"It's a love story": Gentleman Jack's Sally Wainwright, Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle

The stars of the BBC One hit period drama on breaking the fourth wall, comparisons to Fleabag, and what Anne Lister would have thought

24th May 2019

To the delight of gays everywhere, historically accurate lesbian drama Gentleman Jack has officially been renewed for a second season.

Set in West Yorkshire in 1832, Gentleman Jack is based on the true story of Anne Lister. Returning after years of exotic travel and social climbing, Anne determines to transform the fate of her faded ancestral home, Shibden Hall, in Halifax.

To do this she must re-open her coal mines and marry well. But charismatic, single-minded, swashbuckling Anne Lister has no intention of marrying a man. True to her own nature, she plans to marry a woman. Not just any woman: the woman Anne Lister marries must be seriously wealthy.

The Overtake met writer and director Sally Wainwright, and stars Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle, who talked about Lister’s secret diaries, how important she is to modern queer people and what’s left for season two.

The show, which is based on the four-million-word journals of Lister, is a passion project for writer and director Sally Wainwright. Being from Huddersfield, Wainwright grew up visiting Shibden Hall and always felt an affinity for the compound.

It wasn’t until the Nineties that she became aware of Anne Lister herself, but she found herself so inspired by Lister’s accomplishments as landowner, diarist, mountaineer, traveller and person that she’s spent the 20 years since trying to reintroduce her to the public consciousness.

But what would Lister think of Gentleman Jack? Would she be happy that her diaries, which were largely written in code, have not only been deciphered but dramatised for the whole world to see?

Anne Lister irl

“You know, I think she would,” says Wainwright. “As far as we know, she never instructed anyone to destroy the diaries.” Lister’s widow Ann Walker brought her body back to the UK to be buried at Halifax’s parish church, but there were no orders regarding the tomes.

Wainwright believes she knew they would be found and decoded, eventually. “And now we’re able to really appreciate what’s in those diaries.”

Lister is often referred to as “the first modern lesbian” for her “clear self-knowledge and openly lesbian lifestyle”. Among the things Gentleman Jack has been praised for, real-life queer women have said it’s refreshing to see a historic lesbian character with seemingly no internalised self-hatred. Jones plays the larger-than-life character with command and confidence.

Though Lister has trysts with many women, it’s clear her first love is herself.

Jones feels the responsibility of bringing Lister to life, and one Gentleman Jack’s queer audience. She emphasises the significance of the show to the LGBTQIA community — using the full acronym every time — repeatedly and often unprompted.

“I’m just thrilled we’re bringing her to a prime time audience because people should know about her,” she says. “There’s so much to know about this woman. She was unique, she was transgressive, she’s epic in so many ways. And, of course, the secret part of the diary is mind-blowing for the LGBTQIA community.

“It’s an honour, a real honour.”

Jones and Rundle as Anne Lister and Ann Walker 📸 Matt Squire/Lookout Point/HBO

There’s been a lot of focus on the “racy” aspect of the diaries — it’s been referred to as a “thrilling coal-town romp“, but Rundle, who plays Lister’s would-be wife Ann Walker, is quick to remind people that Gentleman Jack is a love story. One between two women who are widely considered to have had the first lesbian marriage in Britain.

Her lonely, orphaned heiress, crippled by anxiety, goes on an “enormous, tumultuous journey” as she comes to terms with falling in love with Lister, who may initially be interested in her for her money but soon realises she’s met her match.

“[Walker’s] family had died quite young and left her this great estate, and I think lots of the family left around her were trying to exploit her for her money,” Rundle says.

I think what Anne Lister offers Ann Walker is the chance to be vulnerable and be really loved by someone

“Anne Lister is bored and needs a bit of cash and thinks, ‘Oh, I’ll go and flirt with the rich neighbour.’ Everyone is tentative to say that ‘cause this is a love story, but it definitely starts out as something a bit more cynical.

“But as they spend time together, they find they’re a surprising fit for each other — everything Anne Lister is, Ann Walker isn’t. But I think what Anne Lister offers Ann Walker is the chance to be vulnerable and be really loved by someone.

She adds about the real-life pair: “They made the amazing decision to legitimise that relationship.”

Rundle with writer and director Sally Wainwright 📸 Matt Squire/Lookout Point/HBO

Gentleman Jack is a period drama like you’ve never seen before. “It’s got that Sally Wainwright thing,” gushes Rundle. “It’s not what you think it’s gonna be; it’s got punch. It’s direct, funny and ballsy.

“She’s just one of the best in the country at the moment, and it’s just exactly what you would expect of her.”

Wainwright has an extensive knowledge of who these people were

Rundle describes Wainwright as “forensic” as a writer and director, with a masterful understanding of her characters.

“She has immaculate taste, and she’s just this extensive knowledge of who these people were. It’s really amazing to work with her. She’ll go, ‘Right let’s do another take,’ and give you this one word, and you think, ‘How could that possibly make a difference?’ and you do it, and it really does change it.”

One interesting film technique employed by Wainwright is the fourth-wall break, wherein Lister occasionally glances at the camera and talks directly to the audience. (This has drawn comparisons to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, but, “I did write this before Fleabag,” Wainwright says.)

The reception of this method has been hit-and-miss. Some love it, others have felt it’s out of place in a period drama. But it was the only way Wainwright could conceive of conveying the how the intimacy of reading Lister’s diaries. It’s in these moments we get to know her true thoughts and feelings, and many lines are taken straight from the pages — Thought I to myself, “Shall I make up to Miss Walker?”

“When you read the journals and you’re looking at the page, it’s an emotional experience,” she explains. “It feels like she’s talking to you. So, it’s about creating that direct connection.”

Where we end series one, there’s a whole new ball game to go

Lister’s diaries are the only basis for the show — Wainwright didn’t have any other material to go on when it came to informing the other characters. Does that make it biased from her point of view?

“You can read between the lines,” the writer insists. Lister’s relationship with her sister is a key example. Anne is so disparaging to Marian that “you eventually start to feel sorry for her”.

“She’s a bit dismissive of Ann Walker sometimes in the diaries,” Rundle adds. You have to take it with a pinch of salt, and that’s what Wainwright has tried to do.

Stay tuned

There’s definitely more story to tell, Wainwright says. She hasn’t read all the diaries — it’s going to be her retirement project — but there’s certainly enough material for season two, and then who knows? “Where we end series one, there’s a whole new ball game to go. There’s a lot more.”

Watch Gentleman Jack on BBC One at 9pm on Sundays, or catch up on BBC iPlayer.

Main image: Matt Squire/Lookout Point/HBO

24th May 2019