Christa Ackroyd: Why Anne Lister and Gentleman Jack can teach us a thing or two

I have been looking forward to Sally Wainright’s television drama Gentleman Jack ever since our three year old granddaughter Matilda marched up to Suranne Jones during filming in Shibden Park and told her the solution for a badly behaved horse was to give him a carrot.

Ann Walker (SOPHIE RUNDLE) and Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES) in Gentleman jack (BBC)
Ann Walker (SOPHIE RUNDLE) and Anne Lister (SURANNE JONES) in Gentleman jack (BBC)

It didn’t disappoint. You just knew with Sally in charge and Suranne in the lead role it would be magnificent.

But it was glorious in so many ways. The script, the music, the pace, the acting, the direction, were all superb . We knew they would be. Sally Wainwright is a genius. But so too was the setting.

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Gentleman Jack showed Yorkshire at its best. Gutsy folk as robust and diverse as the landscape. Small wonder the American publication The National

Geographic voted Calderdale as one of the top ten ‘Cool’ places in the world to visit in 2019.It is cool. It’s just that sometimes it takes others to show us what we already know and make us appreciate what is on our doorstep.

When it comes to cool Shibden Hall with its rolling park land, its Victorian boating lake and miniature railway, is among the highlights of Halifax and its surrounding towns and villages.

We have spent many a happy hour there with our children and now with our grandchildren. Yet for some reason visitor numbers to the 14th century hall never matched the experience.

Well the world will know about Shibden Hall now with the series already half way through in the States thanks to HBO backing and its greatest champion, Sally Wainright. And we may have been reminded of the joy of supporting our own heritage.

Sally was born here. Like so many of us she was desperate to leave and move south. But then this part of the world also has a habit of drawing us back and the writer who put Calderdale on the map with Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley now lives and writes here half the year. What brought Sally Wainwright back was Anne Lister. But it took years of success and three Baftas before she secured the commission to write a major period drama with a woman, a lesbian, at it’s heart. Anne Lister was different in so many ways. She inherited the hall from her uncle because he recognised she was the one to safeguard its future, whatever her sex or sexuality. It was pioneering stuff.

Refusing to live in the shadows

She was also a lesbian who refused to live in the shadows. I can understand the shock in the 1800s but surely not in the 21st century?

Which is why I am saddened at the growing wave of protests at the teaching of inclusivity which seems to be spreading throughout the country.

Let us be clear. You can’t teach people to be gay. You can’t educate someone to become transgender. People are or they aren’t.

But what you can do is teach kindness to all. And that is what these “lessons” are all about . Actually they are not lessons. At primary school level they are simply a series of books about family. Some families have one parent. Some have two. And that means some have two mummies, some have two daddies. The message is simple.

There are no outsiders . This is not indoctrination. It is life . As Anne Lister shows it always was and always will be. And life and its pioneers are always worth celebrating and more importantly, including.

Woman in a man's world

Anne Lister was a woman in a man’s world. Sally Wainwright was also once a woman in a man’s world.

Ask Sally about her time as a scriptwriter in Coronation Street many years ago when she suggested a lesbian character and was greeted with the attitude of ‘we don’t want that on the street’

But then like Anne Lister, Sally Wainwright has always been ahead of her time. How fitting that they should come together for the next eight weeks on our television screens. As they say, you couldn’t write the script.

And yes Matilda you are right, a badly behaved horse does respond well to a carrot, just as people respond to kindness and a feeling of being valued and included, whether their world is different you ours or not.

That is the lesson we should be teaching our children in schools. And in life.