Gentleman Jack episode 1 review: a 19th century superhero

Suranne Jones explodes onto the screen in Sally Wainwright’s new drama about real-world industrialist Anne Lister…

This review contains spoilers.

Anne Lister is a doing word. She’s a fast-moving object. Five feet, seven inches of confidence, dynamism and right-to-be-there. Six feet, in her top hat. At a time in English history when women of her class were preached the virtues of passivity, modesty and obedience, Anne Lister was already out the door, not listening, onto her next scheme. 

All of which makes her a thrilling TV character, something Sally Wainwright – an expert in this stuff – has known for decades. The dramatist, who grew up a bus journey away from Lister’s Shibden Hall home, has been planning Gentleman Jack for twenty years. After the successes of Happy Valley and Last Tango In Halifax, she’s finally made it, in every sense.

Someone as vigorous as Anne Lister would be exciting to watch in most contexts, but in this one – a small town in 19th century Yorkshire – she’s a comet streaking through pale skies. That’s how she’s regarded by the locals too, as an oddity but one they come outdoors to marvel at. Her sister Marian (the very funny Gemma Whelan) would prefer her to keep a lower profile, chiding Anne “It’s all well and good being different in York or Paris, but this is Halifax.” 

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This is Halifax, West Yorkshire, Wainwright’s Wessex. Previously, she’s had to invent women as capable and vital as Anne Lister to live in it, but this one was found lying in wait under two centuries of reputation and millions of words of diary entries. Trail-blazer, industrialist, “the first modern lesbian”, a 19th century landowner who addresses the dinner table like a CEO addressing a boardroom (like an eighties business exec, she never eats lunch) … Lister was just waiting to be made a popular icon.

Wainwright, who wrote and directed this eight-part series, clearly thinks so. Her delight in the character hums off the screen. She’s a scandalous new prospect for period drama, just as raffish as the 2010 Maxine Peake incarnation, but less petulant and much more enjoyable.  

Unlike the previous version, this Anne is embedded in a world of other moving parts. The servants, estate tenants, aunts, cousins and conquests are made lively through good casting, interior lives, struggles and politics of their own. Outside of Miss Lister, there’s material here for other stories to be told, as seen in Thomas’ visit to the home of the convalescing Hardcastle boy. Suranne Jones was nowhere near that scene, nor the one of Rosie Cavaliero’s Elizabeth dealing with French maid Eugenie’s pregnancy, but both sprang with life. Why shouldn’t the mining thread provide drama too? Poldark‘s made plenty out of it.

Accessorised by Sherlockian music and that jaunty opening sequence, Jones’ character is presented almost as a superhero – a miraculous alter-ego for every timid girl who ever tried to fit in and doubted herself. Anne isn’t at all heroic in the dully virtuous, stand-up-for-what’s-right sense. She just stands up for herself, which is exciting all on its own.

Though not without anguish – she feels and loves deeply, howling when a lover chooses convention over her – doubt doesn’t loom large in Lister’s life. Jones plays her underpinned by a sense of ‘why shouldn’t I’ (not a question but a statement). Why shouldn’t she collect the rent on her properties, or sink a coal mine or shoot a dying horse or vote in an election or make a wealthy little neighbour her wife? 

That lack of hand-wringing doubt is life-giving. Her surety of self energises. Remember everyone losing their minds over Lizzie Bennet muddying her petticoats on a three-mile walk? A new bar’s been set.

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Gentleman Jack continues next Sunday at 9pm on BBC One.