Matthew Bell hears how Anne Lister’s world was reconstructed for TV and why this complex character has wowed viewers
Gentleman Jack wowed critics and audiences alike when it aired on BBC One earlier this year. This was a Sunday-night period drama with a difference – based on the diaries of early 19th-century landowner, industrialist and traveller Anne Lister, it revealed a woman determined to explore her lesbian sexuality.
Award-winning writer and RTS Fellow Sally Wainwright discussed how she brought Gentleman Jack – which has already been commissioned for a second series – to the screen at a packed Bristol Old Vic in late August.
She was joined on stage by series consultant and author of Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister Anne Choma, and folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow, the creators of the drama’s closing song, who also played a live set.
“You make everything in good faith and to the best of your ability,” said Wainwright. “All shows are made like that but you never know how they’re going to be received. I’ve written things that have been complete turkeys, and it’s heartbreaking because I’ve never made anything and not put my heart and soul into it.” The writer needn’t have worried. Only police corruption thriller Line of Duty has attracted more viewers for the BBC in its Sunday-night drama slot during the year.
Choma added: “The response has been heartwarming. And we felt that we did get it right for the LGBT community. The outpouring of emotion from around the world has been phenomenal.” The historian first studied Lister’s life as a university student 25 years ago; she recalled “the impact Anne Lister had on me as a gay woman struggling with my sexuality and not having the confidence to voice what I was feeling”.
Lister’s diaries, partly written in code when they address the intimate details of her life, run to some 5 million words. “When I started to read them, it was life-changing. So, I can completely understand people’s obsession now with Anne Lister, people who are coming to her for the first time having watched Gentleman Jack.”
Wainwright – the writer behind two other Yorkshire-set BBC hits, Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax – first pitched a drama about the life of Lister in 2003. “Nobody was interested,” she recalled. “It was a hard pitch because my profile wasn’t particularly high. I’d done the [ITV drama At Home with the] Braithwaites, which had been successful, but I wasn’t someone who could walk in and say: ‘This is what I’m doing next.’
“But Anne Lister was always there on the back burner – she never went away. After Happy Valley, which was very successful, Charlotte Moore, the controller of BBC One, asked me, ‘What do you want to do next?’ I said Anne Lister and she said, ‘Well, we’ll do that then.’ And then she said, ‘Who’s Anne Lister?’ It was a very easy pitch.”
With the drama green-lit and US channel HBO on board as co-producer, Wainwright started to write, but she couldn’t visualise an actor to play the lead role. “I couldn’t imagine anyone who could be Anne Lister – she was such a polymath, so clever and so mercurial,” she said. “It was an odd situation to be in because, when I write, I usually have someone in mind and it helps me to write if I can picture [a person].
“We looked at leading actresses in England who were ‘[around] 40 and there were, like, three. We sent a script to them and they all wanted to do it.”
Suranne Jones, who had worked with Wainwright on Coronation Street, Unforgiven and Scott & Bailey, was one of the three approached. “You wouldn’t normally ask someone of Suranne’s stature to read; you’d just make an offer,” said Wainwright. “But we had to ask the [actors] to read because HBO weren’t as familiar with their work.”
"I’ve never worked with a budget of that scale before"
“She did something extraordinary,” continued Wainwright. “I thought I’d seen everything she could do because I know her work. She instinctively got the character on a really deep, emotional, joyous level – she brought this joyous physicality to [the role] straight away.
On the shoot, Wainwright – who wrote all eight episodes and directed four – enjoyed a “huge” budget. “I’ve never worked with a budget of that scale before,” she said. Practically, this meant the crew could use equipment such as a Russian Arm, a remote-controlled, vehicle-mounted crane, which, when fitted with a camera, can track and film a moving object.
On Gentleman Jack, it was used to film the open flyer carriage, driven at reckless speed by Lister at the start of the first episode. “It’s a very expensive piece of kit that you couldn’t normally afford,” explained Wainwright.
"I found [Anne Lister] so uplifting and inspirational"
For modern, liberal audiences, Lister, an unashamed capitalist, is often easier to admire than like. She ran her estate with an eye on profit, exploiting its labour and coal reserves. “She’s complex. As Suranne says, she’s Marmite – you either love her or you just don’t care [for her],” said Wainwright.
“As a dramatist,” she continued, “the more complex people are, the more interesting they become. I embraced that side of her. She was a product of her time and it’s unfair to judge her by our standards. If she were alive now… what would she be? Would she still have capitalist attitudes? She would. There’s nothing sentimental [about her].
“I found her so uplifting and inspirational [because] she had this absolute strength and knowledge of who she was, and this ferocious intelligence that went with [that] – you just couldn’t argue with her.”
‘Gentleman Jack and extraordinary women’ was held at the Bristol Old Vic on 30 August. The event was chaired by the University of the West of England’s Dr Finn Mackay, produced by Indigo Network in collaboration with the Bristol Festival of Ideas and supported by the RTS.
Gentleman Jack: the song
Wife-and-wife folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow wrote Gentleman Jack for their 2012 album The Fragile after hearing about Anne Lister from a friend. ‘She said she was this amazing, intelligent, outgoing woman who was really different for her time, and that she was the first modern lesbian. And, of course, our ears pricked up,’ recalled Heidi Tidow.
‘We filed [the idea] and, when we went away on a song-writing holiday, we started writing about her. It was the most amazing experience writing a song that we’ve ever had together because [Lister] is so interesting, complex and inspiring.’
‘It’s really our hit – although, in the folk world, that’s putting it loosely. We always play it at our shows,’ said Belinda O’Hooley. ‘At the time [we wrote it], people just didn’t know about her, so it was fantastic to spread the word.
‘Little did we know that at our gig at Hebden Bridge, Sally Wainwright was going to come over to Heidi and, not just buy a CD, but ask us to use our song in her drama.
‘When [Gentleman Jack] hit the TV screens in Britain, it went completely off the scale. Our shop on our website exploded. We’ve spent the last few months stuffing envelopes [with CDs of the song] and all our shows have sold out. We’re so proud of Anne Lister and her story being told – it’s a fantastic show… and it’s great to be part of it.’