It’s the plot of innumerable Regency romances: Somebody with big ambitions and insufficient fortunes decides their best move is hustling an heiress to the altar, only to catch feelings. It is also, essentially, the plot of Gentleman Jack, HBO’s entertaining new series following the adventures of Anne Lister.
Lister was a rare 19th Century woman who owned land outright and cut through all the formal and informal social mechanisms to keep gentry women at home serving tea. She recorded numerous love affairs with women in coded diaries that near miraculously survived through to the late 20th Century, offering incredible detail for potential adapters of Lister’s life. It’s hard to imagine a more compelling character.
Sally Wainwright, the creator of Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, has wanted to adapt the story for decades, and has finally had the chance with Gentleman Jack. Suranne Jones plays Lister with absolutely crush-inducing swagger. Another standout is Gemma Whelan, whom you’ll likely recognize from her role as Yara Greyjoy, playing Lister’s peevish sister, so totally opposite from her Game of Thrones character that it’s an ongoing source of comedy.
I spoke with Wainwright and Jones at HBO’s New York offices recently, and we discussed Lister, her diaries, her world, and why the protagonists loll around on the couch, like they’re eating popcorn.
JEZEBEL: You’ve been on this story for a really long time, and you’ve wanted to do it for many, many years. What about it got in your head and stayed there until you finally got the chance to do it?
Sally Wainwright: Just the sheer force and eccentricity and brilliance of her character. I think she’s a really uplifting human being, and I think that’s the top and bottom of it. It’s just this extraordinary woman who did these extraordinary things and who lived this extraordinary life—and wrote it all down. That’s the most extraordinary thing of all, about Anne Lister—the volume of this diary, you can’t underestimate. People don’t get how big it is. It’s 27 volumes, 300 pages in every volume, it’s very tiny writing, a sixth of it is in code. The books that have been published cover a fraction of it. There’s a significant amount out there, but even that is only a fraction of what’s actually been transcribed and published.
So, it’s her. She’s a very, very compelling woman.
How do you begin, when you have that much material—we all know the problem of having all this research and you want to put every last detail in and you have to carve it down into a watchable TV show. How did you go about shaping the material and figuring out what the through line was?
Wainwright: In some ways, it was easy because it’s not a novel, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a journal, which is often quite repetitive. It’s got a lot of detailing about stuff that you know you can never use. It’s quite frustrating in some ways. But my own self-imposed clear brief was to make an entertaining tale out of it, so for me, it was finding patterns or imposing patterns on the stories that weren’t necessarily there. It was a really interesting discipline thing to do. And I didn’t make a lot up. I’ve taken liberties, I may have taken a bit of personal license here and there, but on the whole, I think it’s really a pretty accurate reflection of her life and what the journals contain.
Suranne, what drew you to the role? I’m sure also a fascinating person to portray!
Jones: Yeah. Well, and she’s 40, and I’m 40, so finding a role at 40 that isn’t the wife or the mother of a copper—these roles come in very rarely. So when you see it, you’re like, okay, I need to find out more about this woman. And I’d worked with Sally before and when I went for the audition, I saw the passion that she had. Obviously, the scripts were brilliant and only Sally could have written this story in the way that Sally’s written it, which is accessible, entertaining, funny, universal, but also heartbreaking and tragic at the same time. Very human, which is what Sal does best. And modern, transgressive. All those things, it’s all in there. Informative about her coal. Someone asked us the other day, how do you make a coal mining story entertaining? Which I thought was just a brilliant question because, how do you? Well, it is. It’s all in there, the historical aspect. It doesn’t focus on that, because it doesn’t need to, because it’s just part of the thread—it was her daily business.
Wainwright: It’s the fabric of her world, isn’t it?
Jones: I’m sure in the writing process you had to plot up those things, but it doesn’t feel like Sally’s doing that. “And now we’re going to the coal story, and now we’re back to the lesbian story.” It just all feels like you get a very good picture of where she’s at.
I think once I’d done the research—so I’d got the part, and then I’d read all the books that I could read. I went with Sally six months before we started filming—or even more than that—to look around Shibden, be in the hole, stomp her land, and then I met Anne Choma, who’s our historical advisor and who’s written the book that goes with, which again is very accessible and brilliant. Then we did the chemistry reads and met Sophie—and the more you read about her, it actually can get quite overwhelming. We looked at her diaries, her real diaries—Sally leaned over my shoulder and just read the code, very impressive, as she is also a very impressive woman. It gets to the point where you have to let go.
Wainwright: You have to let go and make choices about exactly how you are going to do it.
Jones: Because there’s so much. Once we’d done all that, we put it to the side and then we concentrated on the story that starts in 1832 and the relationship of Anne Walker and Anne Lister. But you could go on forever, and if this goes to series two or if there’s a possibility of any more—I’m yet to hear—but Sally’s excited because it just goes on.
You guys mention the coal mining. It seemed like an interesting problem, because she’s obviously very fascinating and very sympathetic, but the reality of being a landlord and a coal mine owner—that tempers my undiluted excitement for her. Coal mining was a rough business. How did you think through the portrayal of coal mining and weaving in the more working-class folks? Maybe more than some other costume dramas, a lot of the people who work in the house have their own storylines, and the tenants have their own storylines. She’s a landlord and she has the power to kick people off their lease. How did you think about the portrayal of her from that perspective?
Wainwright: So there are two separate things there, and I’ve got two separate answers.
One of the things I wanted to do was dramatize her world, with her at the top of it, her at the top of the pyramid. There’s the family in the house and there’s the servants in the house, and then there are the tenants, and then there’s the people in Halifax like the Rawsons, who she deals with. It was important to me to dramatize that whole environment that she conducted relationships in. Then the second part of what I think you’re asking is, is it to do with how she often made herself unpopular by dealing with people like that? Is that what you mean?
Yeah, she runs a coal mine. You know?
Wainwright: Yeah, and again, it’s very true to who she was. I think it’s a very accurate portrayal of who she was. She’s not a feminist role model by any means. She’s very complex. Unless you’re in love with her, like I am, there’s a lot to dislike about her. She was complex. She was very challenging. She could be very hard. She would drive a very hard bargain. She was a very astute businesswoman. And this was a time when children worked down mines, and she had children down in mines, and that’s the way it was. That doesn’t make her unusually bad, because most people who had mines children working down them. But she certainly didn’t see anything wrong with that. So she can be quite challenging to like, and I think some women come to her thinking they’re going to find a feminist role model and she doesn’t always fulfill that.
I don’t want to just write strong women who are just great and there’s nothing else to them. As a dramatist, you want to be writing about complex women. You want to be writing about people who are challenging. The world isn’t black and white and she certainly isn’t. There’s a lot of grey areas with Anne Lister.
Jones: I think politically she’s complex as well, because she was Tory, but then at the same time, there’s a beautiful scene where one of her tenants gets hurt and she then goes to Mrs. Priestly and says, “Well, can you put him in education?” I think she felt like everyone had a right to a voice, yet—only when she felt that they should!
Wainwright: That is quite touching, actually—I think there’s a lot of range.
Jones: I love that about her. But she does look after number one in a pretty Tory way, as well. The scenes where she’s throwing someone off the farm, it’s because she needs those farms to be to their best abilities so that they can make money and then they can pay her rents and then she can keep the rents—because she didn’t have a lot of money, but she needed her estate to work in the best way for her. But I think she sees the humanity of people in a really beautiful way as well, and that is reflected in the diaries, but also people who know the diaries do find her difficult and at times unlikeable. But that’s great for someone who’s playing someone like that.
You wanted to make this for a very long time. When you first wanted to make this, what were people saying to you?
Wainwright: I think because she’s not famous—this is going to put her on the map, hopefully. People aren’t even that aware of her in England. I think that was a problem. I think at the time when I was pitching it, I wasn’t particularly well known, either. That’s changed. People know that I can write now. Also, I think the discourse has changed about gender and sexuality, so the time is exactly right now for a drama like this. Whereas in 2003, I think it wasn’t on the agenda at all.
It’s so wild to me to think that she’s not well-known.
Wainwright: Well, and because she was gay. This diary is three times longer than Pepys’s diary. Pepys is famous because he covered the Great Fire of London and the plague. He was writing at a very interesting time. She was writing at a very interesting time. It was the Industrial Revolution in Halifax. But her diaries have been hidden away because she was gay. And it’s just very poignant that it’s coming out now, because the time is right for that to happen.
It’s amazing that the diaries actually survived. Who knows how many characters there were like this, but the diaries got tossed or burned or suppressed.
Wainwright: There are a number of times when these were threatened with destruction—you could write a film about how the diaries have survived. It’s so interesting.
Jones: You did start, originally, didn’t you, with Arthur Burrell?
Wainwright: I did. If we get another series, I might.
Jones: He was the one who was trying to convince John Lister to burn them.
Wainwright: They cracked the code in 1895, and as soon as they saw what they were reading, the guy who cracked the code said, you’ve got to burn these. And to his credit, he didn’t. He couldn’t bring himself, because he knew what an important document it was. They were hidden away and then discovered in the 1930s again when John Lister died and the council got their hands on the hall and all the muniments in the hall. Somebody started looking at them, transcribed a bit again, hid them away again, and it wasn’t until 1988 when Helena Whitbread first went in and transcribed them that she published and that’s when it all became known.
It’s interesting how there’s a stock set of costume drama conventions and a stock set of expectations. Could you talk a little bit about how you thought about the movie existing as a costume drama, and to what extent you thought to yourself about playing with the tropes, or it being in conversation with the stereotype of what a costume drama is?
Wainwright: We were very keen to try and get away from that, because I think we’ve got into quite a lazy habit with our costume dramas. I think they all look a bit similar. They all have similar preoccupations about finding a man, if it’s about women. We’ve developed a kind of period drama language that I don’t think is very authentic.
I was really keen for it to feel very different. I wanted people to feel like they were seeing something that they’d never quite seen before. To achieve that, it’s all quite subtle stuff, like talking to the camera, using the steady cam a lot, choices about how we shot it, the grid and the lenses we use and that kind of thing. It’s all quite subtle, but I do think it feels significantly different from what I think of as traditional period drama.
Jones: I think directors can be lazy as well, as much as period drama has its tropes and its go-tos. I’d just worked with a director before Sally, who also had a similar thought about, Let’s do this scene, but let’s not make it the television version of this scene. Because I think actors sometimes—when you’re tired and you’ve been on something for months, I think your brain just goes into, like, “Right, I’m going to do the scene like this.” And Sally was always on us to not do that. To find the intimacy and the reality. To physically express ourselves in different ways.
I think that was very smart of her to set up the show in that way, and to constantly remind us. As a director that’s something both me and Sophie found very pleasing, especially within the constraints of the period drama. We were like—fuck it, what constraints? It was great. But only in our private relationship. Then we put the airs and graces back on when we were back outside, because then that showed the transgressiveness of the relationship, as well. Which was smart of Sal to do.
That’s really interesting—it’s more like the traditional period piece outside, and then when they’re together—
Jones: They’re sitting on the sofa eating popcorn, watching a movie.
Gentleman Jack premieres April 22 at 10 p.m. on HBO.