Gentleman Jack, series 2 episode 1 review: Suranne Jones returns in style in this rip-roaring romp

Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack - Aimee Spinks/Lookout Point/HBO
Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack - Aimee Spinks/Lookout Point/HBO

In the season one finale of Gentleman Jack, Sally Wainwright gave Anne Lister, aka “Britain’s first modern lesbian”, a sublime happy ending. Backdropped by rolling hills, Lister reunited with the comely heiress Ann Walker, and the pair held their version of a wedding: taking communion together in York’s Holy Trinity Church, which now bears a blue plaque.

So, what next? Season two, once again based on Lister’s coded diaries, picks up just four weeks later. As always, Suranne Jones’s tireless Lister is on the move, stopping just briefly to welcome us back via her cheeky fourth-wall-breaking address to camera.

It’s one of many devices that the ingenious Wainwright uses to sweep the cobwebs off the traditional period drama. She might lack Bridgerton’s diverse casting and Billie Eilish covers, but Gentleman Jack’s rollicking pace, vivid design and witty scripts likewise collapse the distance between historical characters and the modern viewer – as well as underlining the point that Lister is an anachronistic figure.

Edward Hall takes over directing duties, and takes the action at even more of a gallop. He opens with a whirling drone shot – really the only way to keep up with Jones’s Olympic-level speed-walking – and showcases Yorkshire’s beautiful vistas, like the majestic Rievaulx Abbey, with panache.

It’s never dull, but the jostling subplots remain extremely uneven. Strongest is the newlyweds’ battle to cement their new status. Lister wants Walker to move in with her at Shibden Hall and for them both to change their wills. That’s broadly supported by her own family, but furiously fought by Walker’s, who are alarmed at losing control of her – and her sizable fortune. That gives plenty of juicy material to the brilliant Stephanie Cole as the guilt-tripping Aunt Ann and Amelia Bullmore as the wily Eliza Priestley.

Sophie Rundle and Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack - Aimee Spinks/Lookout Point/HBO
Sophie Rundle and Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack - Aimee Spinks/Lookout Point/HBO

Their opposition causes Walker (an effectively tremulous Sophie Rundle) to vacillate, which creates an interesting new dynamic: Lister, used to getting her own way, versus a new spouse who, she comes to realise, is actually quite wilful – but uses subtler feminine weapons. Jones is still a marvel in the role, giving us a force of nature who seems impervious to all slights, yet is deeply vulnerable beneath it all. In a touching scene, she admits some of her fears to her aunt, tenderly played by Gemma Jones.

Lister’s exes aren’t going away either. Lydia Leonard’s Marianna provides the darker dramatic moments, while the raunchy comedy should come in future episodes from new arrival Joanna Scanlan as the infamous Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe. Gemma Whelan is always great value as Lister’s woebegone sister Marian – let’s hope her mysterious cough means a more prominent role for her too.

But she’ll be competing with the colliery subplot, which drags on, as well as a storyline about the railways’ arrival and, dismayingly, the return of the gloomy Sowden family. Last season, Thomas Sowden killed his brute of a father and fed him to the pigs. It’s only got worse since. Given the series’ otherwise jaunty tone, this strand just feels like parody.

More sharply handled is the aristocratic Lister’s terrorising of her servants. “They’re all a bit scared of you,” observes Marian. “Why?” roars Lister, while priming a pistol. She’s no saint, but she remains a riveting figure – and Wainwright’s series a rip-roaring romp.