The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

Even Maxine Peake can't save this drama from itself, writes Rachel Cooke.

There is something about Maxine Peake. She is a wonderful actor, and I love watching her, but that's not what I mean. She creeps me out, too. You could write her the world's most straightforwardly sweet part, and still she'd bring to it - intentionally or otherwise - oddness and ambiguity. As Anne Lister, the 19th-century lesbian whose diaries, written in code, were not published until more than a century after her death in 1840, Peake was especially weird (31 May, 9pm). We were expected to admire Anne, both for her determination and for her courage, but Peake was not going to leave it there. She took Jane English's minimalist script and breathed a violent kind of life into it.

This Anne Lister, with her filo-pastry skin and downturned mouth, was rapacious and cocky, petulant and manipulative: think Jean­ette Winterson in a whalebone corset. When she scanned the horizon with her telescope, looking for fresh, full-breasted prey, I felt a Yorkshire breeze blow right across me.

Thank goodness for Peake, for without her, I am not quite sure what The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister would have amounted to. To be honest, the only selling point of Anne's story, as told here, was her lesbianism; had the writer swapped her female lovers for male ones, all she would have been left with was a bad love match, followed by a good love match, with some wild moorland scenery on the side.

English left out several fascinating details of Anne's life: the deaths of her four brothers; her trip to visit the century's other famous lesbians, the Ladies of Llangollen; her passion for mountain climbing. Nor did she touch on the way Anne appeared to drive some of her lovers insane. It was for this reason that I had a creeping sense of unease every time we saw Anne and her true love, Mariana (Anna Madeley), getting it on. It seemed prurient. Was there a bathtub scene? Of course there was, and no matter that the couple might have been disturbed by Anne's aunt, or one of the servants, at any moment. Just you splash around, girls! (Thankfully, the director resisted any tender soaping of breasts.)

Then again, I suppose we must be grateful that Anne was allowed to be a rake. When Mariana chose a respectable existence with her flabby-faced husband over a new life at Shibden Hall, Halifax, with its chatelaine and her ageing aunt, Anne really socked it to her. "I see you are not the woman of all hours for me!" she said. "Only in bed are you excellent." To tide herself over, she "connected" (I love this euphemism; it's even better than "our spaceships have docked") with her old friend Tib (the excellent Susan Lynch). Yes, there might have been too much emphasis on sex in this film; but at least quite a lot of it was recreational, as opposed to merely soppy.

And there were moments that were charming. Though we were not told how Anne ended up in their charge, which was frustrating, her relationship with her aunt and uncle (Gemma Jones and Alan David) was beautifully drawn, slyly hinting that they, too, might once have had to admit, if only to themselves, their sexuality, for all that they seemed so neutered now (they were like two voles, content in their hole). I loved it when Mariana's husband excitedly informed Anne that he had laid on mutton chops and gooseberry tart for lunch, when all she wanted was to take his wife upstairs and rip off her clothes. Cherishable, too, that Anne's favourite chat-up line was: "Do you like Byron?" So much better than the kind of things people say today (on the train the other night, a drunken Scotsman told me that I did not "look like a Tracey").

But I stand by my initial verdict. This was sex-obsessed, reductionist stuff. In the best stories, the bedroom is visited only infrequently. We see what goes on there in people's eyes, and hear it in their voices.

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 first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela