Behind her back, she’s Gentleman Jack, a Yorkshire lady of renown…
We’ve been spoiled, really, when it comes to new series to watch. Whether you’re a fan of lounging on the sofa and putting the telly on, of catching up on long journeys, or getting all cosy in bed and streaming on your device, there are some programmes that you simply can’t afford to miss.
In amongst already legendary shows such as Killing Eve, Fleabag and Years & Years, the BBC has done it again with producing yet another series for the ages, this time in partnership with HBO. Gentleman Jack is a docu-drama set in the Victorian ages, concentrating on the life of the sure-headed, superbly smooth Anne Lister – accompanied by a gorgeous folk song as the title theme, ‘Gentleman Jack’ by wives O’Hooley & Tidow.
Hers was a life of soaring highs, scintillating drama and intense adversary – no wonder it’s been made into a hugely popular show! It’s drama bound to make you laugh, cry, and clutch a pillow in anticipation – so here are 5 reasons why you need to watch Gentleman Jack immediately.
1. Ruffles and decor galore – all part and parcel of a period drama
Anne Lister lived an extraordinary life in the Victorian era, being born in 1791 and dying in 1840.
As such, her life was full of the over-the-top fashions of the era, whether that was from the Victorian patterns decorating the walls of her family home, Shibden Hall, or from the clothes any respectable person had to wear.
The drama has stayed true to the trends of the decades in which they’re set, bringing to life the beauty and the decadence of the characters who had – and the plain living of the characters who did not. As the subplots focus on the people who interacted with Anne, whether they were tenants or her adversaries, the show accurately portrays the sorts of worlds they would be living in – and to gorgeous visual effect.
2. Based on the diaries of the real Anne Lister
Period dramas are always enjoyable, but knowing the events on the screens are dramatised from real events is even better.
Anne Lister was a real woman, the landlord of her family home, Shibden Hall. As, arguably, Britain’s first modern lesbian, Anne pushed at the boundaries of what a woman could and couldn’t do.
She always wore black, and chose more masculine dress. She took control of her business, doing all the things others expected her to hand off to male relatives despite her being the one that inherited the land and property. She travelled freely, studying a whole host of subjects, and being educated privately in Paris. And, of course, she was a lesbian, who embraced her “oddity” (her words, not mine!) and slept with women even if they were married. She was never safe from being outed, and people did not trust her, but she never let them win.
Starting when she was in boarding school, Anne wrote about all facets of her life in her diaries. Aware of the contents’ sensitivity, she devised a code made out of Greek, Roman and mathematical symbols. They were discovered and decoded by a descendant who at first ordered her diaries to be burnt, but ended up saving them. Years on, their contents were discovered by a historian, Helena Whitbread, in 1982, who brought them to public light.
The series takes sentences straight from the diaries themselves as part of the dialogue, whether in conversation with others characters, as an overhead narration – or as a fourth-wall-breaking dialogue with the audience. Her confidence, to the point of arrogance, her intelligence and her guarded nature become plain to see, and give the show a sense of realness deserved by such a fascinating, real human being.
3. Only the best cast for a show as good as this!
The show is stuffed with an incredible cast who elevate the heartbreak, humour and the drama of these real people. Most notably, of course, is Suranne Jones, playing Anne Lister herself. There really isn’t anyone better to play Anne; despite her recognisable face – you may remember her from Coronation Street and Doctor Foster – Jones is unrelentingly convincing as she switches between the arrogance and the inherent vulnerability of the landlord with astonishing talent. She’ll look into your eyes and make you believe every single word Anne says. Only Suranne Jones would make you desperately hang on for more.
Other notable characters include Anne’s family – Gemma Whelan, of Game of Thrones fame, delightfully plays Anne’s frustrated sister, Marian – and Tom Lewis, who plays Anne’s tenant at the end of his tether tolerating his abusive father.
But one person steals the show just as much as Suranne Jones – and that’s Sophie Rundle. She plays Ann Walker, Anne’s main love interest in the show. As an orphaned daughter and the sole inheritor of a massive fortune, Ann is kept a careful eye on by her extended family (the Victorian Era’s answer to the not-so-modern phenomenon of ‘helicopter parenting’). Vulnerable to depression, Anne Lister’s saunter into her life is a welcome breath of fresh air, and she quickly falls under Anne’s spell despite the reputation preceding the older woman. Sophie Rundle, whom you may recognise from Peaky Blinders, Happy Valley and Bodyguard, brings to life a person that very easily could have made into a caricature. A swooning girl she may be, but Rundle rounds Ann to portray her as a genuinely sweet and plucky girl inconvenienced by a severely unfortunate set of circumstances. I’d be friends with Ann, any day.
4. Humour on point
It’s not just drama and kissing – although, yes, that’s quite a lot of those too. Happily.
A show like this wouldn’t be successful if its writing wasn’t up to scratch; lesser series have fallen under for this reason, even if their concepts were good initially. Luckily, Gentleman Jack is safe in the capable hands of Sally Wainwright, who has written for Happy Valley and The Archers, amongst many other successful credits.
Although Anne Lister faced discrimination and adversary at every turn, it’s clear that Sally and the team are determined not to let the show descend into darkness. From a sprightly soundtrack to flashes of wit crafted into the lines and the faces of each and every character, this is a show that deserves as much credit for its laughs as it does for its drama. Besides, which other show would make you laugh about a thermometer?
5. It’s really, really gay
Yes, of course, it’s kind of obvious, but hear me out on this.
There’s truth to the observation that a queer person will watch anything with queer people in it, particularly queer ladies and non-binary folk (“nb/enbies”). As long as it’s not queerbait, then we flock to the show like a pack of flamingoes in a Great Gay Migration, and if we’re satisfied then we’ll be steadfast fans for life. Writers, actors, producers and directors take note: when it comes to good representation, queer ladies and enbies are ride or die. Treat us well and you’ll be treated well in return. Take advantage of us, and, well…
Gentleman Jack has already amassed a dedicated fanbase, largely of queer ladies and enbies, because of this very reason. There are more queer ladies on our screens than ever, but written into queer fan DNA is an acknowledgement that representation is scarce and seldom positive. Gentleman Jack has overwhelmingly proven that not only will there be gays, they will be gays who get to laugh and enjoy each other’s company. The series does not mock them. They are not in the background. They do not sacrifice their queerness for a straight couple. And – bit of a spoiler, though it was over two centuries ago – the real-life Anne Lister and Ann Walker were the first women in Britain to get married to each other, even though it was unofficial in the eyes of society.
Anne Lister and Ann Walker’s lives may have ended in tragedy, and they were constantly subjugated to discrimination, but it’s refreshing to see their lives told in a positive light. It’s refreshing to see it become so popular, on mainstream television, and most importantly to be treated as normal. It’s great that no big deal is being made out of it. How times have changed!
Also, we get to see Suranne Jones make women fall at their feet with just the crook of an eyebrow – and really, what’s not fun about that?