At the age of eight, Suranne Jones already had the energy of Anne Lister.
“I was a bit talkative and mischievous in school,” she says, “and one of my teachers said to my Mum, ‘there’s this theatre workshop where she could go to...expel her extra energy.’”
In Gentleman Jack, Jones brings a bountiful energy to the role of Lister, who, often described as the first modern lesbian, had to constantly draw on hers to overcome the pervasive inequalities of the era.
The series, created by Sally Wainwright, follows 19th century industrialist and diarist Lister and her struggles to save her ancestral home, Shibden Hall, and to find a woman willing to marry.
Given her innate sense of mischief, Jones, again, was the perfect match. “Sally always says I’ve got funny bones, and it fits with the way she likes to write sometimes,” she says.
Clearly born to play the part, the result was an RTS Award-nominated performance. But the road to such major parts and her now cemented status was paved with hard graft.
After her early years in the workshop and having left school, Jones enrolled in a Theatre in Education course and drove a van around with her fellow actors, visiting other schools and holding post-education talks and plays.
“I felt I needed to keep doing it to keep it in my bones, even while I was there working my two pub jobs," she explained. "So every moment I could act, I did. I even sang ABBA for binmen once!”
After a minor part on Coronation Street, Jones returned to the cobbles three years later for her first major role as Karen McDonald, who became one of the soap’s most recklessly unpredictable of characters.
Since leaving Corrie in 2004, Jones has gradually risen to prominence with leading roles on Doctor Foster and Save Me, as well as several collaborations with Wainwright, including Scott & Bailey and Unforgiven.
“[Playing Anne Lister] is very freeing because it’s not like any other role,” she says.
“I’m usually trying to tone everything down, as actors do, in striving for realism. But actually I found the realism in being big, because then you can find the quiet moments behind closed doors that are just very human.”
Big and small, loud and quiet, Jones remembers Wainwright listing “a million things” the actor would need to be to play the part, which made it very difficult to cast.
“From the moment we read together I was like, ‘oh God, I’m in love with Sally, I’m in love with Anne Lister, I’m in love with the whole project.’” Needless to say, the feelings were mutual.
Given the nature and vast quantity of the source material (Anne Lister’s published diaries amount to four million words), and especially its inherent subjectivity, preparation for the role of Lister had the potential to overwhelm.
“It did,” admits Jones. “You [also] have to remember that the only source we have is Anne’s diary.”
“And as we know, if I write in a diary right now I could say I felt amazing, but then I could say [at the end of the day] that I thought I’d had the shittest day ever.”
Although the diaries have their drawbacks, Lister’s long list of love exploits and coal dealings provide plenty of raw dramatic material for Wainwright to mine.
Gentleman Jack demonstrates her, and romantic interest Ann Walker’s (Sophie Rundle), rejection of 19th century society’s traditional gender roles and sexual norms.
By exploring such “universal subjects,” Jones says, the series has gone global. “It’s about not fitting into societal norms, and a lot of people feel like they don’t.”
She adds: “For a lot of lesbian women it was a celebration of this, knowing that this woman came before them many years ago, and was living the life she felt she deserved through all the struggles it brought.”
Given these struggles, Jones and Wainwright were constantly asking themselves what mental state Lister was in as “a useful marker for certain scenes.”
“I thought that someone who had so many obstacles and so many questions about herself throughout her life would struggle with her mental health," Jones says.
“But actually we found that she had really good self-esteem, and so I think a big thing to learn from her is just to keep pushing on and to view life differently every day.”
Jones has now set her sights on bringing more pioneering women to the small screen, having recently bought the rights to the autobiography of Jane Couch for her and Laurence Aker’s TeamAkers Productions.
Couch fought for the right for women to box in the late 90s, despite her and her team of solicitors facing frequent slander from some quarters of the press, often on account of their sex and sexuality.
Filming for the next series of Gentleman Jack was meant to begin this summer, but the producers at Lookout Point recently announced its postponement.
In the meantime though, Jones says, “you can definitely read the diaries post-honeymoon! Our fans have done that and they’re already posting things that they know are going to come up.
“And you know I love all that – it feels like we’re all connected.”
The RTS Programme Award winning series Gentleman Jack is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.