Start your engines, because Suranne Jones is about to become the first ever Scrooge inspired by a TV drag competition. In Christmas Carole, the Vigil and Doctor Foster star plays a new version of Ebenezer Scrooge – called, of course, Carole. “When I was filming Gentleman Jack, I watched 13 series of RuPaul’s Drag Race,” says Jones. “I told the director, Carole is like a drag persona. At first, he thought I was mad. But she’s got that superhero-ness, that self-belief and confidence and single-mindedness. It was really useful to use Drag Race in that way.” When she read the script, she made a moodboard for what Carole might look like. “Anna Wintour was on there. And Cruella de Vil. And Nicole Kidman from Paddington. Carole is instantly recognisable, with the bob, the red lips, the red bag and the red nails. And I could just be horrible. Really horrible. And it was great.”
Horrible though Carole may be, it is probably the most cheerful show Jones has done in quite some time. Over the last couple of years, she has stomped her way around the industrial revolution in 19th-century Yorkshire (Gentleman Jack), endured panic attacks and a breakdown (I Am Victoria), had a child go missing (Save Me) and woken up trapped inside a submarine torpedo tube that was slowly filling with water (Vigil). You can understand why, for Christmas, she treated herself to a comedy caper with a side order of singing and dancing.
“I really wanted to do something my little boy could watch,” says Jones. Her son is six and, given that most of her work tends to be on the heavier side, has only seen her in a couple of things. He watched a bit of Doctor Who, when she played Idris and the Tardis, and saw her read one of the Bedtime Stories on CBeebies. “He’s going to come along to the premiere for the first time,” she says, happily.
Christmas Carole’s Carole is the owner of a massive corporation that churns out festive junk for huge profit. Naturally, she hates Christmas, and has no qualms about sacking her most loyal staff on Christmas Eve. The only thing she loves is money. But there’s more to life than rank capitalism and plastic waste, and Carole is about to get a ghostly lesson in what truly matters. “Because we’re all guilty of going down to the shops or whatever the version is on your high street or supermarket and buying stuff. Just stuff, stuff, stuff,” says Jones. This year, she felt its anti-tat message was particularly important. “With the crisis, and the way we might not be able to be lavish, it’s a fitting moment for this to be out there.”
One of the hauntings takes Carole into an old Morecambe and Wise Christmas special, with the duo played by Eric and Ern tribute act Jonty Stephens and Ian Ashpitel. There was a personal connection for Jones, who chose Morecambe and Wise’s Bring Me Sunshine for her 2015 wedding to writer and producer Laurence Akers. “We got married on our own, in a registry office-type situation. But we were all dressed up and looking lovely, and we’ve got this picture of us dancing to it down this beautiful corridor in the town hall.” One year, for their anniversary, she took Akers to see Eric and Ern’s live show, and now she counts them as friends. Does that mean you can phone them up and get them to pop round? “Yeah, they just do a bit,” she says. “Now they’re in my back pocket for charity gigs and that kind of stuff. If I really want to impress, I can just bring my friends Morecambe and Wise out.”
For their own Christmas, Jones and Akers do the rounds of her family in Manchester and his in Kent, before settling down at home for Christmas Day, with their son and two sausage dogs. “Once it’s actually Christmas time, because life is so busy for us and my son has time off school, I find it really important for us to have our time together.”
She is delighted she’s going to be in the Christmas TV guides herself this year, and is a big fan of Christmas telly. “Because even if you don’t have the money to do lavish things, or you don’t want to do lavish things, or you have family members that are gone, so you’ve got no one to visit or you’re reflecting on the people you’ve lost … ” She pauses. “A lot of the time, when you’re an entertainer, you can question how important your job is. But, actually, I do feel we’re giving people a box in a corner and saying: ‘You can all gather round this – and even if you’re on your own, you’ve got this.’ I think it’s a lovely, special thing.”
Jones is in Ireland at the moment, on the east coast just south of Dublin, filming an ITVX drama called Maryland. It’s about a woman who dies on the Isle of Man (Ireland is its stand-in), leaving her two adult daughters, played by Jones and House of the Dragon’s Eve Best, to wonder why their mother died in a place she appeared to have no connection to. Stockard Channing also stars, playing a friend of the mother. “She’s just brilliant,” says Jones.
Maryland is co-produced by TeamAkers, the company she and her husband set up together. How is she finding the experience of being on both sides of the camera? “Amazing. It took us four years to get the company going, and now we’ve got some great commissions. I don’t know how stressful it will get, but it doesn’t feel stressful. It feels new and brilliant and exciting.” Recently, she says, she has got much better at asking for what she wants. Next year, she has a long, as-yet top secret, job lined up. “I said: ‘I’ll do it. But here’s the dates my son is off school, so I’ve got to be back home.’ That was make or break for me. And they agreed to it.”
Does she think the film and TV industry, with its long and demanding hours, is shifting to accommodate parents more, or can she get that agreement in place because she is Suranne Jones? “I’m in a very fortunate position, don’t get me wrong. I can say: ‘Well, I want to do your job, but not at the cost of this.’ Some people can’t lose the work.” As a producer, she feels more able to be “part of the change” – finding new talent, ensuring better working conditions, “moving forward in ways we’ve always wanted to move forward. So it feels like we’re making a difference, where before we were very much relying on other elements.”
In July, HBO announced it would not be renewing Gentleman Jack for a third season. Was she surprised? “I didn’t know whether it would go again. I genuinely was 50/50, of well, it might or it might not, and if it doesn’t, I would understand why.” After the first season, it was renewed quickly, but the second took longer to film. “I was aware that it was different, with Covid and the costs of that,” says Jones. “My heart went out to the fans, who I know loved it so much. I’ve watched them do their ‘Save Gentleman Jack’ stuff. They put up a billboard in Times Square! I’ve watched that and I thought: ‘They just want to see the end of the show.’ So I do feel for what the fans want.”
Has she put Anne Lister to bed? She will be on the new album by O’Hooley & Tidow, who did the show’s theme tune, singing a song that tells the story of Anne Lister’s death. “Regardless of whether I can fulfil another Anne Lister on screen, I feel like I did something that was a gift back to the fans, as a thank you.” Is there any chance Gentleman Jack will be back “Well, because it’s not my company, all I can do now is move on and do the jobs I’m creating, and try to do roles that fulfil representation for as many different women as I can. That’s what I want to do with my company. So as far as BBC and HBO go, I don’t know. And I know Sally [Wainwright, Gentleman Jack’s creator] wants to do it, but I’m getting busy with other stuff,” she says.
Some of that other stuff is Vigil, which will be back for a second run next year. Is she going on another nuclear submarine or will this see her squeezing into other unaccommodating vessels? “I had to be convinced,” she says. “Because I was like: ‘Are we just going to go on all the submarines and do checks?’ That doesn’t sound good to me.” She was telling Eve Best and Stockard Channing about Vigil yesterday. “About the tube,” she grins. “And they were both going: ‘Oh my god, what? What?’ It was quite tight. You had to knock to get out!”
For now, after a couple of years of filming with Covid restrictions, which made everything take longer, Jones is relishing working on shorter series. With her company, she can keep the jobs relatively small. “It feels like we haven’t bitten off more than we can chew yet,” she says. “It’s not House of the Dragon. With Covid, Vigil and Gentleman Jack, it seemed like I was away a lot, and I was all over the place. So this is all bite-size stuff, then I can go home and be Mum.”
Christmas Carole is on Sky Max at 8pm on Christmas Eve.