‘Uncompromisingly gay’: Sally Wainwright on turning Gentleman Jack into a global icon
hen it first aired in 2019, Gentleman Jack seemed like quite a departure for Sally Wainwright. Previously, the director and screenwriter had been everything period drama wasn’t: she started her career on The Archers and Coronation Street, found her voice with lottery-winners comedy At Home With the Braithwaites, went on to write septuagenarian romcom Last Tango in Halifax, and then created the globally lauded crime drama Happy Valley. More to the point, historical drama really isn’t her thing.
“There has been this slavish adaptation of things like Jane Austen, which I just find irrelevant,” Wainwright says, ahead of a screening of the new series of Gentleman Jack. “They seem to be obsessed with: ‘Can you find a man? Are you pretty enough to find a rich man?’ As if that’s all women care about. It leaves me cold.”
But Anne Lister of Shibden Hall near Halifax – the inspiration for Gentleman Jack – does not leave her cold. This early 19th-century diarist and sometime colliery owner was known as the first modern lesbian: her notional wedding to Ann Walker in a York church was arguably Britain’s first gay marriage. “I didn’t want it to be another dressing-up-box drama,” says Wainwright. “I wanted to create the feeling that we are following her around, that she’s always slightly ahead of us.”
Northern star … Sally Wainwright. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian
Clearly, she succeeded. So marked was the drama’s impact that the BBC isn’t just bringing it back, it’s also making a documentary about the “Gentleman Jack effect”. Wainwright has had letters from women all over the world who’d never heard of Lister and now “she’s become the most important thing in their lives”. One woman had been housebound with agoraphobia – but after watching it, gathered the courage to walk to the shop for the first time in years. “That really touched me,” says Wainwright. “My mum was agoraphobic, so I know what it’s like.”
One American woman has launched an Anne Lister festival in Halifax. It started as a weekend and has now ballooned into a fortnight-long event. The University of York has named a college after her, while Halifax has put up a statue. Overturning two centuries of erasure is no small achievement, but the other thing viewers liked, Wainwright thinks, “is that her story was so life-affirming, uplifting and clever. She didn’t die at the end – she got her big romantic reconciliation. That’s what gay women responded to. I mean, she will die eventually.” Wainwright still feels bad about killing off Kate in Last Tango in Halifax. “I got slated for that – apparently, all lesbians die in telly, which I just didn’t know.”
Part of Lister’s appeal, says Wainwright, is that she is “an atypical historical character”. She was intelligent, single-minded and “uncompromisingly gay – it was a huge part of who she was, a huge part of how courageous she was, living that life not just at that time, but in Halifax, where you still can’t really be gay. I probably shouldn’t say that. Halifax is great.”
This sideswipe may stem back to Wainwright’s own formative years in West Yorkshire. She wasn’t the biggest fan of the area when she was growing up there in the 1970s and 80s. “All I wanted to do was leave,” she says. “I felt that if you were different in any way, you just couldn’t survive.” But so many of her dramas now circle back to it. “It always makes me laugh when my dramas get described as ‘gritty’ just because they’re northern.”
Wainwright had long wanted to turn Lister’s life story into TV. She grew up in Sowerby Bridge, a few miles from Shibden Hall. As a child, she visited many times, fascinated by Lister’s portrait. She didn’t manage to deepen her knowledge, though, despite Lister having left one of the most comprehensive diaries of her day – more than five million words across 26 volumes. “I knew she was gay and that she was eccentric, but it was impossible to find out anything else. She was like Halifax’s dirty secret.”
When the diaries were first transcribed in the 1960s, the council vetoed their publication. When Wainwright pitched a drama about Lister in 2002, even then the world wasn’t ready, but Wainwright puts that partly down to her own box-office heft at the time. “I’d just done The Braithwaites, which was very popular, but I’d yet to ascend to the point where I could do whatever I wanted. That only happened after Happy Valley.”
The popularity of Happy Valley – the story of one police officer battling crime in Calder Valley while still dealing with the suicide of her daughter years earlier – was partly down to the serendipitous casting of Sarah Lancashire, who “just gets it”, says Wainwright. “I don’t know if it’s to do with being a northerner. The way I write just has such a northern sensibility. It’s a slightly dry delivery of humour; you don’t have to be laughing your head off to deliver funny lines. Sarah often says to directors: ‘It won’t be funny if you do it like that.’” Wainwright wrote the third season during lockdown. “In my mind,” she says, “it was always a trilogy, so that will be the last.”
Her other main lockdown activity was gardening, she says, having separated from her husband at the start of the pandemic. “We’d been married 29 years, so I think that’s quite good, actually. We’d come to the end. I think it was the right thing to do.” I remark that she looks very glamorous these days and she laughs for a really long time.
Having waited nearly two decades for Gentleman Jack to get the green light, Wainwright ended up being glad of the delay. It meant the drama came to life in an age of massive budgets (it’s a co-production between the BBC and HBO) and, more importantly, gave her the perfect lead in Suranne Jones: “I wouldn’t have got the right person to play Anne Lister back then.” Jones is eerily perfect: charismatic, intense, almost superhuman in her piercing energy. Wainwright brackets her with Lancashire: brilliant, naturally funny and, of course, northern.
When we meet her anew in the second season, Lister seems more assured, her ambitions on a bigger canvas. She brooks objection more impatiently than ever, as she tries to fix the conundrums of how to join in law the estates of two lesbians, while wondering why footmen are all so gormless. This was informed by a close, fascinated reading of Lister’s diaries. “By her mid-40s, she seemed to have developed this carapace of how to deal with the world. Which you can understand. You get to a point where you don’t give a fuck.”
Wainwright directed the first season of Gentleman Jack but not the new one, as she was tied up with writing Happy Valley. Which does she prefer, writing or directing? “I’m quite reclusive, and a bit autistic, not very good with other people. So that fits with being a writer. But when I direct, it’s the only time that I’m good at communicating with people. It really makes me feel alive. And 98% of writing is pulling teeth. It’s really hard work, whereas directing is hard work but fun.”
Ironically, she says, the pandemic cured her of something: being a workaholic. “Before, if I wasn’t working, I tended to panic. If I had nothing on at the weekend, I’d just go and sit at my desk. But during Covid, I got to thinking: ‘This is quite nice, not doing anything.’” I take this with a pinch of salt, since Wainwright has been remarkably productive during this apparently fallow spell, finishing not just Happy Valley but The Ballad of Renegade Nell, an eight-part drama for Disney+. Set in Tottenham, London, in 1704, it’s about a highwaywoman just back from fighting in the Battle of Blenheim, who goes on the run after being accused of murder. “It’s set in the reign of Queen Anne,” says Wainwright, “which is very exciting because, of course, she paid for Blenheim Palace to be built.” Of course, I nod. That is definitely a thing we all know.
Renegade Nell started life as a play years ago. Wainwright was writing something for her amateur dramatics group and wanted to set it around her local area in the Cotswolds. This strikes me as a rather eccentric hobby: spending your free time doing exactly what you do as your day job, except not getting paid. But maybe it makes Wainwright the ultimate artist, never thinking about the splash a show will make, whether it’ll be in a tiny village hall – or go global.
“Really, all I’m ever thinking is: ‘Will people stay with this, line by line?’” Still, didn’t her am dram team ever think it at all odd? “I don’t think they really noticed what I did for a job,” she says. “The plays I did were quite good. I think they noticed that the plays were good.” Then she smiles as if to say: “What? I’m not going to pretend I’m not good.” And nor should she.
Gentleman Jack returns to BBC One on 10 April and of course you can follow it here on Fero.tips on the 11th!
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