BBC One’s Gentleman Jack is sexy, lively and huge fun

Sally Wainwright’s story of a Victorian lesbian making Fleabag-style asides to camera is vividly alive.

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In the absence of anti-depressants, the options available to the 19th-century sufferer of melancholia were somewhat limited. Some medical men favoured special diets and fresh air, others a period of total rest and relaxation, the patient sequestered indoors for weeks at a time with nothing more exciting than an elderly companion for company. But what’s this? An alternative cure? “Sometimes, the best thing one can prescribe isn’t medicine, but adventure,” announces a certain Dr Kenny (Daniel Weyman) to one Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), a Yorkshire heiress whose pale face and spindly limbs bring to mind a house plant left too long without water. For a moment, the grand drawing room in which his consultation takes place falls silent. Doubtless our patient is wondering what exactly might constitute adventure in a world of needlepoint, corsets and dreary old aunts. 

Will it, as we suspect, take the form of sex? (Look, the Victorians definitely did it, in spite of all the lace and bombazine in which they liked to encase themselves). Yes, it will. More specifically, it will take the form of Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), local landowner and lesbian extraordinaire. Lister’s eclectic skill set includes wearing a top hat with as much aplomb as any bloke; ruthlessly evicting useless tenants from her farms; shooting lame cart horses when her groom is too wet to do the job himself; and, last but not least, seducing any woman who happens to catch her eye. In her four poster at Shibden Hall, where she lives with her annoying sister (Gemma Whelan), her inept father (Timothy West) and her fond aunt (Gemma Jones), she brings these girls to orgasm with much the same efficiency as she plans henceforth to run her coal fields. “This is Halifax,” says a servant, lips pursed. “People talk!” But she couldn’t care less. “The usual arrangements,” she blithely tells her housekeeper, when her old (and now married) girlfriend, Mariana Lawton (Lydia Leonard), arrives by carriage for one of her regular sleepovers. 

Can you tell that I think Gentleman Jack (19 May, 9pm) is huge fun? It’s also vastly better than the last time the BBC had a go at dramatising the life of Anne Lister – amazingly, she was a real person, one whose carefully encoded diaries ran to thousands of words – when Maxine Peake took the starring role in 2010’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. This, of course, is largely thanks to its prodigiously talented and singular writer, Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley), who has given herself licence not to worry too much about Victorian mores; in her hands, the Listers and their neighbours, servants, friends and lovers sound like people you might overhear any day of the week in a branch of Betty’s tearooms (apart, of course, from the bedroom bits –though I have been known to pant quite loudly at the sight of a hot buttered crumpet or a thick slice of ginger parkin). They are vividly alive, and funny with it. 

But you have to credit Suranne Jones, too, for the way she can breathe such rapacious life into a line like “I never eat lunch!” (hmm). It’s a little wearisome that her character sometimes addresses the camera – thanks to Fleabag, I fear we must brace ourselves for an epidemic of fourth wall-breaking – but I forgave even this in the end. The fact that she manages to be sexy in spite of the horrible curls she wears above her ears militates against full irritation with this device (she looks like someone who left the house with their rollers in, and who should thus be wearing a head scarf rather than a topper). 

Will Lister successfully make Miss Walker her wife? One rather suspects that she will, even if it is hard to imagine our little houseplant being much cop in the bedroom (a hand on the poor girl’s forearm will probably be enough to put the colour back into her cheeks – if she doesn’t fall into a swoon first, that is). And why shouldn’t she? This is how men behave, after all – and on every measure save for the fact that she has no vote, she is their equal. Miss Walker’s millions will come in very useful round at Shibden Hall, and for the other thing she most enjoys in life – there are bound to be plenty of other willing substitutes.  

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 24 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake