The new Sunday night offering from BBC One is a period drama like we’ve never seen before, and it may even help fill that Fleabag-shaped hole in our lives.
Suranne Jones is back, and that can only mean one thing: another wonderfully complex female character to save us from our Sunday night blues. In this respect, Gentleman Jack does not disappoint: written by Happy Valley’s Sally Wainwright, it tells the true story of Anne Lister, a 19th-century landowner whose blue plaque describes her as a “lesbian and diarist” but who’s so much more than that.
Based on the four million words she wrote about her daily life (she kept meticulous journals, recording everything from the weather and the state of her toenails to who she’d slept with and how satisfied they’d been), the eight-part series follows Anne as she navigates relationships, business and family life at her ancestral home of Shibden Hall in Yorkshire.
Full of beautiful landscape shots and pleasing Fleabag-esque looks to the camera, Gentleman Jack – a nickname given to Anne in reference to her “unfeminine ways” – introduces us to a magnetic and enigmatic character. Here are five things we learned from episode one.
Anne Lister doesn’t do downtime
In just under an hour, our heroine undertakes so many impressive tasks that it almost gave us whiplash. A multihyphenate before it was cool, Lister arrives back at Shibden Hall after leaving her lover (who has decided to marry a man) and gets stuck in to a hefty to-do list.
We see her driving a carriage through Halifax, girl-racer style; marching around town in place of her pushover father to collect outstanding rents; making plans to sink a coal mine in her backyard for a bit of extra cash; hopping into bed with one woman and courting another; and, in a grim final scene, shooting a sickly horse in the head.
So yeah – if Anne Lister was around in 2019, her Instagram page would probably be full of quotes like, “We all have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé.” She’s not one for taking it easy.
She knows exactly who she is
Jones has done a brilliant job of bringing Anne’s individuality to life. Cutting a striking figure in black dresses made to resemble men’s suits, her businesslike confidence and open flirting with women clearly confuses polite Regency society – yet her charm wins her respect among men and women alike.
“She’s an original, she’s natural, she’s true to her own nature,” gushes Mrs Priestley, a cousin of romantic interest Ann Walker and veritable fan girl.
When Anne’s stuffy sister (played by Gemma Whelan) gets on her case about doing a “man’s job” and warns her that “it’s all well and good being different in Paris or York, but this is Halifax, and people talk”, you almost want to shout “Leave Lister alone!” at the screen. We really expected better from Yara Greyjoy.
She knows exactly what she wants
From the moment we see her bemoaning her return to “shabby little Shibden” as she looks disdainfully at her literal mansion, we get the sense that perhaps our Anne has a higher standard of living than most. “Banality and mediocrity are the only things that have ever really frightened me,” she tells her part-time lover in bed one night, as they discuss her desire to travel the world and simultaneously restore her estate to its former wealth and glory.
But it’s not just the material things that Anne is ambitious about: she’s determined to have a happy ending in love as well.
She balks at the suggestion that she should marry a man as a “fig leaf cover-up”, saying, “I thoroughly intend to live with someone I love… someone who is there all of the time, to share everything with, not someone who just drops in every now and then whenever her irritable husband permits it.” Cheers to that.
They were serving some serious looks in the 19th century
There is, of course, Anne’s undeniable swagger (the top hat, the cane, the beautifully tailored waistcoats – we’re here for all of it) but the rest of the cast has not been forgotten, with beautifully sumptuous gowns and bonnets that would be right at home on the Met Gala red carpet. The puff-sleeved perfection that is Ann Walker’s wardrobe caught our eye more than anything – and it seems to have caught Miss Lister’s eye too, judging by all those meaningful looks.
Period dramas don’t have to be stuffy
For a show so chock-full of cravats, there’s something very current about Gentleman Jack. It may be down to the wit of Jones’ performance, with her knowing smirks at the camera, or the fact that Anne was so ahead of her time as a women in control of her own narrative who refuses to bend to the will of society.
Regardless, it’s a story that desperately needs to be told – not least because we still see so few programmes centred around LGBTQ+ characters. Roll on next Sunday – we can’t wait to see what Anne does next.
Gentleman Jack continues next Sunday at 9pm on BBC One
Images: BBC One