May 19, 2019
Sally Wainwright has turned Anne Lister’s diary into a thrilling coal-town romp that flirts with parody
Gentleman Jack review: Suranne Jones rocks Halifax as the first modern lesbian
It’s Regency Fleabag! Because the heroine occasionally breaks the fourth wall and exteriorises her inner monologue. But it’s set in Halifax in 1832, so it could be Northern Jane Austen. Then again, it’s about Anne Lister, who – since her 4 million-word diary came to light and particularly the encoded sections were deciphered – has been dubbed the first modern lesbian, so maybe it’s Queer Brontë ...
You can afford to have a little fun with Gentleman Jack (BBC One); Sally Wainwright clearly has. The writer, best known for the harrowing Happy Valley series and whose most recent outing was a fierce account of the Brontës’ lives as the sisters of an unsalvageable alcoholic brother, has turned those 4 million words into eight pacy episodes that amount, by Wainwright standards, to almost a romp.
The title is the local nickname given to Lister, the manorial lord of all she surveys (thanks to an uncle who took one look at her hapless father and left the lot to his unconventional niece) in early 19th-century Shibden.
We first meet her surveying it all a bit bleakly, however. She has been forced home, it emerges in a series of flashbacks that punctuate the romp with sudden eruptions of terrible hope and sadness, by a love affair gone wrong. Miss Hobart, the “companion” Lister abandoned her international travels to attend, decided that discretion was the better part of valour and accepted a man’s offer of marriage. At the news, Lister (Suranne Jones, always spectacularly good at lunges of feeling towards either tragedy or comedy) simply howls into her beloved’s skirts in despair.
Most of the time, however, we are in Shibden itself. Lister reacclimatises herself to her “shabby little village and shabby little family” – or rather, Lister being wholly and indefatigably Lister, we are in Shibden as she forces it to reacclimatise to her.
She rides in with an injured coachman, no one else having had the gumption to pick up the reins. She takes over the rent-collecting from the estate’s usual man, turfing out underserving tenants as she goes. She makes plans to sink her own pits and start mining the plentiful coal sitting beneath the rest of them. She ignores any familial objections (“Nasty business, coal” says her father, who is played by Timothy West, thereby providing all of us who remember his magnificent Bradley Hardacre in Brass with a shining moment of glee) and generally sets the place to rights.
She is a woman who does not deal in half-measures in any area of life. In bed with her occasional visitor Mrs Lawton, she responds angrily to her suggestion that she too should marry a rich, titled man and quiet the gossips. “I thoroughly intend to live with someone I love.” The problem, Mrs Lawton gently points out, is that very few women with her tastes feel brave or strongly enough to do the same.
As a romp, Gentleman Jack works fine. Jones is a sufficiently swaggering presence to make her family’s and villagers’ blend of fascination, delight and awe as they behold her believable (ditto her dutiful sister’s swelling resentment of a sibling to whom people’s attention is drawn as iron filings are to a magnet). The subplots, including the pregnancy of Lister’s new lady’s maid Eugenie, aren’t very well integrated but this may improve in later episodes.
But while it is fun, and has moments of heart, it also has moments that seem to flirt with period drama parody. This is especially the case with the arrival of Rosie Cavaliero, indelibly associated with Hunderby, as one of the servants and with lines like: “It’s all very well being different in York or Paris, but this is Halifax!”
By the end of the first episode, at least, Gentleman Jack feels just slightly like a missed opportunity. There is so much meat to a story about a woman determined to live unbound by convention (in every aspect of her life, though her sexuality was central to it) and constantly defy expectations (and confront more opprobrium, surely, than the few silly gossips on show here); especially for Wainwright, whose specialist subject is female strength – what it costs to gather it, wield it and sustain it in their frequently unequal battles in life.
She has assembled a cast with the chops to handle anything thrown at them (it includes Gemma Jones as Lister’s quietly accommodating mother figure, Gemma Whelan as sister Marian and Stephanie Cole as the aunt of an forthcoming love interest, as well as West and Suranne Jones herself) and it would be immensely satisfying to see them gorge themselves on the rich feast she could offer. Maybe the main course is yet to come.
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