BBC HBO co-production Gentleman Jack is no ordinary British period drama, but then Anne Lister was no ordinary woman.
Living in Halifax in 1832, she was widely regarded as “the first modern lesbian.” Resisting the male establishment, this wealthy landowner wields power with the best of them but her private life is enveloped by a deep sense of longing.
Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster, Scott & Bailey) stars as the daughter of wealthy elderly parents, returning home from a rumoured drama in York after inheriting Shibden Hall from her aunt. Widely travelled, and with wings that can’t be clipped, she embraces the running of the estate as a temporary means to an end. Determined to squeeze every last penny from sluggish tenants, she is fearless when rent day is due.
“Why shouldn’t I collect the rents if nobody else will?” she asks her sister.
“Because it’s a man’s job,” Gemma (Marian Lister) replies.
Such determination wins her few fans amongst the working classes and pivots our hero into an anti-hero role.
But there are some who know more about the love that dare not speak its name including disapproving housemaid Elizabeth (Rosie Cavaliero) who is instructed to make the “usual sleeping arrangements” when her friend Mrs. Lawton (Lydia Leonard) comes to stay.
Mrs. Lawton, who privately calls her “Freddie,” may live a double life, but it is one Anne rejects when the concept of a phony marriage is suggested.
“I could never marry a man,” she insists.” “t would be perverse.
“I thoroughly intend to live with someone I love.”
Such gay liberation in Victorian times is what gives this true story its point of difference, and is remarkable in this second decade of legal same sex marriage, which only this week continues to ripple around the world.
However her occasional lover only reminds her of what she is lacking whilst, at the same time, being challenged on “running not travelling” in life.
But her prospects may be on the improve when Miss Walker (Sophie Rundle) and her parents come to visit…
Anne’s deepest thoughts are chronicled in code in a journal she keeps, hence the source for several modern adaptations, including this one by Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax).
Suranne Jones makes a strident Lister, buttoned-down in black dresses that shun softer touches. While she brings strength in her business affairs, there is still vulnerability in her private moments.
The cast is dotted with a number of character and senior actors who all bring repertory experience to their performances, and the period scenery and costumes are always splendid. Medical ailments and injured legs are commonplace here, keeping the local doctor a busy bod (literally).
Wainwright also directs the episode, giving it a contemporary energy and a sense of fun.
But a handful of moments in which Suranne Jones speaks direct to camera aren’t only bold, but unsustained, making such a directorial distraction. For what little editorialising they add I would have preferred to glean the same information through the drama itself, or voice-over at a pinch.
It’s a small grievance in an otherwise entertaining portrayal of a pioneering social champion. Should she get the girl by the end and live happily ever after I hope it’s true to history and not just a TV ending.
Gentleman Jack airs 7:30pm Sunday on FOX Showcase.