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huhalifax, 1834. Four weeks after a secret wedding in a church in York, where two women took communion and exchanged rings, witnessed by none but their proud, brave, corseted selves. And 180 years before the first legal same-sex marriages take place in the UK. Just think about it. There really isn’t time, for here she is, the pioneer himself, with billowing cloaks shining like a raven’s plumage, with a top hat silhouetted against the rolling hills of West Yorkshire. Striding — for Anne Lister, as anyone who isn’t keeping up with her knows, has no other gait — to tell her secret wife’s mean aunt what’s what. “Ah, there you are,” she says, turning to the camera and jabbing the silver-topped cane into the air. “Good.” Happy Sunday primetime period drama slot, folks! Mr Jack is back.
For lovers of Sally Wainwright’s rambunctious, romantic, and beautifully scripted historical drama, it’s been a long three-year wait. The first series was so brilliant that it spawned the ‘Gentleman Jack effect’: a festival in Halifax, a statue (of a boastful 19th-century Yorkshire lesbian!) and legions of global superfans. Not just from the show, but from the garrulous diarist, industrialist and landowner herself, Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, who wrote more than 5 million words in her pioneering life. All this seems to have swallowed Wainwright, infused with 21st century irony and northern grit, turning it into one of the greatest British period dramas of our time.
Much of this is due to Suranne Jones, whose Lister is an alchemical force of nature. Intense, uncompromising, reckless, charismatic, controlling, fragile and highly charged, Jones flirts endlessly with, but never falls into hammie. It’s a brilliant performance, brimming with grand gestures and heart. That also applies to her direct addresses in front of the camera. It’s true that Jones’s Lister doesn’t break the fourth wall so much as make love to it, before buying him a silver wax seal and asking him to move in with her. But when she looks into the lens, she also collapses in time. It addresses us, the future inhabitants of a 21st century where it may be understood, appreciated and seen.
If anything, she’s even bolder in this series. With her beloved Ann Walker stationed in York against the wishes of her mean-spirited, money-hungry family, Lister has her job to do. She must convince all of Halifax that the solution to Ann’s fragile mental state is to move in with her. She must convince Ann that they should combine estates, leading to arguably the only sex scene in history where will rewriting is used as a kiss-up. She must convince the men who are sinking her coal mine that she has the capital, and her lawyer that she must borrow more money to realize her daring plans. Oh, and Lister has to convince herself that she’s over Mariana, her ex, and that her love, or is that affection, is enough for Ann. “We don’t all feel the same at 40 as we do at 14,” she confided to a friend. “I could be happy with her. I’ll make sure it works!”
Edward Hall, Amanda Brotchie and Fergus O’Brien direct this series, bringing less of the galloping pace and northern specificity of Wainwright, who grew up a few miles from Shibden Hall. Instead, we get Andrew Davies-quality classic romance. In a sumptuous scene, Ann sketches the magisterial ruins of Rievaulx Abbey as Lister strides across the moor as the sun burns from the morning mist. It’s pure Darcy coming out of the lake in a wet shirt, but with a lesbian romantic heroine, a jacket thrown over one shoulder and a straw hat on top of her tousled hair. How revolutionary. “Three really good kisses last night,” Lister says with a sigh as she walks over to her wife. “I am very satisfied with her.”
This is an embarrassing moment in British period drama and British history. The conversation continues about what constitutes a good representation. About the ways in which greater diversity could exacerbate amnesia and not question our long-held fantasies of a non-racist, benign colonial British past where no one was a stranger. Meanwhile, here’s Wainwright rolling up her sleeves and getting to work. Behind the familiar frilly hats and linen drawers, the glorious landscapes and drafty old estates, Gentleman Jack breaks the conventions of one of our most beloved dramatic forms, at a time when we need them most. It’s a masterpiece. A cheerful, radical shake-up of historical drama that repositions history, sexuality and class with the blink of an eye and a poke with a stick. As a bisexual, brown-skinned British woman who’s been watching Sunday night dramas my whole life, I can’t tell you how exciting it is to watch.