Ffion Jones, writer and performer in hit show, The Wrong Ffion Jones, explains the painful origins of the show, and asks what does being Welsh mean in the acting industry of London?
Over the past year I have been writing and developing a show called The Wrong Ffion Jones. I performed the show at VAULT Festival in London in February 2019 and I’ll be taking it to the Edinburgh Festival this August. The show took roughly a year to develop but, as you will discover, it was a long time coming. My name is Ffion Jones and I have created a fictional comedy play about a character also called Ffion Jones. Through the made-up story I discuss issues that I care about, although the title did precede the writing process. The inspiration for the title came from a real life event, one that unleashed a Pandora’s box of emotions surrounding identity, which for me is so closely linked to being Welsh.
I didn’t, at first, intend on telling anyone what the inspiration for the show was. I believed that the play became its own beast, so to speak. Most of the time we don’t know where the seed of an idea starts and it often doesn’t need to be revealed, however I’d like to take this opportunity to dig even deeper and look beyond the show.
If you haven’t seen The Wrong Ffion Jones or read any reviews then I will briefly summarise – The show is set in a dystopian future where the entire country of Wales has been reduced to a tourist leisure park. There is no industry left, a giant dome has been installed over the beautiful landscape, and business tycoons Bevan, Bevan, Bevan and co. have decided to use this as an opportunity to sell the only thing that’s left, ‘Welsh pride’. Ffion Jones is a tour guide in Walesland and she accidentally starts a rebellion after doing the soulless job for fifteen years. However, in a drunken confrontation with the boss, she discovers that she’s too late. Everyone will soon be replaced by a digital tour experience and Welsh people will be obsolete once more. But Ffion is offered the job of a lifetime – to become ‘the face of Walesland’. Which will she choose: rebellion or selling out for the job of her dreams?
Of course, there is much more to the show than this. I get to morph into different characters, tell jokes, make you laugh, make you cry, and hopefully make you think. But it’s not just a depiction of a loony-tunes future; the show is also peppered with clips of Welsh women in interviews and home footage of me as a child. These sections were a hugely influential source of material that I wanted to feature in the show. The recordings are rooted in reality and are the bodies, minds and voices of my Wales, not characters and not caricatures.
I’m a Welsh actress in London. I graduated from Mountview in 2012. Now, considering that I’m Welsh, that I tend to get hired as Welsh and that I seem to write for Welsh people, it may seem odd that I’ve chosen to live in England; but “let me tell you for why”, as Uncle Bryn would say. I trained in London and this is where I created my support network, which has been so important as it can be a relentlessly emotional career path. There are more opportunities, facilities and a bit more room for risk-taking in London, but, most importantly, I feel like I have found my voice here.
Some people might argue that I could be at home in Wales; but it can be just as powerful to be Welsh outside of Wales. If you’re creating art in Wales – thank you. I needed you when I was younger. But I want to be a part of the bigger conversation and I know that my voice – a Welsh voice – deserves to be part of that conversation. And, you know the old saying “you can take the girl out of Wales… (enter Welsh gag here)”
In London I am learning what a Welsh person is. London is a multicultural melting pot and I’m finding that the Welsh ingredient has a very particular taste. You can’t avoid it when you’re walking around as a pale-skinned, dark-haired actress, with a name like Ffion Jones. You can’t avoid being told what you are before you’ve opened your mouth. In drama school I was told to be more “authentic”, to speak with my “own accent”, and to be “more Welsh” (not by all teachers but by some). As a professional actress I’ve been told to “do it Welsh and it will be funny”. When I’ve auditioned for an English role that I’ve prepared for, I’ve been greeted with “You don’t have much of a Welsh accent”. I constantly get Gavin and Stacey quoted at me, get ribbed for the Welsh language, get asked about rugby, get called a sheepshagger – the stereotypes are honestly endless.
The biggest and most constant stereotype I’ve had to face is that Welsh people are inherently funny. To be honest, I can say nearly anything in a Welsh accent outside of Wales and people will titter. This is a blessing and a curse because I love being funny but I’m not a comedian. Being funny isn’t my only performance mode; I love drama and representing truth. I love dark humour and thought-provoking art. I also love embracing a stronger Welsh accent when I perform because I believe it needs to be represented but it means that I have to constantly be asking myself, what is “authentic”? What is my “own accent”? What does it mean to be Welsh? And why does it matter so much to people? Because it certainly seems to matter. People tell me nearly every-bloody-day where I’m from or they parrot my accent back to me. It has become the core of me.
So, over the years, I got pretty good at ticking all the boxes and being a good little Welsh actress. I turned up to auditions, I did all the Welsh things, sometimes I got the job and sometimes I didn’t. I started to write and I loved it. I decided that it’s high time for there to be more well-written Welsh characters that can join the party. My philosophy was: if I felt that Welsh people were underrepresented and what I have to sell is being Welsh then let’s get to work on making more Welsh stuff. I was doing OK with writing and acting and then….BAM!
…a job rolls in for me to audition for and It. Is. The. Dream.
I’m not going to tell you what the job was for (soon to be) obvious reasons but it was a big telly role where I could play a funny Welsh person. It was also the dream because it involved some improvising and it was being made by a company that I admired. So I went to the auditions (that’s right my friends, plural. I did good.) I felt like I was pretty damned funny and pretty damned Welsh. In my heart – and in my memory replays – I smashed it.
A lot of time goes by and I hear nothing. Something in my gut told me to hang on. I have a feeling that this one isn’t going to pass me by that easily. Dramatic irony? I speak to my agent and find out that filming has been pushed back and I’m still in the running. I check dates and availability etc. etc. More time passes and then….
One day I’m sitting on a bus on my way home from work and an email pings into my inbox. It’s the contract for the job. I sweat. I shake. My heart is in my throat. I check the contract and it has my name on it. It’s all kosher. I start to freak out a little because this isn’t the usual order of things. I didn’t have a call from my agent to offer me the job. I just have my contract. But it says Ffion Jones on it. It’s mine.
I call my then boyfriend (who is also an actor) and check with him if I’m allowed to get excited yet. He confirms. I call my agent, she thinks it’s strange but if I have the contract then…sure? I forward it to her to check it over. I call my mum in Wales. She happens to be at my Nan’s house in Bridgend and she puts me on speakerphone. I tell about eight members of my family that I’ve got this big telly role and then – that’s the trigger. I allow myself to think that I’ve done it. I let go of that thing; the thing that says “don’t get your hopes up” because I can let go now. MY HOPES ARE UP. I GOT THE JOB! I’ve been given a break. My mum says “you deserve this” and “you’ve earned this” and “I’m so proud of you”. I’m so happy I could cry. But no, it’s more than happiness – it’s relief. Relief that I haven’t been flogging a dead horse.
I’m walking down the road now with jelly legs. My house feels like a different house and the key turns in the lock like a knife in butter. I’ve got a steady job that will help me get other steady jobs. I can actually make a difference. That strangely shy girl that I once was, the girl who barely said a word, the girl who was so beautifully and unknowingly Welsh, the girl with the big heart who wrote stupid secretive poems, will now be on people’s screens being her own damn fine self.
Out of my head and back to reality. My agent confirms that the contract is real and she says that maybe I should give them a call and check the details. I call them. I say “Hi, this is Ffion Jones. You just sent me through a contract, I’m absolutely thrilled but I just need to check a few things because this is the first I’ve heard from you since the last audition.” There is silence on the other end of the line. And then I hear some words that will stick to my skin like scales forever. “I’m so so so sorry. We sent it to the wrong Ffion Jones.”
The silence after that is different to the one before. I could fall into it. I say whatever I can to get off the phone and I cry for three days.
I get an email from them the next day to say that once again they are deeply sorry for the mistake and that I might be pleased to know that they haven’t finalised the casting so I still may be in with a chance. I ask myself if a pity part might be better than nothing? They also explain that the mix-up happened because there was someone working in the crew that had the same name as me but the contract was drawn up like an actor’s contract and it was sent to the wrong one. The wrong Welsh gal. The wrong Ffion Jones. But, it really didn’t matter what they said; the damage was done. My whole little Welsh world came crashing down. Everything that came before was now tarnished with the label “wrong”. What a choice of words. I saw it on the contract. I saw my name. It was mine. But I was a fool to believe it. I was wrong.
You may think that I’m being slightly over dramatic here. Once you get your head around the logistics of the mistake and the extreme bad luck of it all you might think that it’s easier to get over it. But it didn’t matter what my brain told me, my whole emotional being was on fire. I was beyond reason. I had failed at something that I felt I had been in training for my entire life. My name, ‘Ffion Jones’, was a flashing signpost of my identity and then someone else with the same name had usurped my life’s purpose. Who the ‘F’ am I if I’m not the right Ffion Jones?
Which brings me full-circle. I am still on my quest for authenticity, to represent Welsh people, to question the stereotypes (all stereotypes!), and ask you to think about Welsh culture. What’s so funny? I want to ask everybody, what does it mean to be Welsh? Do I have to be your dancing monkey to get you to listen to me? Is that really what you’re asking me to do? Do I have to ‘play the game’ to get that little Welsh shy kid some airtime? What do I deserve? What do I have to contribute? More catchphrases for you to laugh at, or, is my contribution something more than that? I would love for you to come to my show and have a giggle because The Wrong Ffion Jones has got something to say. Are you going to let her be a part of the conversation? G’won. Be a rebel.
The Wrong Ffion Jones will be at Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh at 3pm 1st-25thAugust.
Follow @wrongffion on Instagram and Facebook and @ffionjones88 on Twitter.