Gentleman Jack, episode 1, review: Not your average local 19th-century lesbian landowner

Jasper Rees
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister and Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker - WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to the terms of use of BBC Pictures' Digital Picture

Anne Lister is a woman for our times who happens to have been around for the Corn Laws. Her encrypted diaries, decoded 150 years after her death, are an empowering LGBTQ+ urtext.

It was only a matter  of time until Sally Wainwright, the mighty bard of West Yorkshire who has tangoed in Halifax and walked with the Brontës, got around to the remarkable story of her local 19th-century lesbian landowner. In fact, television has been here before. Maxine Peake played Anne in 2010 in a BBC Two single drama.

That told of her grief over her lover’s marriage and her consolatory trysts with a like-minded gal pal. By  accident or design, Gentleman Jack (BBC One, Sunday) neatly begins where The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister left off, with Anne (Suranne Jones) fixing to seduce demure local  heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). (Lister nerds will note that Gemma Jones plays Anne’s sympathetic aunt  in both dramas.)

The diaries are the obvious entry point for this secret story, but Wainwright is commendably focused on rounding out her mannish, manic heroine who brooks no opposition as she leaps briskly over the wall and into a male world, collecting rents, sinking mines, shooting horses.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister, the bold 19th-century Halifax landowner who broke with convention

Jones wonderfully fleshes her out as an intellectual force of nature with a singularly abrupt manner. It’s already made clear, in this first episode of eight, that if she didn’t have designs on you it wasn’t such fun being a woman around Anne, which explains the wounded snarls of her sister Marian (Gemma Whelan) and the shocked anxiety of her maid Elizabeth (Rosie Cavaliero).

But that radiant smile she unleashes has the wattage to hypnotise not just the vulnerable Ann but the defenceless viewer. We are definitely a target: hence Anne’s conspiratorial glances to camera. It’s not the production’s fault that Fleabag has cornered the market with this trope. Those looks are intended to bridge the chasm between then and now. This Anne is so modern she’s righteously ranting about female suffrage – a cheeky anachronism to go with Murray Gold’s pumping pop soundtrack.

There’s something for everyone in Gentleman Jack: frocks and wigs, speeding coaches and stately wood panelling, gender politics, social history and, of course, passion.  “The only thing I’ve ever been on  the run from is the banal,” said Anne  in bed. No fear of that here.