One of the best new shows I’ve seen all year, Gavin & Stacey, debuts on BBC America on Tuesday. It’s a half-hour British comedy about the romance between a handsome, good-natured English guy (Matthew Horne) from Essex and a cute, cheery Welsh gal (Joanna Page). They make a connection over the phone through their jobs and instantly fall in love when they meet. But unlike most romantic comedies whose plots revolve around the tired obstacles that only defer the inevitable “I do,” Gavin & Stacey makes it clear from the beginning that these two are meant for each other. Their relationship is never threatened, nor is it used as a setup for a litany of men-versus-women jokes. Instead, creators and co-stars Ruth Jones and James Corden aim at what’s most fascinating — and realistically funny — about a perfect coupling: the not-always-perfect merging of two entire orbits of family, friends and loved ones. (It says something that Corden and Jones, who met as actors on a drama called Fat Friends, gave themselves the roles of Gavin’s and Stacey’s flummoxed best mates, respectively, which acknowledges one romcom truism: in BFF-dom lieth actorly joy.)
The series, which I discovered on a trip to London last April, has been a phenomenon in Britain, earning record numbers of viewers and winning two BAFTA awards and three British Comedy Awards. The 41-year-old Jones, a dark-haired Rubens-esque beauty, whom followers of U.K. comedy will recognize from Little Britain (Daffyd’s bartender friend Myfanwy) and Nighty Night, and the egg-shaped Corden, 29, a boyish-faced charmer who appeared in both the stage and film versions of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, were recently in Los Angeles, so I met up with the pair to discuss their richly observed, mirthful series.
L.A. WEEKLY:How did you come up with the idea for Gavin & Stacey?
JAMES CORDEN: I went to a wedding on Barry Island, in the suburb of Cardiff in Wales. It was between a girl from Wales and a guy from England, and they had brought these two tribes of people to this place and got married. I sat back watching and thought that I hadn’t really seen a wedding on TV or in a film that depicted one I’d ever been to. Which is essentially one where nothing really happens.
RUTH JONES: Nothing goes wrong. Nobody objects in the church. So James talked to me about this idea, and we just kept imagining what the characters would be. The Welsh uncle, the Essex lads. We’d improvise dialogue and kept on talking about it, and it didn’t go away. And because I’m Welsh and James is English, we went away to functions and would come back and say, “I heard this brilliant line.”
For American audiences unfamiliar with the Welsh/English divide, how is it represented in your show?
CORDEN: Well, the differences are ultimately similarities, which is that [Essex and Barry Island] are suburbs of cities, with their own sense of community. It’s similar in some ways to, say, Jersey, where it’s half an hour from Manhattan but almost feels like a different place, with its own fabric.
JONES: There’s also, historically, been a thing where [the Welsh] have always hated the English, and there’s a perception that England looks down on Wales. But we didn’t want to play on that, because I don’t think most people are like that.
It’s easy humor, in other words?
JONES: It’s a cliché. I find it quite boring. In our show, people do get on.
CORDEN: They’re not enemies in any way.
JONES: These two people have fallen in love, and they’ve brought these loads of other people in their lives together, so everyone has to get on. They don’t get a choice.
So there’s your central love story, beaming and unsullied, but you’ve also got these flecks of adult humor, as almost afterthoughts, like what happens when Stacey gets advice for her blind date from an elderly acquaintance.
JONES: We were writing the first episode, and we had this idea of Stacey meeting her next door neighbor and getting some specifically sexual advice. “Give him a kiss, a cuddle, a cheeky finger, but don’t go sellin’ him the whole farm.” We wanted it to be kind of thrown away, and people would hopefully go, “Wha … did she just say that?” And then have it just go on.
CORDEN: A regular-studio-sitcom Stacey would go inside after having that conversation with Doris and go, “You’re not gonna believewhat Doris just said!”
JONES: We wanted it to be as truthful as possible and as believable as possible but also to slightly push it over the edge and bring it back before anybody’s noticed.
Do you see Gavin & Stacey as a reaction against a certain kind of sitcom?
CORDEN: Certainly in Britain, dark and kooky became mainstream. Every comedy was dark and almost uncomfortable to watch.
JONES: We don’t think of ours as a sitcom, really, because we don’t have setup, gag, setup, gag. We see humor in people, the innate comedy people have in themselves. Steve Coogan [whose production company Baby Cow makes Gavin & Stacey] said the thing he loves about the show is that you’re looking at all these people, they’re all laughing, but they’re not laughing at somebody. So you’re enjoying being in the same room with them.
CORDEN: There’s no victim on our show.
Your two roles are also responsible for some of the more ribald humor. Ruth, your Nessa is like this rock of loyalty for Stacey — if rocks wore leather, smoked and looked voluptuously mean.
JONES: Nessa is one of those people you would always want to have with you in a fight. She’s loyal through and through. She’s experienced a helluva lot. She’s probably done time. We don’t know how old she is.
CORDEN: But she has a sense of family through Stacey.
JONES: It’s just really empowering to play — the leather, the tattoos, the wig.
And James, your Smithy is the quintessential best friend who won’t let go.
CORDEN: They’ve known each other since they were 6. I think in his head, they were going to move out, get an apartment together, meet girls but still live in their apartment, then have a joint wedding — certainly a joint honeymoon, holiday together. Smithy’s that friend who says, “Don’t you wish we could go back to school?” And you think, “No! I’d rather DIE!” He doesn’t understand why it has to change, and he’s quite emotional.
NBC has bought the rights to do an American version. How do you feel about that?
CORDEN: We’re executive producers on the show, which means we have a say on things.
JONES: I think it’s a win-win situation, because if it doesn’t work as an American setup, it doesn’t affect our show. We’ve still created this thing we’re really proud of. But it’s lovely our show has come here first, so people can get a little look at that world. I can’t believe we’re sitting here now in Los Angeles talking about it. It’s utterly surreal.
CORDEN: I really don’t want to go home. I’m incredibly happy here.
JONES: And you know who’s a fan? Jackie Collins. She sent us a signed book.
Ruth, did you learn anything from working with the Little Britain guys — Matt Lucas and David Walliams — about being a writer and performer?
JONES: Their commitment and attention to detail is just incredible. I did their live show, and even on their hundred-and-whatever show, they would still be talking about how to make things better.
James, you’ve acted for Mike Leigh in the film All or Nothing. Did his type of humanist comedy rub off on you?
CORDEN: He’s a great influence on the show, in terms of anything that really holds a mirror up to the world. And he’s certainly the finest of that. Working with him informed me that if you’re trying to tell a story, beyond whether it’s funny, is it truthful? And he likes the show, which is a real bonus. He doesn’t like anything on TV. I mean, what is the line between Jackie Collins and Mike Leigh? It’s there somewhere.