Gentleman Jack: Documentary explores how drama and Anne Lister have changed lives of women

A new documentary is looking at how a number of women found their lives and sexuality transformed after seeing hit TV drama Gentleman Jack. Laura Reid reports.

It focuses on the story of just one formidable woman but TV drama Gentleman Jack has changed the lives of countless others.

At its heart is Halifax landowner and industrialist Anne Lister, who defied every convention of the nineteenth century society she lived in, engaging in passionate relationships with women and moving her lover Ann Walker into her home at Shibden Hall.

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The dramatisation by Huddersfield-born screenwriter Sally Wainwright projected ‘the first modern lesbian’, as Lister has been dubbed, into global consciousness - and the impact has been profound.

Contributor Sami wearing a top hat inspired by Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack Photo: Sara Hardy/Screenhouse

A new documentary airing tonight delves into the Gentleman Jack effect, exploring how a number of British women have been impacted by the show.

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The Gentleman Jack effect - The impact TV show and Anne Lister's story is having...

“I decided it was time to come out to my grandparents”, wrote one of the contributors when Leeds-based production company Screenhouse posed the question in online forums and social media fan groups.

“It was the moment I found out I was a lesbian”, said another. “I found the courage to contact my long-lost love”, “I watched the drama with my mum to confront her homophobia”...and so the responses kept coming.

Yvonne, who features in Gentleman Jack Changed My Life, and her two children. Photo: Sara Hardy/Screenhouse

“There were stories about people using the drama that had come into their living room, into their multi- generational family, so that they could have a conversation that before they couldn’t find the common ground to have,” says Barbara Govan, executive producer and Screenhouse CEO.

There was a real sense of “positivity and uplift” that the show had been broadcast in a primetime television slot on BBC One, Govan continues.

“People feel that they have got affirmation, positive representation, it’s okay to be who they are and that they’re being celebrated along with all the other things that are represented and celebrated on mainstream TV.”

The documentary has been more than two years in the making, the initial idea blossoming from the immediate aftermath of series one of the show back in 2019.

Like everything else, it was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. “But this phenomenon among women wasn’t going to change,” Govan says. “Covid was not going to stop somebody who realised they were lesbian, who realised they had the tools to come out to somebody.”

And so work on the documentary continued and Gentleman Jack Changed My Life will be broadcast on the BBC this evening, ahead of the finale of series two of Gentleman Jack on May 29. It shares the deepest feelings, hopes, fears and personal moments of women of all ages as they take inspiration from Lister and her determination to be her authentic self.

“The contributors have spoken about the fact that Anne Lister was a real person and walked the hills of Yorkshire and did all those brave things hundreds of years ago,” director Sara Hardy says. “It’s given them the courage to take their own steps. Because she’s a real person, it’s struck a chord for them.”

The show follows a number of women as they come out to themselves, to their children, their parents and grandparents, empowered by the drama. Among them is a 64-year-old, who requested only to be named as Yvonne.

Yvonne only realised that she was gay when she watched Gentleman Jack. The documentary follows her, a Mormon all of her adult life, as she figures out what to do about her faith and decides to come out to her grown-up children.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Yvonne, who lives near Blackpool, says: “I felt embarrassed because how could I get this far in life [not knowing]? One of my first thoughts was how do I tell my kids this one? How do I tell anybody at this age? They’ll look at me thinking I’m making it up.

“At the very same time as that turmoil, there was a puzzle piece in a jigsaw that felt like it slotted into position. I understood myself... Everything made sense. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as more myself.”

Her children’s reaction was “the greatest gift”, she says. “My daughter was like that’s great, that’s fine and my son said good for you mum. “It was just so matter of fact, it was absolutely no judgement and total acceptance and it was like a tonne of weight fell from me because the fear was to be rejected or disowned in some way or seen differently, that was my biggest fear because I’m still me.”

At the time Yvonne responded to a post from Screenhouse, she had not told anybody about her realisation and says she knew no one openly gay to whom she could turn. “I was at bursting point and it was almost offloading it somewhere,” she says.

It was a conscious decision to have members of the LGBTQ+ community on the documentary’s production team. “We were going into an environment in some cases where people hadn’t met anybody from the LGBT community,” Sara explains. “And we were almost representatives of that community.”

The documentary features women in a range of circumstances. In Manchester, it follows the story of Sami, who tried to come out to her mum ten years ago but got a hostile response. The portrayal of Anne Lister gives her the confidence to try again and heal the rift.

Then there’s the story of Pauline and Trixie, both in their 80s. They enjoyed a long-term relationship but parted 35 years ago because they felt it was impossible to live openly as a lesbian couple. Pauline was spurred on by Gentleman Jack to track Trixie down again.

Active churchgoers Isabel and Katie are also featured, inspired to fight for a dream religious wedding through the Church of England - and then there’s Chichi, a 22-year-old who came out to her parents after watching the series and now prepares to reveal to her grandparents that she is gay.

The stories are interwoven with insights from the drama’s stars, Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle, and writer Wainwright.

Yvonne says she’s nervous about the show airing - “I’m a very private person so although my kids were great when I told them I was gay, they were absolutely shocked that I was doing this” - but hopes it will resonate with others and help them in their own journeys.

“If anybody has any form of self loathing, I just hope this [documentary] has an impact and they can see themselves for who they are and not have to apologise or hate themselves.”

“I hope that people will get courage from the documentary,” Sara adds. “Seeing Anne Lister and hearing her story has given our contributors courage and I hope people watching will have the courage to live their true life, whatever that might be. They can live their true life, be themselves and live the life they’re happy with.”

Gentleman Jack Changed My Life airs at 10.40pm today on BBC One.

The Royal Television Society Yorkshire and Women in Film and TV are hosting a panel event connected to Screenhouse Production’s documentary. Joining the conversation will be Barbara Govan, Sara Hardy, producer Al Johnstone and some of the film’s contributors.

They will be offering behind the scenes insight to the making of the documentary, from idea to commission and production, and sharing the importance of LGBTQ+ representation, both on screen and behind the camera, and the impact on audiences.

The event takes place on Thursday, May 26, from 6.30pm until 9.30pm at Archive on Kirkstall Road in Leeds. To book, visit: rts.org.uk/event/gentleman-jack-changed-my-life-screening-panel-talk