in Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing as the fat young guy who has a heart attack. He was in Cruise of the Gods with Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon and David Walliams and, most famously, in the stage and screen version of The History Boys. By the time Jones and Corden began to talk about writing together in series three of Fat Friends, they were able to create parts with certain actors in mind – though both insist they were terrified when Alison Steadman (who was in Fat Friends), Rob Brydon (who was two years above Jones at school in South Wales), Matt Lucas and Julia Davis were reading the script.
I first meet Jones and Corden in November, a few weeks before the British Comedy Awards. Both are still surprised that everyone, from Steadman to Davis, eagerly agreed to be in Gavin & Stacey. ‘Julia told me she wished she’d written the script herself and I was… amazed,’ says Jones. Corden joins in: ‘I still don’t feel like a writer. I barely feel like an actor. Ultimately, we feel fraudulent, even now.’
We are in a bland, airless meeting room at the London offices of Baby Cow, Steve Coogan’s production company (which is behind Gavin & Stacey). When Corden walked into the room, shortly after Jones, she showered him with a bowl of tiny boiled sweets. Both then quickly got down on their hands and knees to clear up. They explain how this became a ritual when they were stuck in this very room writing the second series of Gavin & Stacey. Corden laughs. ‘We always used to say that if we were The Mighty Boosh, we’d leave the sweets on the floor,’ he says. I ask if they remember the first conversation they had about what was to become Gavin & Stacey. ‘When we were on Fat Friends we used to talk about Wales and how the Welsh speak, because James used to go to Barry quite a lot,’ says Jones. Corden explains how he went to a wedding there with an old girlfriend and watched the day playing out in front of him like a film. ‘I realised that fictional accounts of weddings are never like the real thing. Nothing happened at the wedding, and yet everything happened. That’s the sort of stuff that really excites me from an acting and writing point of view. It’s why I’m such a huge fan of Mike Leigh’s work: it’s all about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.’
He pauses, unwraps a boiled sweet. ‘I don’t ever understand why people need to make stuff up, because it’s all there in front of us. Two people falling in love is more amazing to me than Keanu Reeves being Neo in The Matrix.’ Corden constantly has ideas but rarely does anything with them. ‘I get so annoyed with him,’ says Jones. ‘But this time, when he told me about the wedding and we started to make all these peripheral characters up, we had to write it down.’
Until the BBC insisted on expanding it into a series, Gavin & Stacey had been a one-hour, semi-improvised drama called It’s My Day. Jones shows me the original treatment; based around the friends and families of Gavin West and Stacey Shipman (neither related to mass murderers as far as we know), it shows how the comedy evolved from being slightly crude to the sleek, sophisticated version that finally appeared on television. Jones and Corden had fun writing the treatment but neither took it seriously. ‘We couldn’t have been more casual,’ says Corden. ‘It was like playing dress-up,’ explains Jones. ‘We did all the voices ourselves, we acted out every scene. James always particularly liked being Pam [Gavin’s mother, played by Steadman].’
In some ways, Ruth Jones and James Corden are the odd couple of modern British comedy. They are not such obvious kindred spirits as Little Britain’s Matt Lucas and David Walliams, or even compatible in their strangeness like The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt. The age gap is only relevant in that they are at different stages of life; Jones lives in Cardiff with her producer husband and three stepchildren, while Corden lives in Buckinghamshire and is single. It’s more a case of clashing personalities. Corden is fiercely bright but distracted by the allure of celebrity, while Jones is considered, thoughtful and far less likely to show off. Not without ambition herself, she is, however, apparently happy to take a back seat to her creative partner’s larger-than-life personality.
Shortly before meeting Jones and Corden, I watched them on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. Corden came across as supremely self-confident. I suggest now that he is a cocky little bugger. Jones laughs; Corden can’t get his words out fast enough. ‘Oh yeah. Listen. I flip, sometimes hourly, between being arrogant and self-doubting. There’s definitely a part of me that shouldn’t be on a show like that, but then why be on television if you don’t believe that people will pay to be entertained by you?’ He stops. ‘It’s horrible sometimes.’
Who for? ‘For me. For everyone. I’m well aware I’m doing it. It’s the same when I co-present Big Brother’s Big Mouth with Mat [Horne]. If you don’t step up like a boxer, you’re fucked. It was the same with The History Boys. I turned up at the National Theatre on the first day thinking, “I’ve never done a play. Shit.” But I gave myself a pep talk: “Be yourself and you’ll be fine.” And I never felt funnier or more creative…’
Jones smiles at Corden. ‘I’ve noticed that he’s got two laughs: one which is James as the self-confident person we know and love, the other, slightly high-pitched, which comes out when he’s feeling more vulnerable.’ Corden is still frowning: ‘I don’t think I came across as a cocky little bugger on Jonathan Ross.’ Jones reassures: ‘Surely there’s a difference between cocky and lively and entertaining. I didn’t think you were cocky.’ Corden now has his head in his hands: ‘Fucking hell. I can be awful, but I wasn’t on that show.’
Oh dear. Momentarily I seem to have forgotten that all funny people are tormented by demons of insecurity and self-doubt. I really like Corden and Jones, both as performers and people. I certainly didn’t think comments like ‘supreme self-confidence’ and ‘cocky little bugger’ would move Corden to tears, but here he is with wet eyes. ‘If I was genuinely arrogant, I wouldn’t care what you were saying. But I’m not and I do. It’s all just bravado. We were petrified that day. Terrified. It was Jonathan Ross!’
I move on to how they write together. ‘It just works,’ says Corden. ‘I don’t think I could write anything without Ruth. I’ll often come with an idea and Ruth will make it better or twist it in a different way. My ideas would die without her. And I can’t type!’ Jones laughs: ‘Or spell. We’re like a Venn diagram and we have this central bit that overlaps. We’re both big softies.’
Finally, Corden’s huge grin returns. ‘I’m the biggest softie in the world! We both have a sense of family and a belief in the way we think people should treat each other. We’re both romantic. In fact, I’m disgustingly romantic. But to go back to the writing process for a moment: we are obsessed with the tiny details of dialogue. There was a line in series two where Nessa is talking about Smithy: “I barely know the man and what I do know about him, I don’t like.” I sent Ruth a text suggesting we change “man” to “boy”. She replied saying “or to kid”. It’s a tiny adjustment but it changes the sentence completely.’
Corden says that even with the second series they didn’t feel they were writing for an audience. They still ‘played dress-up’.
When I ask about influences, Corden says, ‘We never set out to write a show like any other show because we never set out to write a show.’ Yet I don’t think he’s being blasé; the pair clearly put in the hours on Gavin & Stacey, but because they write well together it’s more like fun than a hard, dull slog.
I point out that in the treatment there’s a very clear statement of intent: ‘This is Mike Leigh meets The Royle Family meets Marion & Geoff. It isn’t a spoof documentary.’
Corden is nodding furiously. ‘For me, The Royle Family changed everything. It was the best show I’d ever seen. And then The Office came along. I cared about every single person in The Royle Family. I cared about Tim and Dawn’s relationship in The Office. I cared about a lot of the guys in Phoenix Nights. And even Del Boy and Rodney before Only Fools and Horses went a bit shit. As a viewer, you invest in these people. And that’s what Ruth and I wanted to do: make a show that people would care about.’
They also wanted to make a show that was warm and gentle but not inoffensive and dull. It’s certainly what Gavin & Stacey’s fans seem to respond to, including Baby Cow boss Steve Coogan. He told Jones he loved the fact that the characters are shown in a room laughing together, yet no one is the butt of someone else’s joke. ‘He loved the lack of cynicism most of all.’ Corden adds that they are writing about what they know. ‘We mostly still live in the world we write about. On the whole, neither of us is falling into swimming pools in Los Angeles. Mostly because we haven’t been invited…’
‘Mostly,’ says Jones, ‘because we’d both make far too much of a splash!’
On set in Wales the following day, Rob Brydon, who plays Stacey’s gadget-obsessed and possibly homosexual Uncle Bryn, says he was constantly telling Jones and Corden to knock out the expletives. ‘They had created a wonderfully funny show that was edgy but accessible, but there were a couple of “fucks” and a line about giving the cheeky finger in the first series, which meant you couldn’t watch it with children. Take those out and we can all watch a sharp show that works on a few levels.’
Brydon also takes credit for encouraging Jones not to abandon acting. ‘We were big friends at school; we were part of the drama crowd. Ruth was very talented, she had something. We both met Julia [Davis] at a comedy improv group in Bath and later Ruth joined a comedy troupe I was part of at BBC Wales in the late Eighties. I remember having a coffee with her after that and she said it just wasn’t happening for her. I told her to keep at it because she’s so good. Little did I know that, years later, she’d be writing the part of Uncle Bryn for me. Or, for that matter, that she’d be writing it with James, who played my son in Cruise of the Gods…’
The morning’s scenes take place in a small hospital just outside Cardiff. Nessa is about to give birth and there are endless rehearsals in which Smithy, Gavin, Stacey, Pam, Mick (Gavin’s father, played by Larry Lamb), Gwen (Stacey’s mother, played by Melanie Walters) and Bryn rush into the labour ward. A remarkably real-looking dummy baby, which Corden calls ‘Gollum’, is later replaced by a live one who manages to cry on cue. Whether or not Smithy takes to fatherhood or not, no one will reveal, and I have to leave before finding out.
When I talk to Jones and Corden again, earlier this month. Jones is locked away at home in Cardiff, writing scripts for the BBC. She has placed her Female Comedy Newcomer award on the bookshelf that everyone has to pass on their way to the kitchen. Corden, however, ran off with the South Bank award. When I talk to him on the phone, he is in a harness, wearing an all-in-one Lycra suit, making a pilot for a studio sitcom called Hey Hey We’re the Monks. He can’t decide whether or not to worry about series two of Gavin & Stacey; all those awards mean it has to be even stronger than series one. ‘Oh man!’ he moans, but that might be in response to the Lycra suit.
Jones and Corden have already been signed up to write a big-budget show for the BBC, though they aren’t allowed to be more specific. Soon, I say, they’ll be up there with Peter Kay. Corden is quick to answer. ‘That would be great, but we don’t class ourselves as comedians – we’re actors. So we don’t feel as though we’re part of that cynical comedyland where everyone is looking over their shoulder to see who’s about to win the Perrier. We’re immune to all that. Yet… it feels nice to somehow be part of it.’
On the outside, looking in? ‘Yeah, on the outside, looking at our great big bloody stash of awards!’ And there are his two laughs, making him sound self-confident yet vulnerable, inextricably mixed together.
· The entire first series of Gavin & Stacey will be broadcast on BBC2 on 1 March. The second series will start on BBC3 in mid-March