Visible Women

Everything you need to know about Suranne Jones’ new show Gentleman Jack

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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It tells the story of the first modern lesbian and it’s coming soon to BBC One. 

Anne Lister was a fascinating woman.

A wealthy Yorkshire landowner in the 19th century, she scaled mountains, studied brain surgery and was a successful entrepreneur presiding over her own mines. She was also a prolific diarist, penning more than four million words about her work, her family seat of Shibden Hall, her daily life and, written in ingenious code, her sexual relationships with other women.

She is frequently called the “first modern lesbian”, courtesy of the frank philosophical musings about her sexual identity she jotted down in those diaries.

A portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner, c 1830

Next year Gentleman Jack, a BBC One and HBO co-produced miniseries about Lister’s 49-year life will be released, with Suranne Jones in the starring role, and we’re already counting down the days until it hits our screens.

Here is everything you need to know about 2019’s must-watch drama series.

The cast is brilliant

Jones might be the main attraction in Gentleman Jack but the rest of the cast isn’t too shabby at all. Sophie Rundle, who we last saw gripping PPO David slash Dave Budd’s hand in Bodyguard, will play Lister’s partner Ann Walker while Katherine Kelly of Happy Valley fame stars as Elizabeth Sunderland, Walker’s sister.

Danish actress Sofie Gråbøl, she of the knobbly sweaters in The Killing, will make an appearance as Queen Marie of Denmark towards the end of the miniseries. Lister was a prolific traveller and Copenhagen was one of the many cities in Europe that she visited before her death. 

Sofie Gråbøl in The Killing

“When asked if I would like to play the Queen of Denmark in Sally Wainwright’s brand new series, I could not have said ‘yes’ fast enough,” Gråbøl said in a statement. “I’m excited to welcome the Gentleman Jack team to Copenhagen, and to film my scene as Queen Marie with the wonderful Suranne Jones.”

There’s a great team behind the scenes, too

As befitting its trailblazing subject, Gentleman Jack has an all-star female team working behind-the-scenes on its production. The show’s writer and creator is Sally Wainwright, the filmmaker who brought us into the dark and twisted Yorkshire world of Happy Valley.

Wainwright is directing alongside Sarah Harding, whose credits include Maigret, The Bletchley Circle and Vikings.

Speaking of the project, Wainwright expressed her desire to dig deeper into Lister’s history. “She did some extraordinary things at a time when women just weren’t allowed to do anything, really,” Wainwright told the Royal Television Society. “I’d say she’s my heroine, but she did some quite dark things as well. She did own mines, and she would have employed children down them. She’s quite a complicated person to like.” 

The time is right to explore Lister’s story

Though there have been a few documentaries about Lister’s life, no-one has ever dramatised her story. It’s why excitement around Gentleman Jack is so high, especially in light of the recent controversy around Lister’s blue plaque.

In September 2018, a blue plaque was unveiled at Holy Trinity Church in York where Lister and Walker celebrated a non-legally binding marriage ceremony in 1834. The plaque, ringed in the rainbow colours of the LGBTQI movement, referred to Lister as a “gender non-conforming entrepreneur” and not a lesbian.

Anne Lister’s blue plaque in York

A petition urging the York Civic Trust to change the wording garnered more than 2,500 signatures, calling on the trust to ensure that the plaque does not “erase this iconic woman from our history.” After a consultation with York LGBT forum, the trust decided to erect a new plaque with changed wording and apologised for any offence that had been caused.

“I am very happy that they have realised that lesbian erasure is not acceptable,” Julie Furlong, the organiser of the petition told the BBC.

When can we watch it?

There’s no release date yet, but as filming finishes in the next few weeks it’s likely to air early in 2019. Watch this space. 

Images: BBC, Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

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