Epic is the word to describe Anne Lister. That’s how Suranne Jones, the actress known for Coronation Street, Doctor Foster and Scott & Bailey, sums her up - and she should know, seeing as it’s the latest character she’s taken on, in new BBC One drama Gentleman Jack.
Written by Yorkshire’s own Sally Wainwright, whose much-lauded past credits included Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, and also starring Gemma Whelan, Sophie Rundle, Gemma Jones and Katherine Kelly, the series is inspired by Lister’s amazingly detailed diaries.
It starts in 1832 when the remarkable landowner returned from her travels to transform the fate of her faded ancestral home, Shibden Hall, located a mile from Halifax. The show was actually shot at the real house, which is now open to the public.
And, on many different levels, the role felt like a gift to Jones.
“Being 40 myself, sometimes you think, ‘I’d like a part where I could use the 40 years that I’ve lived as experience on a role’, so to get someone who’s 41 and is as extraordinary as she is...” begins the charismatic star, clearly still delighted she bagged the part.
“It’s so mammoth, the task of taking her on and at the read, I was a work in progress. So I think when I got the role, I knew that I had a lot of work to do.”
Mancunian Jones says bringing Lister’s story to life was a privilege, but no easy task.
Lister’s diaries were a mind-boggling four million words long. But what’s even more fascinating is a sixth of it was written in a secret code that has now been cracked.
Hidden within the pages were the most intimate details of her life, including her describing the sex she had with women, which was “so transgressive” for that period in history, says Jones.
“I think what was important to me was that there was no blueprint, there was no community that she could look to, lesbian wasn’t even a word,” the actress elaborates.
“She was just being authentic and living how she felt was natural to her.”
At the heart of Gentleman Jack is Lister’s relationship with her would-be wife, the wealthy heiress Ann Walker, played by Rundle.
And the fact she had no intention of marrying a man is a sign of how she paved the way for the LGBTQIA community.
“She was so convinced that she wanted a relationship in the same way that she looked at straight relationships; she wanted a marriage, she wanted to live with a woman, she wanted all the things that a straight relationship could bring her, and find happiness in that, and she didn’t veer from that in any way,” notes Jones, who has one son with husband Laurence Akers.
“She could have got married, she could have had more money, she could have put a front on, and she didn’t want to do that.”
Jones has previously worked with Wainwright on shows Dead Clever, Unforgiven and Scott & Bailey.
One element of her script for this that Jones found appealing was how it looks at what makes a relationship tick.
“We talked a lot about, why does Anne fall for Ann Walker, and why did this relationship work, and why did they marry?” she explains. “And actually, it’s because Ann Walker has so much strength and kind of shines a light back at Anne Lister in the way that no one else does.”
Jones discusses how Lister is almost like a superhero part, because her “strength and the energy and the love for life” is “so uplifting”.
“Sally often talks about her positive mental health and I think that that’s another superhero quality that we would all like, because we so often don’t feel like that about ourselves,” she adds. “So I think if there was a quality that she has, it’s probably that.”
Lister was gender non-conforming in the pursuits she chose and the way she dressed – she knew she was behaving differently to other women at that time, but she was just being herself.
And that comes across in the way Jones plays her; her walk, her talk, her mannerisms, her stance, her presence.
“I guess it became – with the rehearsal process – second nature, so it doesn’t stick out like I’m trying to be anything.
“It just was in my bones by the time we got to film. It’s about confidence.”
She continues avidly: “We played with social awareness, spatial awareness. So she gets very close to people and she checks people out, and she’s checked out of scenes before other people have finished talking because she’s onto the next thing.”
There was definitely a lot of plates to spin when filming, admits Jones. “Once you learn those lines, once you get into a rhythm of that, then you put the character on top of that, and then you put the swagger on top of that, and then Sally tells you to walk even faster, and the steady cam isn’t keeping up with me... I was very tired at the end of each day!”
The production has been jointly commissioned by the BBC and HBO, the US cable station behind shows such as Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, and the programme has been years in the making, When the project was announced in 2017, Wainwright said telling Lister’s story had been a long-held ambition.
“Anne Lister is a gift to a dramatist,” she said at the time. “She is one of the most exuberant, thrilling and brilliant women in British history, and I can’t wait to celebrate her.
“Landowner, industrialist, traveller, mountaineer, scholar, would-be brain surgeon and prolific diarist, Anne returns from years of travel to her ancestral home, determined to restore it to its former glory, and determined to marry Ann Walker.
“It’s a beautifully rich, complicated, surprising love story. To bring Anne Lister to life on screen is the fulfilment of an ambition I’ve had for 20 years. Shibden Hall is a place I have known and loved since I was a child.”
To help choreograph the sex scenes in the show, the team hired an intimacy director.
It’s something which is happening more and more in the industry now.
“I think it was really important we did all that work,” suggests Jones. “And then actually the intimacy, the tenderness, is what we went for. So, there’s a lot of looks we can do that speak volumes, I think – and being really comfortable with each other.
“It didn’t have to be gratuitous in any way. And actually, even the bed scenes we’re fully clothed, because if someone walked in on the two of us, we would have to very quickly pull our nightgowns down and pretend we were friends.
“So actually, it just works so well without showing too much. I think it’s beautifully, beautifully done.”
Wainwright ‘at her boldest and best’
Sally Wainwright’s writing will bring Anne Lister’s extraordinary story to life, say BBC bosses.
Speaking in 2017, Piers Wenger, controller of BBC Drama Commissioning, said: “The originality and ambition of the writing in Shibden Hall is Sally Wainwright at her boldest and best.
“In dramatising the life and loves of Anne Lister, Sally might just have found her most complex and uncompromising female character yet and I’m so proud that they will be making their home BBC One.”
Executive producer for production company Lookout Point Faith Penhale added: “This is an extraordinary story about a remarkable woman. I can’t wait for Sally to bring Anne Lister, with all her wit and warmth and unpredictability, to life.”
Gentleman Jack starts on BBC One on Sunday May 19.