Suranne Jones is breaking all sorts in this show – hearts, stereotypes, and the fourth wall.
Which is quite something for a period drama. But there won’t be much swooning over the local landed bachelors, or discussions about petticoats and which sister shall marry first. Instead, there’s lesbian love affairs, sharp dialogue and a strong businesswoman…and what a hoot it is.
The series is written by Happy Valley’s Sally Wainwright, and tells the tale of Anne Lister, who was declared the first modern lesbian after her lengthy diary was deciphered in 1988, and who went by the nickname Gentleman Jack for her authoritative character and her penchant for black suits. The first episode begins with her arrival in 1832 to Halifax, where she has returned to the family home, Shibden Hall, after a romance gone wrong, her lover deciding to marry another man. And whilst a modern Anne might stick to getting hammered and embarrassing herself at a karaoke night, this Anne Lister reckons there’s no better way to get over heartbreak than to take over management of the family estate. So in she swaggers, collecting rent and kicking out tenants, and concocting a plan to start mining the coal that lays beneath the estate. Considering we’re in an era during which women were expected to pass their time making bread and babies, we’re dealing with a bit of a revolutionary here. Especially when she starts eyeing up her neighbour, an heiress named Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle).
This show is made even more entertaining by us knowing that the story told is rooted in reality, and throughout the season’s eight episodes we come to understand what it meant to be a gay woman in the 19th Century. It’s a sharp production with the modern twists we’ve come to expect from period dramas, like Lister’s sharp witticisms which are delivered by Jones straight to camera à la Fleabag. And she and Rundle are brilliant together, their romantic scenes are completely believable and often preceded by an emotional discussion on their hopes for their relationship, their desire to settle down held back by a society that wishes they would marry men.
This is a joy to watch, and Suranne Jones is irresistibly charming as the cocky yet likable lead, with whom we cover topics including gender politics and sexuality without it ever becoming lecturing. This gives the show a thoroughly modern feel, at once radical and matter-of-fact, but most of all, it’s a fun, captivating romance series with cracking costumes and a period setting. What more could you want?
Well, the Independent’s Ed Cumming wishes they’d paid a bit more attention to the side characters, saying they “feel a little underdeveloped compared to Anne.” He does though admit, “that is mainly testament to Jones’s swashbuckling central turn,” giving the series four stars and calling it a “confident, smart period drama with fabulous sets and costumes.” The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan too has praise for the show, calling it a “thrilling coal-town romp” and saying “it is fun, and has moments of heart.” And Gentleman Jack went down equally well in America, with James Poniewozik of The New York Times saying, “Jones’s performance is a marvel, exuding vitality, charisma and sexual confidence.”
First shown May 2019. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here.