Suranne Jones interview: ‘Feminine power is frightening to some’

'I've had my own very public mental-health struggles': Suranne Jones
'I've had my own very public mental-health struggles': Suranne Jones - Channel 4

Suranne Jones is brandishing a broomstick that she made while filming her latest tele­vision series. It is short, bushy and woven through with herbs; not quite the classic twiggy besom of picture books nor the wizarding Nimbus 2000 of Hogwarts fame. But it is unmistakably, unapologetically witchy.

“I was mildly hysterical at the pros­pect of being stopped going through customs in America,” Jones says, with an expressive, wide-eyed chuckle. “Fortunately, it didn’t happen.”

Such is Jones’s on (and indeed off) screen presence, however, I can quite imagine the 45-year-old star of Vigil, Doctor Foster and Gentleman Jack styling it out with the arched-brow authority that has become her stock-in-trade. The Bafta-winner is even due to play the British prime minister in a new Netflix drama, The Choice. And let’s face it, who wouldn’t vote for her given the current real-life alternatives?

But, for now, we are discussing Investigating Witch Trials, Jones’s deeply affecting foray into the facts and fictions of the historical practice, a quietly horrifying odyssey that takes her from Pendle, in Lanca­shire – 25 miles from her birthplace of Oldham – to Bamberg, in southern Germany, and Salem, Massachusetts. What she discovers is marrow-chilling.

“All I really want is to start a conversation,” she says. “The Pendle witch trials are part of my history, they are part of women’s history, and I want people to think of ­something else when they hear the lazy phrase ‘witch hunt’ applied to a politician, or the word ‘witch’ hurled at a woman in the public eye who fails to conform.”

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack - Aimee Spinks/BBC

The witch trials, which took place in 1612, are among the most famous in English history. Twelve people were accused, two of whom were men – although the overwhelming majority were female, male witches were not unheard of. In the opening scenes of her ­Channel 4 series, we see Jones striding along the lonely path down which these dirt-poor souls would have been shoved, dragged and chivvied to detention in an unlit underground cell, and then to their deaths, by hanging. One of the older women died in prison.

“There’s still a misconception that the women of Pendle were midwives, which wasn’t true,” says Jones, speaking via Zoom from her north London home. “It’s easier for us to say they were herbalists or healers and could therefore be linked, however tenuously, to things that can go wrong when ­people are in labour or pregnant, to give the story some kind of legitimacy. But the truth is, if you were old or unmarried, childless or different, people viewed you with suspicion. Even going through the menopause would’ve been frightening to witness; a woman who suddenly flushes deep red or breaks out in a sweat or has any kind of brain fog could easily have been construed as dangerous.”

The series is atmospheric and gripping. I learnt a lot; I dimly knew that Elizabeth I’s successor, James VI of Scotland and I of England, was preoccupied with witchcraft, which in many instances was bound up with a fear and loathing of Catholicism; popish practices and black magic were indistinguishable. But I had no idea that he had written a book on the subject, Daemonologie, in 1597.

Witchcraft has long gripped the public imagination, and form the basis of Jones's new series
Witchcraft has long gripped the public imagination, and form the basis of Jones's new series - Walt Disney/Disney/Alamy Stock Photo

“Officials seeking preferment would have been highly motivated to find witches and put them on trial, to curry favour with the ­monarch,” notes Jones, more in anger than in sorrow. “They were furthering their careers by persecuting the vulnerable who couldn’t fight back.”

In Bamberg, we hear how the ­catastrophic failure of crops due to a sudden drop in temperatures around 1623 – now termed the Little Ice Age – prompted the capture, torture and killing of some 1,000 “witches”, who were blamed for putting a hex on the weather. Just as the European witch-hunt era was drawing to a close, the 1692 witch trials of Salem saw 200 people rounded up after a group of young girls claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft.

“People would see pamphlets and books about witches that fuelled their paranoia. There’s a real parallel between the invention of the printing press, which allowed the rapid spread of ideas – however misogynistic and irrational – and the way in which social media spews out hate speech against certain groups,” she says.

At first, Jones seems an odd fit to be fronting a documentary series on witch trials, but she brings a humane intelligence and often a profound emotional response as she explores the history, as well as ­present-day iterations of witchhood, which is apparently under­going something of a boom (who knew there was such a thing as WitchTok?). It turns out, however, that Jones has long been interested in the subject.

“I’ve had to think quite deeply about what it was that appealed to me about witches,” she says. “As a child, I was brought up Catholic, but around the age of 14 my faith slipped and I started identifying with their nonconformity and their outsider status. Then, from my early-20s, I was really interested in shamans and crystal work; I’ve been involved in this stuff for years, on and off, tracking my ­menstrual cycle, having my cards read. I’ve not talked about it – I’ve never had the opportunity to talk about it – because it sounds a little bit odd.”

Intriguingly, that interest in “otherness” has evolved into playing characters who are misunderstood or marginal and who have dared to take an unconventional path. The wronged wife in Doctor Foster was a modern twist on the Greek tragedy Medea. Gentleman Jack was based on the diaries of the out­spoken and uncompromising 18th-century lesbian Anne Lister. In I Am Victoria, she played a woman cracking, splintering, breaking under the unbearable pressure of her own perfectionism.

In I Am Victoria, Jones played a woman breaking under the unbearable pressure of her own perfectionism
In I Am Victoria, Jones played a woman breaking under the unbearable pressure of her own perfectionism - Joss Barratt/Channel 4

“I’ve had my own very public mental-health struggles,” says Jones, referencing 2018 when the double whammy of a difficult perimenopause and the death of her mother from vascular dementia saw her collapse on stage while appearing in the harrowing West End play Frozen, in which – to rave reviews – she played the mother of a child kidnapped and murdered by a paedophile. She was forced to pull out of the last four performances on medical grounds. Now recovered, she remains adamant about the need for women to support one another, however they define themselves.

“As far as I can see, with modern witches there are spells and there’s magic, but it’s essentially a community of healing and talking and meditation – there’s nothing scary about it. Feminine power is frightening to some people, but being a feminist is about equality. Being seen. Speaking up. Taking space in the world. That isn’t easy. Even for someone like me, in a privileged position; I sometimes still find it hard to make myself heard.”

And suspicion of women is not just a historical concern, says Jones: “High-profile women and female politicians receive far more ­horrendous abuse online than men. Even today, there’s a mistrust of women who have opinions, especially those that run counter to mainstream beliefs.”

In the series, Jones meets with a member of the witch sisterhood who teaches her how to howl. “When you roar, it does something to your body, it moves things around and it’s really invigorating – and fun,” she says. “Later, in the makeup truck, I got everyone to let out these roars. It felt magnificent – because we were women, our first thought was ‘What are people going to think?’” She smiles and shrugs; giving a voice to feminine power remains a work in progress. But that’s all the more reason to keep pushing forward.

For now, her witch’s broom is safe in her house, tucked away with the rest of her mystical paraphernalia: the crystals, the cards, her silver ring containing a spell. I jokingly suggest all such incriminating evidence should be kept hidden out of sight.

“Or better still, why not hang our brooms outside our houses?” comes her whip-fast retort. “Let them try coming for us and see what happens!”

Suranne Jones: Investigating Witch Trials is on Channel 4 later this month