Gentleman Jack writer Sally Wainwright: Why taking Anne Lister's diaries to TV is a labour of love

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack. Picture: BBC/Lookout Point/HBO/Jay Brooks
Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack. Picture: BBC/Lookout Point/HBO/Jay Brooks

After the first took both sides of the Atlantic by storm, screenwriter and director Sally Wainwright is working on a second series of Gentleman Jack. Laura Reid reports.

Few are awake when Sally Wainwright rises to begin another day’s work on Gentleman Jack.

Screenwriter Sally Wainwright was born and raised in Yorkshire. Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Screenwriter Sally Wainwright was born and raised in Yorkshire. Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

It is fair to say there are high expectations for the second series she is currently writing; some 4.7m viewers tuned into the final episode of the first, on BBC One, and the story of landowner, businesswoman and “first modern lesbian” Anne Lister has sparked such awe that visitor numbers to Shibden Hall, in Halifax, have soared, with tourists travelling from all over the world to see the home in which she once lived.

How the BBC's Gentleman Jack sparked global awe of Yorkshire rebel Anne Lister and Shibden Hall
The show is based on the diaries of Lister, who left behind 27 volumes of almost five million words about her daily life, work and a string of love affairs with women, some written in a code of her own devising.

“It’s a diary, not a novel with a beginning, a middle an end,” says Wainwright, who is in Leeds for a Women in Film and Television event next week. “It’s a vast, vast diary that’s a day by day account of someone’s life so it is not a story as such and for me, it’s about extrapolating drama from an account of life that has high points and low points and some dramatic incidents. I have to construct a narrative from that.

“It’s very rewarding but it’s very, very difficult. I think it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s very compelling but it’s a constant headache. I have to get up at four o’clock every day. There just isn’t enough hours. I have to have written eight episodes by March and I’m just starting on episode three.

Visitor numbers at Shibden Hall have risen since Gentleman Jack aired on TV.

Visitor numbers at Shibden Hall have risen since Gentleman Jack aired on TV.

“I am on schedule but it’s pretty relentless and there’s no time really for anything to go wrong. But it’s a complete labour of love and I’m lucky. I just think I’m the luckiest person in the world because I’m the person that gets to do this with these diaries.”

Born in Huddersfield and raised in Sowerby Bridge, as a child Wainwright paid many a visit to nearby Shibden Hall. The manor had an extraordinary pull on her. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what Shibden Hall was. And I always felt very attached, very connected to it. It’s such a beautiful place.”

But it wasn’t until many years later, then working as a writer for Coronation Street, that Wainwright came across Lister in any depth and discovered her connection to the building. “I didn’t know she had owned it until the 1990s so it was quite a surprise when I came across her and realised how amazing she was.

"I’d never known anything about her even though I’d always been really fond of Shibden Hall and always felt a strong attachment to it. I just completely fell in love with her as soon as I knew anything about her.

“She’s such an extraordinary woman. By that time, I was making a living as a writer and right from then, over 20 years now, I always, always thought this would be an amazing TV series. But I didn’t have the clout to do anything about it then. And I didn’t have the familiarity with the diaries I do now...I wouldn’t have been able to do it justice.”

For Gentleman Jack, Wainwright focuses on Lister in the 1830s, when she returns to Shibden Hall determined to restore its fortunes and find herself a wife. “That for me is when she really became this really complex and hugely dramatisable woman,” she says.

These 19 Yorkshire locations appear in Gentleman Jack on BBC One
Co-produced by the BBC and HBO, the series was realised “on a grand scale” and made waves at both sides of the Atlantic. She hoped it would be well-received - “you always hope people are going to respond to what you’ve done because you put so much work in” - but what she didn’t expect was the emotional response that the show has evoked from viewers across the globe.

“People are saying it’s changed their lives. I’ve had letters from all over the world - Russia, Hong Kong, America, Australia. I’ve never had so many letters and so many emotional, really emotional, ones from women saying they’re just so excited to know that Anne Lister existed. For them to know that as gay women, they have a history and a past, it has been such an emotional thing, that’s given them real validation.

“[Lister] didn’t have a problem with her sexuality, she had such a healthy attitude towards it, she had no doubt about her right to be who she wanted to be. It caused her some problems but she didn’t have mental health issues. She had this really healthy sense of who she was. I think the emotional response to that has been absolutely overwhelming.”

The impact on tourism has also been great. Shibden Hall extended its opening hours to cope with an influx of tourists following the show’s success. As the series came to an end in July, Calderdale Council reported that the number of visits to the site had trebled.

“I’m pleased that people are so interested in the work that they want to come and see Halifax and that they see that it isn’t grim up north, it’s actually really fantastic,” Wainwright says.

“There’s so much going on in a town like Halifax. It’s a really vibrant place now, which I’m really excited about - and it’s all because of Anne Lister. I grew up wanting to leave. Like a lot of people, you can’t wait to leave your hometown. Then when I discovered Anne Lister, Halifax became absolutely magical to me.”

Wainwright has set several of her major works in West Yorkshire, Last Tango in Halifax, which is currently filming for another series, and crime drama Happy Valley to name but two others.

“I don’t know why I tend to come back to West Yorkshire, I think it’s partly the language, partly to do with the subtlety of the language you grew up with and knowing the intricacies of that language very well. I could happily write a series set anywhere but I think if I write in my own vernacular, it feels very authentic to me and that’s important.”

When Happy Valley came along, Wainwright also seized the opportunity to direct. She had done so at university, but it had fallen by the wayside as her writing career took off. “It got to a point where I really wanted to try and do it, and that was combined with the frustration of seeing other directors not realising my work as well as I always wanted it to be realised.”

Since the start of her career, Wainwright says there has been greater effort to get more women involved in screenwriting. But there is still a way to go. “I think for a long time we have suffered from women being depicted on TV through the eyes of men and I think it’s gone on for so long that women start to emulate the behaviour of women on TV that are actually male constructs...I think more women need to write about women in a way that’s much more down to earth and authentic.”

That is something she tries to address in the dramatising of women in her own work. “I certainly think my female characters are very true to themselves and very real and honest representations of what women are really like,” she says.

BBC period drama Gentleman Jack is to return for a second series
For now, Wainwright’s focus is firmly on writing the second instalment of Gentleman Jack but she hopes to do more Happy Valley, more Last Tango, and write a stage play, as well as a film. “I don’t really think of my career as having a shape,” she says. “You just live your life. I’m always looking for new challenges...I hope I haven’t peaked. I hope there are still places to go.”

As for if, and when, she retires, “I hope my hobby would be to make my own transcriptions of the whole of Anne Lister’s diary. But that’s a huge undertaking. It’s a lifetime’s work.”

Women in Film and Television Leeds will stage an audience with Sally Wainwright, hosted by BBC Radio 5 Live presenter Anna Foster on October 15 from 7pm. Tickets for the event, at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre at Northern Ballet, Leeds cost £7.50. Visit wftv.org.uk