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.
Screenwriter Sally Wainwright talks to Lucinda Hicks, COO of Endemol Shine UK, about her career so far, Gentleman Jack series two and life in lockdown.
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.
She started her career as a playwright and as a scriptwriter on The Archers, honing her craft on Coronation Street, before creating her first original drama At Home with the Braithwaites in 2000.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Now's a great time to get into writing for TV. There have never been more opportunities for scripted programming. To stand out from the crowd, an idea should seem original and distinctive.
While the breadth of programming has increased, the traditional formats have remained dominant. Your writing should fit the standard models for a mini-series, a serial or an episodic series; 30 minutes for comedy, 60 minutes for drama.