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Suranne Jones: How the punky soap star became one of Britain’s greatest actors

Suranne Jones: How the punky soap star became one of Britain’s greatest actors
From a 19th-century lesbian in ‘Gentleman Jack’ to a DCI on-board a submarine in ‘Vigil’, Jones inhabits women who go through the wringer in their determination to make themselves heard, writes Claire Allfree

Who would want to be Amy Silva, a DCI in the BBC’s latest Sunday night must-watch, Vigil, given three days to investigate the suspicious death of a submariner while trapped five fathoms deep on an HMS submarine? For a start, who on board has the greater authority – she as a detective leading a possible murder investigation, or the hostile navy crew who at any point can claim to be operating in the interests of national security? And how does Silva keep her mind intact when night feels the same as day, and where every wall is painted the same unending grey, the same depthless colour of the sea seething away on the other side?

A lesser actor might show it all getting to Silva. To cap it all, she is also suffering a severe bout of PTSD following an accident involving her family, a car and a reservoir. The last place she needs to be, frankly, is on a submarine. Ennå Suranne Jones – perfectly cast in this chillingly moody six-parter from the Pliktlinje production team – prefers to reveal just the merest flicker of strain. It’s all in the tight way she walks, dressed in perfunctory monochrome knitwear as though part of the paintwork; in her refusal to rise to each chippy little comment (to be fair to the crew, there is a lot going on); in her dogged, implacable determination to keep on doing her increasingly perilous job.

Born in Oldham in 1978, Jones is fast emerging as one of our most accomplished and versatile screen actors – although this will hardly be news to anyone who has followed her since she first appeared as the fabulously punky Karen McDonald on Coronation Street i 1997 (she joined the cast full-time for four years in 2000). In a career that included an early stint on Doctor Who, playing a humanoid manifestation of the Tardis’s consciousness, alongside an acclaimed performance as a convicted police killer in Unforgiven (2009) and a Yorkshire detective in the longrunning Scott and Bailey (2011-2016), she’s become particularly good at inhabiting women who go through the wringer in their determination to make themselves heard.

Consider Anne Lister, the 19th-century lesbian landowner on whose diaries Happy Valley writer Sally Wainwright based her rompy BBC period caper Gentleman Jack, and in which Jones swaggered about 1830s Halifax in highwayman black, refusing with a radical sense of entitlement to play the furtive lesbian. I stedet, she set about openly ensnaring the heiress Ann Walker while boasting of her likely success in cheeky asides to camera. The show broke new ground as a primetime LGBTQ+ drama that placed a complex, condoned relationship between two women centre stage, but it also gave Jones the chance, as the cocky, charismatic and deeply passionate Lister, to reveal a theatrical playfulness in a career previously dominated by classic British TV realism.

Det var Doctor Foster, også, de 2015 domestic thriller written by playwright Mike Barlett, which turned Jones from a respectable TV screen presence into a household name. Jones’s performance as beleaguered wife Gemma had viewers initially firmly on side as she accelerated with dizzying speed from calm, reliable family doctor to a character worthy of Greek tragedy after suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair. The second series lurched into melodrama but Jones’s mesmeric performance kept us watching all the same. Last month she made another vintage appearance in the eponymous and semi-improvised I Am Victoria, playing a woman struggling to keep it together while in the grip of nervous collapse. Den uavhengige’s reviewer Alexandra Pollard called her performance “an open wound”.

She’s appeared a few times on stage, playing Ruth Condomine in Blithe Spirit and the eponymous Orlando at Manchester Royal Exchange, and in an anniversary revival of Jonathan Harvey’s landmark Aids play Beautiful Thing at the Arts Theatre in 2013. I 2018, she took on a truly harrowing role in a West End revival of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen, playing a mother compelled to seek an interview with the paedophile convicted of murdering her child. Jones was riveting as Nancy, battling a toxic cocktail of contradictory emotions as she tried to reconcile understanding with furious, overwhelming grief.

Jones is currently filming the second series of Gentleman Jack, and already there are rumours of a second series of Vigil. What next? Film? A lucrative small screen long-runner in America? It would be good to see her back on stage, også: the theatre has been largely deprived of her talents. You suspect, selv om, TV is her natural home: it seems to effortlessly generate the fiercely complex, arse-kicking female roles at which she excels. “You just don’t do victims, do you?” observed an interviewer in 2018. "Nei!” she replied. “Or if I think I do, then I turn them into really feisty characters.” Long may it continue.

Episode three of ‘Vigil’ is on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm