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Gentleman Jack - TV Series Review

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by Douglas Sutherland-Bruce (subscribe)
Douglas has been a professional food writer since 1986. He is also an award-winning actor and director in Community Theatre and has been for many years. His blog may be found at:
Published July 11th 2019
The First Modern Lesbian - in 1832
Ever since John Logie Baird rang his mum and said: 'I've got a bit of an idea ...' the British have done period drama well.

Partly it's because most of the history is theirs. After all, when you own or control 25% of the world you're bound to pick up the odd good story, partly it's because they have all the good period writers - Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, William Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, William Shakespeare and so on.

But mostly it's Britain's long theatrical stage tradition and attention to detail and passion for veracity.

Gentleman Jack, Anne Lister, Sally Wainwright, BBC, Timothy West Gemma Jones, Gemma Whelan, Shibden Hall, Helena Whitbread
Anne Lister, left (Suranne Jones) and Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). (Photograph courtesy of the BBC)

Whether it's Edward VIII, Henry VIII and his Six Wives or Larkrise to Cranford and Prejudice if it's a BBC period drama you can expect quality (there's another one - Quality Street) of the highest order.

And that's because that long stage tradition also gives them a huge selection of very talented actors to chose from, added to the fact that British directors have the charming habit of filling even tiny roles with talented character actors.

This is all a long way round into the TV show I have just binge-watched and which I so admire - Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones as Anne Lister and Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker with a supporting cast including Gemma Jones (The Duchess of Duke Street, another fine period drama), Timothy West (Edward VII and countless others), Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones) Peter Davison (Dr Who), Stephanie Cole (Doc Martin) and lots and lots more.

Gentleman Jack, Anne Lister, Sally Wainwright, BBC, Timothy West Gemma Jones, Gemma Whelan, Shibden Hall, Helena Whitbread
Suranne Jones in mufti (Photograph courtesy of the BBC)

The story of how Gentleman Jack came into being is fascinating. Anne Lister was born in 1791, inherited a considerable fortune, Shibden Hall and land in Halifax, Yorkshire and had 'an interest' in women which she called her 'oddity' - the word 'lesbian' was unknown in that sense until 1866.

She also kept a diary, totalling more than four million words with roughly a sixth in a self-devised code. The diary details the everyday minutiae of her life, opinions of people, her private thoughts and her sex life, in considerable detail.

The diaries remained largely undeciphered and unknown until the 1980s when Helena Whitbread published The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister and No Priest but Love.

These were read by Sally Wainwright, a television writer, producer and director from Yorkshire (Scott and Bailey, Happy Valley, Unforgiven and others) who specialises in drama about strong flawed female characters preferably from Yorkshire and Gentleman Jack is the result.

Gentleman Jack, Anne Lister, Sally Wainwright, BBC, Timothy West Gemma Jones, Gemma Whelan, Shibden Hall, Helena Whitbread
Shibden Hall today, showing the Gothic tower built by Anne in 1838 (Photograph courtesy of the BBC)

The story covers Anne Lister's life from 1832 to 1834, covering the start of her career as a collier and her pursuit, capture and 'marriage' to local heiress Ann Walker.

In eight episodes Wainwright mingles absolutely known fact with a certain amount of dramatic license in the form of a sub-plots regarding a carriage accident in which a young boy was crippled, a pregnant maid, a murder and so on. Entirely believable and beautifully researched to illuminate real problems of the time.

The show is marvellously cast with Suranne Jones as the eponymous 'Gentleman Jack', a sneering nickname given her by the townsfolk. Suranne and Sally had previously worked together in Scott and Bailey where she turned in an excellent performance in a difficult role.

In every actor's life, there is a role which might have been written for them, for which they are so perfectly fitted, physically and in skill that they shine forever. Think Sir John Hurt as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, Sir Derek Jacobi as Claudius in I, Claudius, Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfred Robarts in Witness for the Prosecution and so on. This is Suranne Jones' role.

She is so perfect in role, so physically gorgeous, either striding along the streets in 'that' coat, or leaning forward on a sofa to make a persuasive point and so subtle an actor that we share her anguish, her courage and, it has to be said, her snobbery.

Gorgeously costumed to perfection the series has an authenticity that has to be seen to be believed. In part, this is because a good deal of the filming of the interiors and all the outdoor shots were filmed actually at Shibden Hall, which was given to the nation in the 1930s. It's open to the public and since the TV show went to air, attendance has trebled.

The script to top rate but it violates one of the main rules of serious drama as opposed to panto or comedy. The actor directly addresses the audience, deliberately breaking the fourth wall.

We've seen it recently in the highly-acclaimed Fleabag, but that is basically a comedy with very serious undertones, whereas this is pure drama.

It doesn't take long before the penny drops, however, and we work out that those speeches are exact quotes from the diaries, so it's Anne's words speaking to posterity - us, in fact, so it makes sense.

Gentleman Jack, Anne Lister, Sally Wainwright, BBC, Timothy West Gemma Jones, Gemma Whelan, Shibden Hall, Helena Whitbread
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister (Photograph courtesy of the BBC)

This is Jane Austen from behind the scenes, a real glimpse into reality, not the polished exterior novelists would like you see, or the causes crusading novelists like Dickens wanted to highlight - this is real in that we are listening directly to an authentic 1830's voice, no less so than if we heard a record.

The plot moves along slowly and we gradually get to know the real Anne Lister rather than the brave, brash front she habitually presents to the world. Courage Anne has, in no small measure, we see that in the action she takes when no man can - she has to shoot a much-loved elderly and terminally ill horse. This she does unflinchingly, but Jones skill as an actor is such that we see what it cost her.

Gentleman Jack, Anne Lister, Sally Wainwright, BBC, Timothy West Gemma Jones, Gemma Whelan, Shibden Hall, Helena Whitbread
The only known portrait of Anne Lister. Painted about 1830 by Joshua Horner

She meets again, after some years, a wealthy neighbour, Ann Lister, a timid and typical maiden of the period. At first, attracted by her considerable means, Anne soon fell deeply in love with her. The eight episodes cover her life from 1832 to 1834 covering her burgeoning romance and laying the groundwork for a second season, which has since been commissioned, I'm delighted to say.

How much is historical fact and how much Sally Wainwright I don't know, and frankly I don't care, this is a wonderful story, immaculately told.

Gentleman Jack is close to being television perfection - writing, plot, acting, costumes, makeup and hair, setting, properties, photography, theme music and all aspects of the show are as near perfect as makes no difference.

Watch Gentleman Jack and you will I am sure come to love and admire Anne Lister as I have - a woman who dared the world to take her as she was and damn your eyes if you don't. A truly admirable person - the first modern lesbian.

Very Highly Recommended Indeed.
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Why? Near flawless period TV drama
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