Gentleman Jack review: 'New BBC period drama couldn’t be less like what you expect it to be'
Coming after the double-shot of espresso that was Years And Years and The Virtues, a Sunday night BBC1 period drama set in 1830s Halifax in West Yorkshire could feel like being offered a mug of milky Horlicks.
But don’t be fooled. Despite an abundance of frocks, bonnets, horny-handed rustics and horse-drawn carriages rattling along country lanes, Gentleman Jack couldn’t be less like what you expect it to be.
What we have here is the ideal troika of writer-director Sally Wainright, her regular star Suranne Jones and Anne Lister, the real-life industrialist, landowner, intellectual and restless traveller whose remarkable personal diaries provide the raw material for this new eight-parter from the BBC and HBO.
And remarkable really is the right word. Lister, a lesbian who cared little for what polite society (or even impolite society) thought of her and was open in her romantic pursuit of other women, kept copious diaries running to four million words.
A good chunk of them were written in code, derived from algebra and Ancient Greek. These passages detailed her most intimate romantic and sexual encounters, including her seduction techniques.
The diaries were deciphered by one of Lister’s descendants in the 1930s, when British society was arguably even more buttoned-up than ever. Rather than burn this scandalous material, as he’d been advised to, he hid them behind a panel in the Lister estate, Shibden Hall.
They weren’t unearthed until the 1980s and provide an invaluable insight into the reality of daily life for a gay woman in 19th century England.
Locals in Halifax gave Lister the nickname ‘Gentleman Jack’ because of her masculine appearance and habit of dressing head-to-toe in black.
Jones is wonderful as Lister, striding confidently around, wry, indomitable and smart as a whip, with top hat and twirling cane, like the heroine of some steampunk novel set in an alt-Victorian England.
She doesn’t suffer fools gladly – especially male fools who treat her with condescension or try to best her in business – and kicks hard against the suffocating social and sexual mores. “England is barely big enough to contain her,” says an admiring female neighbour.
But we get a glimpse of the pain and vulnerability behind Lister’s toughness in a brief flashback to the end of her relationship with the first great love of her life, Vere Hobart (Jodhi May), who cast her aside to marry a rich man.
It’s this unhappy ending that sends Lister sweeping back to “shabby little Shibden and my shabby little family” – her half-deaf father Jeremy (Timothy West), her eye-rolling younger sister Marian (Gemma Whelan), who’s tired of Anne always being the centre of attention, even when she’s not around, and her doting aunt (Gemma Jones, who played the same character in a largely forgotten BBC film about Lister from 2010).
Lister doesn’t plan on hanging around long, finding sexually liberated cities such as Paris much more amenable to the way she wants to live her life.
But when she sees the estate is going to pot (her father has no head for business and the rent collector has been laid up with an injury), Lister takes charge, rousting recalcitrant tenant farmers and striking up a working partnership with Samuel Washington (Joe Armstrong, another regular in Wainwright’s dramas), who proposes she open a mine on her coal-rich land – a move that’s sure to set her in conflict with local business bigwigs.
There’s another reason for sticking around: the arrival in Shibden of Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), a rich but sheltered young woman to whom Lister is immediately attracted.
Gentleman Jack is witty, rambunctious and, bar a couple of fourth wall-breaking moments, a la Fleabag, that don’t quite fit with the rest, steers admirably clear of trying to filter the story through modern sensibilities. It doesn’t need to. The real Lister was already far ahead of her time anyway.