BBC / HBO TV REVIEW – GENTLEMAN JACK (2019)
Created and Written by Sally Wainwright – based on The Diaries of Anne Lister
Director(s): Sally Wainwright, Sarah Harding, Jennifer Perrott
Producer(s): Sally Wainwright, Faith Penhale, Laura Lankester, Phil Collinson
Main Cast: Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle, Joe Armstrong, Gemma Whelan, Gemma Jones, Tom Lewis, Timothy West, Shaun Dooley, Vincent Franklin, Rosie Cavaliero, Lydia Lawton, Amelia Bullimore etc.
No. of episodes: 8
Original Network: BBC / HBO
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
The BBC has a long history of producing classic period dramas and they have had much success with them. Likewise, HBO have an almost flawless record of producing great TV drama. Gentleman Jack caught my eye as it starred the ever impressive Suranne Jones in the lead role of Anne Lister. The titular character was a prominent industrialist and landowner in 1800s, Halifax, Yorkshire. Lister was full of energy, courage and determination as she fought the dominant patriarchal values of the day. As well as battling the men on the business plain, she also caused scandal with her preference for same-sex relationships. Much of this was documented in her extensive ‘secret’ diaries and came to light in their full explicit glory when they were de-coded some years later.
Adapted by Sally Wainwright, a very experienced writer and director, the eight episodes begins at a giddy pace. Lister has returned from abroad to her estate at Shibden Hall, after the breakdown of her most recent relationship. She wastes no time getting back into the swing of running the show and attempting to raise capital for a venture into the coal industry. Lister dotes on her Aunt and Uncle, but clashes with her more conventional sister, Marian (Gemma Whelan).
Marian disapproves of her sister’s robust, androgynous style and unsaid desire for female “companionship”. Amidst the cutthroat business conflicts with her rivals and tenants, Lister then finds a new romance with neighbour Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). Ann Walker though is younger, delicate and somewhat inexperienced; thus, the path of love is very precarious.
The character of Anne Lister as presented by Suranne Jones is a fantastic watch. She strides around from location to location energetically controlling her estate and making plans. She clashes and stands her ground with the men of the drama, proving herself to be more than their equal. Gemma Whelan, as Marian, is also brilliant. Whelan steals many a scene with an exasperated look, sarcastic smile and witty quip. It’s a testament to her acting range she can inhabit such a bright character after the darkness shown in her role of Yara in Game of Thrones.
The actor with the most difficult role is Sophie Rundle. At times her character is so confused, mentally and emotionally, that she is hard to warm to. I personally wondered, apart from her wealth and sickly nature, what Lister was attracted to. I think there was probably sexual attraction but also a desire to protect this delicate flower. Nonetheless, the opposite nature of Lister and Walker’s personalities created intriguing and touching romantic situations.
The story had been told before in a film called The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010), directed by James Kent and starring Maxine Peake. I did not see that particular drama but as this latest adaptation is a co-production between the BBC and HBO, the values of the production are of course exemplary. The costumes, camerawork, style, musical score and pace create a very engaging tele-visual experience. Sally Wainwright deserves credit for adapting the diaries and creating compelling drama, romance and some darker events along the way.
I would say that perhaps the various narrative strands could have been resolved within six episodes, rather than eight. Plus, there was, on occasion, a use of Anne Lister directly addressing the audience which became jarring at times. I mean, there did not seem to be much context to the use of this stylistic device. Nonetheless, these are minor issues which did not stop me enjoying the show. Indeed, with a brilliant cast, writing and direction throughout I would highly recommend this excellent TV programme.