Award-winning writer and RTS Fellow Sally Wainwright discussed how she brought hit period drama Gentleman Jack to the screen at a packed Bristol Old Vic in late August.
Wainwright was joined on stage by series consultant Anne Choma and folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow, the creators of the drama’s closing song, who also played a live set.
Gentleman Jack, a BBC /HBO co-production, wowed critics and audiences alike when it aired on BBC One earlier this year. The drama is based on the diaries of early 19th century landowner, industrialist and traveller Anne Lister, which reveal a woman determined to explore her lesbian sexuality. The diaries, partly written in code when they cover intimate details, run to some five million words.
“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.”
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.”
And Wainwright – the writer behind two other hit Yorkshire-set BBC dramas, Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax – revealed that she has already penned the first episode of series two.
Wainwright first pitched a drama on 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, who was controller of BBC One, said to 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, Wainwright started to write, but she couldn’t visualise an actor to play the lead role. “I couldn’t imagine anybody 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, usually, I have someone in mind and it helps me to write if I can picture [a person].”
Suranne Jones, who had worked with Wainwright on Coronation Street, Unforgiven and Scott & Bailey, was one of three actors sent a script. “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.”
“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] straightaway.”
“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 Royal Television Society. A full report will appear in the October issue of Television.
All photography by Dee Robertson Photography