“Shabby little Shibden” exhales Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) in the first episode of Gentleman Jack. Shibden is anything but shabby – to visit Shibden Hall is to be truly transported back to Lister’s time. Its remarkable oak-panelled rooms are full of life and history just as in Sally Wainwright’s tremendous drama based on the life of Gentleman Jack.
There have been several dramas in the past few years which have focussed on same-sex relationships The Favourite, Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet and Carol but to name a few. Yet, few of these dramas have drawn upon the lives of same-sex couples or individuals whose own voice we can hear.
Gentleman Jack is different in this regard – Anne Lister’s remarkable story was recorded in the four million words of her diary that have survived. Sally Wainwright’s skilful utilisation of Lister’s life is evident throughout the first episode – rather than paint an entirely faltering portrait of Lister, the drama depicts her as she was, warts and all which allows the audience to fully understand Lister as a person; whilst she can be compassionate, she is also ruthless and self-serving.
Beginning with Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle)’s first encounter with Shibden Hall after she and her aunt are driven off the road and the son of the Lister’s latest tenant is badly injured; the episode fully comes to life with Anne Lister’s return to Halifax. Arriving home from Hastings after the collapse of her relationship with Vere Hobart (Jodhi May), Anne discovers that Mr Briggs (James Quinn) the man employed by the Listers to collect their six-monthly rent is ill. Deciding to take the responsibility upon herself – she soon becomes interested in the possibility of mining coal which has lane dormant for decades; though her father Jeffrey (Timothy West) attempts to dissuade her, Lister is intent by the end of the episode on restoring the fortunes of Shibden and to win Ann Walker, not least because of her large fortune.
From her matter of fact manner to her annoyance at her sister Marian (Gemma Whelan) having contrasting opinions to herself, we are offered a deep insight into the truth of Lister. Fundamentally, rather than condensing any of Lister’s life into a reductive series of events – rather she allows the first episode to explore Lister’s return to Shibden and her decision to stay naturally and does not force traditional narrative constraints on it in order to make it fit into a series. Ultimately, the first episode is a perfect portrayal of Lister as a character – it allows us to fully appreciate her desire not to be restricted by convention or even country; in fact, her Aunt (Gemma Jones) states early on “England is barely able to contain her”.
Wainwright gives both the audience and Jones room to understand and explore Lister’s character in depth so that we can understand her motivation for pursuing Ann Walker and why she left Hastings under such a cloud. Wainwright also ingeniously uses the fact that the script is inspired by Lister’s diaries to bring an element of the fourth wall breaking into the story – like Fleabag and Deadpool this works perfectly in the way that Wainwright has structured the series and faultlessly reflects Lister’s satirical and unconventional personality.
Suranne Jones gives a barnstorming performance as the titular Gentleman Jack. She fully inhabits the character of Lister and brings her to life with a thrusting, energetic and yet restrained performance. Whilst Lister was not a conventional person, she did often adhere to the manners and traditions of her time in regard to dress and polite conversation and this is reflected in Jones performance – she plays Lister’s emotional and physical stillness perfectly, forcing all of the attention in any given scene on to herself. Jones has a natural presence and she imbues all of it into her portrayal of Lister giving her authority and command over any situation she finds herself in. Her performance is the lynchpin which holds the series together and without her clever, imaginative and fun portrayal of Lister Gentleman Jack would not be as brilliant as it is.
The direction by Sally Wainwright is engaging, energetic and exuberant. Wainwright’s unbridled skill as a writer is matched by her eyes as a director – from the opening sequence when the carriage crashes to the end of the episode when Anne Lister goes to see Miss Walker, Wainwright’s precise vision of her script is brought to the screen effortlessly. Wainwright understands not only how to film an action-filled sequence but also quieter, much more intense scenes such as Anne’s discussion with her Aunt about what she wants to do now that she’s back home.
The first episode of Gentleman Jack is a vivid and vivacious introduction to the world of Anne Lister. Sally Wainwright’s evocative writing allows the viewer to become fully immersed in the story she has written which, combined with her visionary directing and Suranne Jones’ charismatic and rakish performance as Anne Lister, ensures rapt attention from those watching. It is a series that truly stands out from other period dramas and any other dramas on British television at this moment – long may it continue.
Gentleman Jack Continues Sunday at 9.00pm on BBC One.