Mum’s the word
In three-part drama Maryland, a pair of estranged sisters discover their mother’s secret life after her sudden death. Star and co-creator Suranne Jones discusses her partnership behind the camera with writer Anne-Marie O’Connor and director Sue Tully.
For the 2021 Bafta-nominated single drama I Am Victoria, star Suranne Jones worked with writer-director Dominic Savage to create an intense study of a woman who seemingly has it all yet is teetering on the verge of a mental breakdown.
Now the actor has stepped behind the camera once again for ITV drama Maryland. Jones partnered with writer Anne-Marie O’Connell to co-create the three-parter, which also marks the first television drama from TeamAkers Productions, the production company Jones established with her husband, writer-producer Laurence Akers.
“I was developing this at the same time as I was developing I Am Victoria and a number of other things, but this has been quite a quick turnaround because from the original idea; it’s only been four years until now, which is unheard of,” Jones tells DQ. “With Dominic, it was very intense. We filmed it all in eight days and he gives you a very loose-scenario script, whereas with this, we dug deep. It feels so much more a part of who I am in a way, which is crazy. It feels like I’ve got a producing bug now I’ve got this thing I’m creating. It’s something I really want to continue with.”
Maryland stars Jones and Eve Best (House of the Dragon) as estranged sisters Becca and Rosaline, who reunite to identify the body of their mother Mary after she is found dead on a beach on the Isle of Man. But when they travel to the island to repatriate her body, the sisters discover she was living a separate life away from their father Richard and her home in Manchester – news that sends shockwaves through the family.
Produced by Monumental Television (Ghosts) with TeamAkers, the series also features Hugh Quarshie, George Costigan, Dean Lennox Kelly, Andrew Knott and Stockard Channing.
Jones’s screen career dates back to her first live television appearance as a 10-year-old alongside iconic kids’ TV presenters Timmy Mallett and Michaela Strachan. But it was after leaving the cobbles of British soap Coronation Street, in which she played Karen McDonald for seven years until 2004, that she first started to think about not just starring in series but making them too.
“I knew shedding Karen was going to be a big thing. Then when we came up with Scott & Bailey, me and Sally [Wainwright, creator] were talking about what we wanted to do and maybe we weren’t necessarily being offered those parts,” Jones says. “So it’s an extension of that. We all get typecast in life, no matter what jobs we’re in. It’s not just actors. So it’s just about going, ‘Oh, actually, I know you want me to do that, but I quite fancy doing this.’”
After detective series Scott & Bailey, Jones went on to star in Doctor Foster and Gentleman Jack, among other roles, and Maryland represents her ambition to make “quite an old-fashioned show.” “I wanted it to be a family drama, the stuff that I watched when I was growing up,” she says, “and I think we stuck to our guns and made that.”
In the series, mum-of-two Becca and disciplined high-flyer Rosaline discover their mother wasn’t quite telling them the whole truth about her life as they uncover a host of secrets, a mysterious house and a group of strangers who seem to know Mary better than they do.
Jones originally had an idea for a story about “two sisters and a house,” before her agent paired her with longtime friend O’Connor (Trollied, Hullraisers), who had written something about two sisters, their mother who had died and the secrets left behind.
“It was really fortuitous that these two things were so close in idea. It felt like there was something really in the water,” O’Connor says. “Suranne and I got put together and we started talking, but then we talked so much about it and it’s been such a close collaboration to bring it together.”
From the outset, the creators wanted the two sisters to be similar in age to themselves, and also to write an older figure – Channing’s Cathy – who carries their own mystery. They also wanted to place a very ordinary family at the centre of something extraordinary and create a love story between two sisters who had grown apart.
With the creative team opting against using flashbacks to reveal to the audience what really happened, viewers stand alongside Becca and Rosaline as they seek to discover the truth about their mother’s secret life – a concept that fascinated Jones.
“Like, how do people even do that?” she says. “We usually see men [leading double lives] and so we were intrigued about how a woman even does that. How has she done it? Where does she go?”
Grief is another theme that runs through the series. Jones, who has lost both of her parents, says it was a huge part of her early conversations with O’Connor, but there are also numerous moments of levity through the series, not least when Becca enjoys a spot of karaoke.
“There’s humour in it, but it’s not an easy ride and it’s not a straightforward ride, and you don’t get a blueprint of how you’re going to feel,” she says. “Knowing sickness, knowing illness, knowing grief, knowing death was a huge part of it. And I think we’re both really proud of how that turned out.”
As the characters took shape during development, Jones then had the chance to play either Rosaline or Becca. But after starring in submarine thriller Vigil and period drama Gentleman Jack, she opted for the younger sister.
“I’ve done a lot of shows where I’ve been leading and I’ve been very front-footed,” she explains. “I wanted to play someone who was dragged along or had felt stuck, rather than had things all clued up and ran the show. I felt like I wanted to be someone who I could unravel throughout, and we’re seeing someone who is very tightly wound. We see what happens to someone who’s like that.”
Filmed in Ireland, the series is directed by Sue Tully (Strike, Too Close), who was drawn to the project by how relatable she found the story of normal people facing up to an extreme situation, and how traditional family roles were challenged by the events the characters find themselves in.
“I was blessed with my cast and it was an easy job from that point of view,” Tully notes. “There was an immediate chemistry between Suranne and Eve, which made life incredibly easy as well. There was such an investment in the story, and they worked in the way I like to work. I don’t like to over-rehearse stuff. I like to keep things as fresh as possible. But we do like to talk about it, so there was a lot of talking, which is slightly different from rehearsing. Once we turned the cameras on, it was all there.”
Tully, Jones and O’Connor continued their partnership in post-production, where the creators would have the chance to give notes on the different edits of each episode. “It was lovely for Sue to say, ‘We need to lose three minutes. What do you suggest?’ It’s great to be part of that,” Jones says. “Because usually, you’re not. But it’s also quite exciting with Vigil, because I’m not producing at all. I’m just being paid to go and do a very exciting show. And then I’ll see it like everyone else at the end. So there are pros and cons to both.”
When Maryland debuts on ITVX and ITV1 on May 22, Jones hopes viewers can recognise themselves in the family on screen and see how people live up to the labels and roles they come to be assigned.
“Obviously ours is an extreme situation, but I think people will know this family and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, is that me and my brother? Is that me and my sister?’” she says. “You can sit there and say, ‘What if that happened to me?’ even though it’s about a mother who had a double life. That probably won’t have happened to you, but you could imagine it.”
“There’s so much that goes on in families and it was about capturing that,” O’Connor adds. “A lot of the time on TV, like when you watch soaps, people say exactly what is troubling them. And in real life, nobody says what’s troubling them. You’ve got to dig under and work out what is going on.”
Jones is now involved in filming the second season of Vigil, but having caught the producing bug, she is also lining up her next production role after being inspired by fellow actors such as Billie Piper (I Hate Suzie) and Vicky McClure (Without Sin) who have similarly stepped behind the camera to create and produce content.
“You do the story and actually it’s a shock when you get on set because you’re like, ‘Oh, I helped put this together and now I’ve got to do it,’” she says. “It’s so much more work, but it’s so much more of a payoff.”