Gentleman Jack’s Suranne Jones and Sally Wainwright on introducing the world to Anne Lister


The creator and star of HBO’s Gentleman Jack chat with Culturess about pushing the period drama genre forward and telling the story of a remarkable woman.

You probably haven’t heard of Anne Lister.

That’s okay. A lot of people haven’t. But thanks to Gentleman Jack, a lavish period drama coming to HBO next week, that’s about to change.

The series attempts to dramatize the life of a woman whose story needs no embellishment, a 19th century British landowner and industrialist who was deeply uninterested in living by the proscribed rules of her time. The real Anne Lister was fiercely intelligent and driven, a savvy businesswoman who unapologetically embraced traditionally “male” roles and was unashamed of her attraction to other women.

Gentleman Jack is not just based on Lister’s life, but her own words. She was an avid diarist who cataloged her life in ridiculous detail and frequently wrote in code to document her sexual escapades and describe her desire for other women. (Her diaries, by the way, are currently in print, and you can read them all for yourselves after you watch the show.)

Creator Sally Wainwright and star Suranne Jones recently chatted with us here at Culturess to share their thoughts on making the upcoming series, the life of their protagonist, and how Gentleman Jack turns the period drama genre on its head.

Because let’s be real – it really does.

It certainly isn’t what one typically envisions when you think of the traditional period drama, a type of show encapsulated by the Downton Abbeys and Poldarks of the world. And that’s entirely on purpose.

“I was really keen not to make what I think of as a traditional period drama that we make in the U.K.,” Wainwright said. “I was quite anxious for it to feel different, for people to feel that they were not going to get just more of the same old BBC period drama. [We] tried to find ways to really kick against that, to try and make it feel more vibrant.”

Gentleman Jack has a distinctly modern feel despite its Regency-era setting, and not just because of its unconventional heroine, though that certainly does play a big part. The fact that a woman is at the center of this story, with her own agenda and agency, feels rather groundbreaking at times.

Suranne Jones – Gentleman Jack (2019). Photo Credit: Matt Squire/HBO

“You think about things like Jane Austen – and the issue in those is how to get your man,” Wainwright said. “Which clearly is not what we’re doing at all. So I think it’s a big shift.”

“What’s also very un-period drama [about Gentleman Jack] is the fact that this show is about a woman, it’s about a very unusual woman, it’s about a woman who’s at the center of everything in her own show,” Wainwright explained. “It was a very conscious effort not to be just another period drama, but to be a period drama with a real difference – I was really excited when I saw The Favourite, because that did exactly the same thing in a different way.”

Wainwright also made very specific production choices to make the story – and Anne herself – feel more immediate to viewers.

“The way Anne talks to the camera, which was a big decision really because people do that quite a bit these days but for us that was tantamount to reading [her] journal,” Wainright explains. “You feel like you’re having a really intimate connection with Anne Lister when you read the journals, and that was a way for me, of trying to recreate that. That felt very modern.”

The series also frequently incorporates steady-cam shots, literally following Anne around through her story, “something that people do not do in period dramas,” according to Wainwright.

And the result is something that feels a lot more like House of Cards than Pride and Prejudice.

The goal was to capture Anne’s unique “vibrancy and physicality,” something that star Suranne Jones said was a key to her portrayal of Lister.

“Sally always reminded me to walk faster,” Jones recalled with a laugh. “Because there’s such an enjoyment about Anne Lister. She was so energetic and buoyant and she had a fizz about her. She loved life. She was up at 5 a.m., and she was downstairs, had that coffee, and she walked everywhere because she had a million appointments [to keep].”

“She’s very contemporary. I think she would have absolutely loved that there’s been a show made about her.”

Suranne Jones – Gentleman Jack (2019). Photo Credit: Matt Squire/HBO

“[Anne] is a multi-tasking, modern woman and the world wasn’t ready for her,” Wainwright agrees. “She had extraordinarily huge mental energy, she was very, very intelligent. For me that’s the biggest thing about Anne Lister, it’s not that she was a gay diarist.  it’s that she was phenomenally intelligent and in period dramas often women aren’t supposed to be that.”

“It was considered rather indelicate for women to show their intelligence in those days,” Wainwright continued. “But she just didn’t care.”

But, of course, part what makes Lister such a modern figure is, of course, her sexuality. Or, more specifically, her embrace of it during a time when doing so could be seen as both immoral and potentially dangerous.

“I think one of the most important things, for me, was how unashamed she was of her sexuality,” Wainwright said. “That she was able to be so open and clear about it. I mean, she wasn’t overt, but she certainly didn’t hide it either.”

In fact, Lister eventually married a woman, a rich heiress named Ann Walker. And for most of her life tales of her attachments with various women – most of whom ended up marrying men, possibly out of societal pressure – were commonplace.

“She had such a healthy attitude toward homosexuality at a time when it would have been shameful for most people. She didn’t see it like that,” Wainwright explained. “She had a very healthy sense of her own self worth and I think that is so inspiring, to be able to live honestly and openly and just be bold enough to do that.”

Suranne Jones – Gentleman Jack (2019). Photo Credit: Matt Squire/HBO

“You embody somebody someone like this for eight months and you come out the other end [different] – me and Sally and the rest of the cast would often say we need to be a bit more like Anne Lister.”

Apparently prior to coming to America for this press junket, Jones’ husband even bought her a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “What Would Anne Lister Do?”

“It was so hard to be who she was then,” Jones said. “Even though it’s a really uplifting, inspiring story, it was still hard to do what she was doing. But she just pushed through, because she wanted to be authentic, because there was no other way she could live her life.”

“I think that’s a universal message,” she concluded. “Regardless of whether you’re part of the LGBTQIA community or not, that’s something that everyone can take away.”

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You’ll be able to meet Anne Lister for yourselves when Gentleman Jack premieres Monday, April 22 at 9pm ET on HBO.