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It’s 1832 in West Yorkshire, England. At the suggestion that landowner Anne Lister should find herself the right man to marry, to secure a title and her wealth, she replies:
“I could never marry a man, not for any reason, under any circumstances. It would be perverse…absurd. I thoroughly intend to live with someone I love. I thoroughly intend to spend my evening with someone who loves me. Someone who is there – all of the time, to share everything with.”
It’s immediately clear that we’re dealing with an extraordinary woman, whose wealth in part allowed her the luxury of living openly as a lesbian in 19th-Century aristocratic English society.
But that’s not the only reason you’ll find the HBO/BBC series Gentleman Jack intriguing.
Here are a few more reasons to put this period drama on your watchlist. (New episodes of the show arrive every Tuesday evening on Showmax at 22:00.)
1. The show is based on the real-life Anne Lister’s secret diaries, which were written in code
Gentleman Jack is based on Anne Lister’s prolific diaries – estimated at some four million or so words. Lister documented every detail of her life – her thoughts on the weather, social events, national events, and her business interests – as well as her sexuality. That part was written in a complex code which combined the Greek alphabet, zodiac, punctuation, and mathematical symbols.
After Lister died in 1840, this code was deciphered by the last inhabitant of the Lister family homestead Shibden Hall, John Lister (1847–1933) and a friend of his, Arthur Burrell. When the content of the secret passages was revealed, Burrell advised John Lister to burn all the diaries. Lister did not take this advice, but instead continued to hide Anne’s diaries behind a panel at Shibden Hall.
And that is how they survived to become the foundation of this series.
2. It’s by the celebrated TV producer, writer and director Sally Wainwright
Wainwright, who grew up in the environs of Shibden Hall, had had ambitions to write a drama based on Anne Lister for more than 20 years. She’s well known for her work on award-winning dramas Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax. She won the BAFTA for Best Writer: Drama for both.
3. Anne Lister is played brilliantly by Suranne Jones
You may recognise her as Gemma Foster in the BBC series Doctor Foster, but she’s almost unrecognisable here as the invulnerable heroine. This is how one critic describes her performance:
“Jones is wonderful as Lister, striding confidently around, wry, indomitable and smart as a whip, with top hat and twirling cane, like the heroine of some steampunk novel set in an alt-Victorian England.”
4. It’s the most fun period drama you’ll ever watch
Sure, it deals in part with Lister’s plans for her family’s coal plans, and some of the folk she comes up against are exactly what you’d expect from a period drama – a local magistrate, her elderly aunt, and a Reverend Ainsworth, who has designs to marry the beautiful aristocrat Ann Walker (who also happens to the be woman Lister has set her sights on).
But this is 19th-Century England as you’ve never seen it before. Lister smashes glass ceilings and leaves Victorian mores in her wake as she strides through society in her top hat and cane, determined to restore her estate to its former glory and to find the perfect wife. Getting swept up in this energetic quest of hers means riding on her literal coattails on a journey full of witty retorts and sharp comebacks – and plenty of steamy, sexy scenes between herself and Walker.
5. Critics adore it
- “Gentleman Jack is wonderful and delicious and a hoot… This is period drama reworked with wit, energy and verve.” – Daily Mail
- “Between Wainwright’s crisp, fair-minded scripts and star Suranne Jones’ flawless performance, it’s tempting to believe that Anne Lister was the most fascinating person of the 19th Century.” – Slate
- “Can you tell that I think Gentleman Jack is huge fun?… This, of course, is largely thanks to its prodigiously talented and singular writer, Sally Wainwright, who has given herself license not to worry too much about Victorian mores.” – New Statesman
Start streaming Gentleman Jack on Showmax now – new episodes arrive every Tuesday at 22:00.
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