Me and Mr Jones
Tom Jones stars Solly McLeod and Pearl Mackie explain how this four-part adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 18th century novel brings a modern sensibility to the classic story of two people from opposite sides of society destined to find true love.
When he first picked up the script for four-part drama Tom Jones, actor Solly McLeod wondered if he’d been selected to star in a biopic of the chart-topping Welsh singer. Of course, it soon transpired that this was not a deep dive into the life of the Delilah crooner but a fresh, modern adaptation of Henry Fielding’s comic 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.
“I read three episodes before I auditioned and read them in one sitting – and that meant something, the fact I could sit there and read all three in one go,” McLeod says. “Tom spoke to me immediately and it looked like a lot of fun. I was working on another project at the time that was a bit more serious, dark, sad and depressing, so it pulled me out of that a little bit and I was like, ‘This is what I’d love to do next.’”
Written by Gwyneth Hughes – who describes the story as “the mother of all romcoms” – the sunny, picturesque period drama for ITV and PBS Masterpiece follows the title character’s complicated journey to find real love. Abandoned as a baby and then rescued and adopted by country gentleman Squire Allworth (James Fleet), Tom is kind, handsome, free-spirited and has numerous affairs, but cannot escape his lowly birth.
When Tom and wealthy heiress Sophia Western (Sophie Wilde) fall in love, their families unite against them. Tom is banished in disgrace and Sophie runs away with him to escape a forced marriage with William Blifil, the heir to Paradise Hall.
Arriving in London, they face the wiles and whims of Sophia’s aunt, the beguiling but dangerous Lady Bellaston (Ted Lasso’s Hannah Waddingham), who is determined to destroy them – but can their love conquer all?
Directed by Georgia Parris and produced by Benjamin Greenacre, the show’s cast also includes Pearl Mackie (Doctor Who) as Sophia’s trusted maid, Honour; Alun Armstrong (Breeders) as Squire Western, Sophia’s hard-drinking but loving grandfather; and Shirley Henderson (Happy Valley) as Sophia’s Aunt Western.
McLeod, whose recent credits include The Rising and House of the Dragon, describes the drama as a coming-of-age story for his character, who must learn to grow up and end his adventurous flings with other women if he is to convince Sophia they are meant to be together.
“But it takes him a few tries to get it right. He gets himself into some pretty impressive situations, and each one of those is a little bit of a learning curve for him,” the actor says. “He goes from still being a child to growing up at the end, to put it simply.”
It’s their outsider connection that draws Tom and Sophia together from the start, a pair of “normal people in this quite crazy world,” McLeod continues.
“The characters are all very quirky and theatrical in some parts, and Tom and Sophia are the only ones who seem to be in the real world and want to change and explore these sides of themselves. Him being a foundling, that’s a big part of why he’s trying to prove himself. He wants to be a gentleman so bad; he wants to do the right thing so bad that he ends up doing the wrong thing sometimes.”
Taking on his first leading role, as the title character no less, was daunting for the British star, who has previous experience of costume series from his time on historical drama Outlander.
“I was terrified completely,” he tells DQ. “This is a whole new thing, being the frontman of this project. I didn’t know at the start but I learned how big Tom Jones was. It’s widely studied, there have been two different [film] adaptations.
“Because of that, I chose not to watch the previous adaptations because I wanted to come to it fresh, just going off the scripts instead of other preconceived notions. It was scary, really scary, and a lot of work as well.”
That workload amounted to being on set in Northern Ireland for 54 of the 56 shooting days, as “one of the first in and one of the first out.” And the fast-paced production schedule mirrors the finished series, which zips along at a steady pace.
“They would fit in eight or nine scenes on a single day. It’s a lot, and because we’re shooting in winter in Belfast and it’s set in summer in England, we’d wake up at 3am to catch the light,” he notes. “It was freezing cold in these silk, unbuttoned shirts. It was an ordeal but it was worth it, for sure.”
Former Doctor Who assistant Mackie, who starred alongside Peter Capaldi in the sci-fi series, was similarly unfamiliar with Fielding’s novel, but enjoyed how Hughes shifted the perspective of the source material to tell the story more from Sophia’s point of view.
“That gives it a really interesting narrative spin,” she says. “What I found really interesting was that Sophia and Honour were both black women, and that’s something that is addressed within the story. It’s not just they’re black because they just happened to be. Sophia is a woman of Caribbean descent. She’s mixed race. Her mother was a slave on a plantation. And that’s addressed, it doesn’t shy away from that. That was really bold, and I thought that was really exciting and a really interesting thing to do in the framework of a period drama.”
In fact, Mackie says before Tom Jones – which is produced by Mammoth Screen and distributed by ITV Studios – she had never imagined starring in a costume series, despite loving them as a viewer. Her favourite is the BBC’s iconic adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.
“I kind of ruled out that I was ever going to be in one. I didn’t really think it was possible for a young black woman,” she admits. “We didn’t exist in period dramas. And it was it was really fascinating to me to be a part of one. It felt like a real turning point.”
But while playing a character in a period drama is very different from living in the world today, Mackie can draw some disappointing similarities between life in the 18th century and the present.
“For Sophia and Honour, as women of colour, it’s a very different situation for them as they go on their journey,” she says. “They do encounter some quite blatant racism. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist in the world now, because it really does, but the blatantness is quite shocking. It was quite shocking to read in the script. But testament to Gwyneth, Georgia and the production team, they didn’t shy away from that.
“Obviously it’s a very happy story and it’s joyous, but it really explores the reality of two black women exploring together and seeing what the world was like for them. As an actor, while it’s important to recognise those differences, it’s also important to think about the similarities as well.”
Despite their formal relationship as mistress and maid, Mackie says there is a warm friendship between Sophia and Honour, who have grown up together and share a bond similar to one someone might have with an older cousin.
Then as Sophia leaves home, it is Honour who becomes her protector and guide in the ‘real world.’ “She definitely wants to be protective of Sophia as they journey into the world,” Mackie says. “But you can see in the humour as well, in Gwyneth’s script, that Honour is quite an opinionated person and she definitely lets Sophia know what she’s thinking a lot of the time, where you might not always get that in a relationship between a servant and a mistress. I thought that was a really interesting dynamic as well.”
Playing Honour, it was the practical aspects of the genre that surprised her the most, not least the demands of wearing a corset for 12 hours a day. “It’s no mean feat. It’s painful and it can be physically taxing,” she says. “But it was actually great fun. We had such a good time with the horses and all the sets they built of the markets. It’s something you never really imagine you’re going to do, and then you’re suddenly sitting in the back of a carriage. A lot of the time, Sophie and I were just giggling in the back of carriages.”
McLeod had done several chemistry reads with other actors before Wilde landed the role of heroine Sophia, though the leading couple didn’t meet in person until a week before shooting began.
“I got off the plane in Belfast and we went straight to the pub for a couple of pints of Guinness and just chatted about life and whatever,” he says. “It was very reassuring off the bat. The chemistry there, you can see it on screen. I was grateful we didn’t hate each other.”
Filming took place across Belfast, with notable locations including Myra Castle and Galgorm Castle.
“We went to five or six different locations and, some of them, because they’re so old, they’re protected so you can’t actually go inside,” McLeod explains. “We used the outside of one and the interior of somewhere else. But just the grandness of them was very impressive. The upside of shooting there is that none of these houses have really been seen on British TV before. It’s all new locations. It was exciting for everyone.”
Then when it came to filming Tom’s numerous sex scenes, “we wanted to make it sweet instead of intense – and we didn’t want it to be pornographic,” he says. “They’re all very sweet, innocent, first-time experiences. Obviously, there were awkward moments, but luckily all the actresses I worked with, we all got on really well. We spoke about it beforehand; we had intimacy coordinators there on set and we were choreographing these scenes with Georgia to be fun. You have to make it fun, otherwise it can get tense and awkward, but I didn’t find that at all. It was very comfortable.”
In Tom Jones, Hughes has sought to subvert Fielding’s novel and the traditions of the period genre, while leaning into the humour of the source material and shedding the stuffiness of similar shows that can struggle under the weight of the actors’ costumes.
“Nowadays, everyone’s trying to come with that shock factor and, ‘How dark, savage and violent can we make this?’ whereas this is quite refreshing to see,” McLeod says. “And the comedy, I found myself reading and thinking, ‘I’ve been in situations like this in my normal, modern life,’ so it was quite funny to see the correlation between then and now. You wonder how much has really changed.”
tagged in: Alun Armstrong, Benjamin Greenacre, Georgia Parris, Gwyneth Hughes, Hannah Waddingham, Henry Fielding, Honour, ITV, James Fleet, PBS Masterpiece, Pearl Mackie, Shirley Henderson, Solly McLeod, Sophie Wilde, Tom Jones, William Blifil