Gentleman Jack

Sally Wainwright: The people’s writer

It is doubtful whether Sally Wainwright’s writing has ever been described as inauthentic – her TV drama is populated with real people, speaking natural, colloquial English. “My imagination doesn’t seem to click in if what I’m writing doesn’t feel real, or if it’s phoney, or if something feels a bit cheesy or sentimental,” she told Endemol Shine UK COO Lucinda Hicks, who hosted an RTS webinar with the writer in May.

Sally Wainwright discusses Gentleman Jack series two and life in lockdown at the first RTS lunchtime event

Sally Wainwright

She is now penning the second series of the hit BBC drama, which is based on the diaries of a 19th century landowner exploring her lesbian sexuality.

Progress, however, has been slow. “I’ve got tons of work to do, but I’ve found it very hard to concentrate,” admitted Wainwright. She has turned out one episode during eight weeks of lockdown, a slower pace of writing than usual.

Normally, she said, “I take my deadlines very seriously”, but the coronavirus outbreak has put back filming of the new series from June to September.

Suranne Jones on Gentleman Jack, Jane Couch and singing ABBA for binmen

“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.

Loud and proud: Gentlemen Jack creators celebrate the drama's success

O’Hooley & Tidow , Anne Choma, Sally Wainwright and Dr Finn Mackay (Credit: Dee Robertson)

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.

How Sally Wainwright brought her heroine to life in Gentleman Jack

Suranne Jones playing Anne Lister and Sally Wainwright (Credit: BBC/Lookout Point/Matt Squire)

Some 20 years in the making, Sally’s Wainwright’s new television drama, Gentleman Jack, was originally rejected by every broadcaster she took it to. The story of an openly gay woman who farmed in 19th-century rural Yorkshire was considered a non-starter by TV networks. Starting this month, the topic is getting eight hours of BBC One Sunday-night primetime.

It’s common for writers to describe their latest work as a “passion project” – often industry-accepted shorthand for what they hope is infectious enthusiasm for their new offering.

Sophie Rundell joins Suranne Jones in Sally Wainwright drama Gentleman Jack

Jones stars as remarkable Regency landowner Anne Lister in the BBC One drama, which will hit screens in 2019.

Speaking to the RTS in 2017, Wainwright spoke of her attraction to the project. “[She was] this extraordinary woman who lived in Halifax in the 1820-30s. She did some extraordinary things at a time when women just weren’t allowed to do anything really.”