The drama tells the story of Anne Lister, a well-off Yorkshire landowner famous for her four-million-word diary that documented her lesbian relationships, travels and efforts to transform the fate of her faded ancestral home Shibden Hall.
The series explores Anne Lister’s relationships at home with her family, her servants, her tenants and her industrial rivals, who will use any dirty tricks they can to bring her down.
We first meet Anne Lister in 1832, when she is 41 and very much a force of nature. “She’s running her business, she’s had her love affairs and been heartbroken and every time that happens, she’s put on another layer,” Sally Wainwright said at the BFI & Radio Times Festival.
Lister (1791-1840) was a highly intelligent woman who broke from the social norms of her time. She inherited Shibden Hall in 1836 from her aunt and was an astute businesswoman, opening a colliery and taking a hands-on approach to the estate. “She was great at conversation, she was very charismatic, and she was just unusually clever,” the screenwriter and director told the audience.
From an early age, Lister also enjoyed love affairs with fellow schoolgirls and then with other women, despite the prejudices of the 19th century.
“She loved women, and she loved sex,” Suranne Jones said. “Talking to our advisor, the pool of women that she could choose from is quite small, because you have to be very careful who you’re talking to. The women that she had affairs with or dalliances with or fell in love with, often then went on to marry men for love or to keep up appearances or for money.”
At the start of Gentleman Jack, Lister has just returned home to Halifax after a higher-class woman she was courting turned out not to be interested in women. Lister is “absolutely devastated” – but then she meets a local woman, wealthy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), and decides to marry her.
Aside from Suranne Jones, the series stars Gemma Whelan (Game Of Thrones) as Anne Lister’s sister Marian. The two have a fraught relationship, and Anne is always able to run rings around her younger sibling.
Timothy West (Last Tango In Halifax) plays their father Jeremy Lister, and Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones’s Diary) stars as Aunt Anne Lister.
Bodyguard actress Sophie Rundle stars as Ann Walker, the wealthy heiress Anne meets in 1832 and intends to marry.
Gentleman Jack also stars Stephanie Cole (Man Down) as Ann’s aunt, Peter Davison (Doctor Who) as Ann’s cousin William Priestley, and Amelia Bullmore (Scott & Bailey) as William’s wife Eliza.
Is there a trailer for Gentleman Jack?
There sure is, you can check it out below:
Why is the drama called Gentleman Jack?
This refers to the public ridiculing Lister endured throughout her life: her neighbours called her Gentleman Jack to make fun of her masculine appearance and interest in women.
Writer Sally Wainwright said: “She never contemplated a ‘lavender marriage’, ever. She knew she wanted to be with a woman. And the other thing as well, there wasn’t language for it. The title Gentleman Jack: Jack meant dyke, lesbian. So it was either very vulgar language like that, or sensitive posh language like ‘wintering in Rome.'”
This lack of language and awareness did mean that Lister’s contemporaries couldn’t broach the subject: “so nobody could actually call her out on it, and if they’d got anywhere close to it she would have just run rings around them.”
Suranne Jones added: “‘Lesbian’ wasn’t a word then, there was no community, there was no blueprint for what she was doing. She was just being herself, because that’s what she says nature intended. She could only love the fairer sex. And as you’re playing her, you just become aware that you have a right to be a person, you have a right to be who you are. Regardless of your sexuality.”
Wasn’t there already a BBC Gentleman Jack film?
Yes! BBC2 made a one-off drama called The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, written by Jane English and starring Maxine Peake and Anna Madeley. It opened the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 2010.
The film covered an hour-and-a-half and looked at 15 years of Anne Lister’s life from her mid-20s, but Wainwright has expressed reservations about its approach: “There’s just too much to say about Anne Lister in 90 minutes. We’ve covered just under two years in eight hours. And even then we’ve had to leave a lot out.
Wainwright added that her new series focuses heavily on Lister’s life at Shibden Hall.
“When she inherited Shibden she just became a lot more complex, she was spinning a lot more plates, she was doing a lot more things, and the more she had to do, the more adept she became at it. For me, Anne Lister has always been a lot more fascinating after she inherited Shibden.”