I recently made a trip to London to visit a childhood friend of mine. With both of us having moved on to concrete pastures away from our green-belted Scottish haven, it was inevitable that we would end up with a bottle of wine reminiscing long into the night. It’s fair to say that one of the most common causes of our laugher were discussions around the particular oddball characters or town quirks that formed the backdrop of our youth. Like a homemade patchwork quilt, we all have our distinctive squares coloured by different accents, houses or backgrounds, but the feel of it is the same. It provides a familiar comfort, even if at times it can be a little itchy or smothering.
Relating to the nostalgic intimacy of a tight-knit, eccentric community isn’t what drew me to Stella (it was the presence of the talented Ben Glover on the soundtrack that did that), but it is a main part of what got me hooked. It wasn’t a shock that such a vivid and relatable character-led comedy drama would come from Ruth Jones; the whirlwind success of Gavin and Stacey proved she is Queen of the small-town caricature, but there is something about the extra grit and emotion alongside this that gives Stella its own identity. Before the end of the first episode you already feel an attachment to the characters, both those who are there purely as eclectic village furniture and also those who fulfil the more dimensional roles.
The tone of the show is set up faultlessly in the pilot. It’s a cocktail of wit, ridiculousness and heart-warming (or breaking) emotion, but the secret ingredient is the way the three are so slickly combined and how they revolve seamlessly around the titular character – down-to-earth (albeit occasionally erratic) Stella Morris. Throughout the show’s first three series, Stella balances boomerang, wayward children, volatile love interests and various jobs all under the overbearing scrutiny of the invasive community she keeps re-tying her binds to. There is an element of Stockholm syndrome running through, but it is Jones’ delicate portrayal of combined affection and frustration that invokes an empathy for her loyalty to this hotbed of nonsensical stagnation.
While the show prides itself in its uneventfulness, it is the consistency of the gags that help to keep it engaging. There is always a chuckle in the recurring throwaway lines such as every customer in the post office being directed to check “next to the cat food” for their desired item, or the often inaccurate recitations of common phrases, even from the less slapstick locals. Every episode has a genius line or two which if noticed make you feel like you’ve known this community your whole life. Clever comedy aside, there is also the occasionally surreal scene of absurdity, often connected to the dysfunctional family undertakers. The funeral parlour is managed by Stella’s functioning alcoholic-best-friend-and-sister-in-law (played by Waterloo Road’s rent-a-meltdown, Elizabeth Berrington) and owned by an incomprehensible geriatric who speaks a language only understood by residents of the town (the now sadly departed Howell Evans). This contrast in itself tells you all you need to know about the mix of solemnity and humour in the show.
The underlying parody of these individuals doesn’t mean they don’t pack an emotional punch. Berrington’s Paula and her husband Dai (played by Game of Thrones’ Owen Teale) are a prime example of this, spending half of their on-screen time engaged in questionable sexual role play and the other half in an authentically turbulent marriage. Another to note is the lovable Alan Williams (portrayed by frequent writer Steve Speirs) who acts as a pillar to both Stella and the community. While Speirs is generally there to fulfil the classic unrequited-admirer role, he is also a reliable heavyweight for the more serious sub-plots, especially in stories relating to the custody of his son or his own later series love interest. It is these deeper storylines, rooted in family devotion, where the show really can shine and more often than not with Jones at the helm. Exercising her acting chops away from being the main comedy feature, her prowess in Stella is in her subtle expressions of concern, sadness or pride while the clamour goes on around her. Even though Stella’s actions are often impulsive and sometimes selfish, it is hard not to sympathise with her, especially in her public moments of vulnerability or off-guard outpourings of fear. As well as exhibiting her talents in these more powerful moments, Jones effortlessly delivers scenes of sweet normality and comedy, taking her place in the ensemble when necessary and pulling her weight as a wingman or background character to showcase the skills of her colleagues.
A final band to expand upon are the characters that make up the comic scenery. There are many rotating personas but also some long-stays such as the brash and outspoken Aunty Brenda (Di Botcher), Karl (Julian Lewis Jones) who is Stella’s former husband and father of two of her children and fake-tanned and trimmed Nadine (Karen Paullada), who was the catalyst for the end of Stella’s marriage. Each of these fulfil their tropes with gusto and easily earn viewer affection despite only ever navigating the subplots.
There are no unflawed characters in Stella, which avoids any preachy undertones, but there are also very few outright villains which makes the feel-good factor easier to indulge. While the show can occasionally wander into clichés or stagger temporarily into soap territory, it is those unique personalities, assorted flavours and distinctive writing recipe which gives it its own voice. It is a show that will not be everyone’s cup of tea and it may not be the first show to rely on town life or a put-upon mother as its hook, but it fills a hole for heart-warming comedy drama, drawing you in to snuggle up either with your own patchwork quilt of hometown comforts or with an accessibility that let’s you feel welcome to borrow theirs.
All series of Stella are available on Sky On Demand and Series 4 is currently being shown on Sky One, Fridays at 9pm.