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'Gentleman Jack' creator on the long-awaited return of the Sapphic period piece

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Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker and Suranne Jones as Anne Lister inn "Gentleman Jack" season 2.
 

It’s been a few years since “Gentleman Jack” first aired and the incomparable Anne Lister strode over the English countryside and into the hearts of fans in the U.K. and the U.S. But now, after a series of pandemic-related production delays, the sapphic period piece, along with its jaunty score and fourth-wall-breaking protagonist, is back for its sophomore season.

While the show’s premise may sound entirely fictional — an enterprising woman resolves to make a fortune and take a wife in 1830s North England — in actuality, it closely follows the real Lister’s expansive diaries. Lister, who was born in West Yorkshire and lived during the height of the Industrial Revolution, was a member of the rural gentry who leaped over her father, the heir apparent, to run her family’s modest estate. Determined to expand her holdings, she bet big on coal and eyed making an advantageous match, remarkably, with a wealthy woman.

 

“Female companions lived together, and they would share the same bed, and no one would think anything of it, because, obviously, women didn’t have orgasms in those days,” Sally Wainwright, the show’s creator, said with jovial sarcasm in her own Yorkshire accent.

She added: “The difference with Anne Lister was that people did know that she was very masculine, and they did know that she’d had relationships with women. She had a reputation in York for being a predator for women.”

That reputation — along with what Wainwright described as a “very sound opinion” of herself — earned Lister the nickname “Gentleman Jack,” the latter part being a slur for a lesbian at the time. Now, thanks to Wainwright and the folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow, whose song “Gentleman Jack” is the show’s memorable ending theme, the nickname has been reclaimed on Lister’s behalf. 

Wainwright, a multi-hyphenate writer, director and producer who has created several popular British TV shows, including “Happy Valley” and “Last Tango in Halifax,” is unabashedly enthusiastic about her subject and source material.

“Everything in the show, more or less, comes from the journal,” Wainwright said of Lister’s diary entries, many of which can be found in the collection “The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.“When you read the journal, it’s almost like you’re having a one-to-one with Anne Lister. It’s very personal, very detailed, very vivid. You really get into her mindset, and it is very energizing. She is very energizing.”

Lister began keeping more formal diaries in 1816, when she was in her mid-20s, using a code she developed as a teenager to conceal passages involving her sexuality. She continued meticulously documenting her daily life up until her death in 1840, giving Wainwright a wealth of material to adapt. (Lister’s diary entries, which span thousands of pages, are still being decoded by researchers, some of whom have collaborated on the show.)

The debut season ended with the real-life marriage between Lister and the heiress Ann Walker, which took place in a parish church in 1834. Of course, the marriage wasn’t legally recognized, so Lister sought ways to make it formally binding outside of conventional means, including both women’s rewriting their wills to make each other their beneficiaries. 

In season two, the subject of wills is a central issue between the newlyweds — Suranne Jones playing Anne Lister, Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker — who have moved into the Lister ancestral home of Shibden Hall, near Halifax. Anne is eager to seal the relationship in estate documents, but there’s still some apprehension on the part of her wife, who is more susceptible to outside pressure (not to mention, she’s the one with all of the money).

“The first season was about the chase, about pursuing someone who may or may not be gay, who may or may not respond,” Wainwright said. “And how you seduce someone who may just not be the right person for you at all, for many reasons. 

This season, she added, “is about starting to explore the marriage in public.”

“How they negotiated that marriage in a way that meant they didn’t fall foul of not just polite society but ordinary society — the tenants and servants. How they make it work in a way that doesn’t impact on the internal structure of the marriage, which, of course, it did,” Wainwright said.

In addition to public opinion, the two women also have to contend with each other’s very different temperaments. Anne, who has breeding but relatively little wealth, has long relied on her charm and intellect to secure her place in polite society. Her wife, although possessing money and pedigree, has struggled with anxiety and lived a sheltered life under the supervision of her family, who have labeled her an “invalid.” So combining their respective worlds proves difficult, especially for Anne, who isn’t quite ready to introduce her wife to her circle of sophisticates and past lovers.

And it’s not just the newlyweds who are struggling to make their new domestic situation work. Anne’s sister, aunt and father — played by returning cast members Gemma Whelan, Gemma Jones and Timothy West — now find themselves the topic of gossip for welcoming the unconventional couple to Shibden. That inevitably sparks tension among the family members, particularly between the sisters, who regularly spar over an array of matters, and with their aging father, who often seems to begrudge his daughter’s role as overseer.

It seems as if there is an endless number of things for Anne to juggle: public scrutiny, a potentially flighty new wife, familial rivalries and an increasingly precarious financial situation. But that was just the nature of daily life for Lister, Wainwright said.

“She was on the move all the time. She never sat down for long at all, except presumably to write the journal,” Wainwright said. “I really wanted to capture that in the show, the fact that every day she did 10 different things. 

“She had the mental bandwidth to do that, which most of us just don’t. I think that’s very compelling, and it’s often quite funny,” she said, referring to Lister as “a real polymath” — an archetype that has been played for laughs in other successful British series, like “Sherlock.” 

“I think that comedy is a great tool for a dramatist,” she said. “It does capture the audience’s attention if you’re funny.”

Audiences have definitely latched onto Wainwright’s brand of humor, which is brought to life by Jones’ formidable performance and her character’s conspiratorial asides to the audience. After “Gentleman Jack” first aired, in 2019, U.K. fans’ fervor for the buoyant series spawned an Anne Lister birthday festival, which finally took place this month after multiple pandemic-related cancellations, and a statue, which was unveiled in Halifax in September.

It also broke through as a popular show in the U.S., which Wainwright credits to Lister’s inherent magnetism: “She’s a real force of nature. She had this wonderful, deeply held belief that all things were for the best, and she always set about doing anything with the optimism that it would be a good thing and it would work.

“Women in general feel empowered by Anne Lister,” she added. “They see that somebody could be so true to who they were 200 years ago and just get on with life. And that’s a powerful influence, irrespective of whether you’re gay or not.”

Given its early success with viewers, the series was renewed for a second eight-part season in 2019, while the first was still airing. And Wainwright, who didn’t direct the new episodes but remains the guiding force behind the show as writer and creator, hopes the same will happen this time around. 

“I often find, with a second series, there’s an increased confidence — certainly from my perspective as a writer and from the actors’ perspective. And everybody knows who they are. They know the characters. I found the voices for the characters for me to write, and they found them to perform,” she said.

“The season gets better and better as it goes along. It really builds; it has a momentum,” she said, alluding to the wealth of diary content still to be discovered.   

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Tags: Suranne Jones, Gentleman Jack

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