The Gentleman Jack effect - The impact TV show and Anne Lister's story is having on Calderdale and West Yorkshire

As Gentleman Jack airs for a second series, Laura Reid looks at the impact that the TV show is having on both Calderdale and the wider West Yorkshire region.

Four words have come to encompass the powerful impact of Sally Wainwright’s TV drama about the historic Halifax landowner Anne Lister - the Gentleman Jack effect.

The phrase embodies the show’s influence in its all its forms, pointing as much to how sharing diarist Lister’s story as ‘the first modern lesbian’ has emboldened LGBTQ+ communities, as it does to how Calderdale and the wider West Yorkshire region is reaping the benefits of increased visitor numbers and a focus on TV and film production.

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The show’s cast, including Suranne Jones, who plays Lister, and Sophie Rundle who portrays her lover Ann Walker, have received countless letters from viewers claiming they feel represented on screen in a way they haven’t before and on online forums there is much talk of how Lister is an inspiring example of living an authentic life.

Series two of Gentleman Jack is airing on BBC One. Picture BBC/Lookout PointSeries two of Gentleman Jack is airing on BBC One. Picture BBC/Lookout Point
Series two of Gentleman Jack is airing on BBC One. Picture BBC/Lookout Point

The programme’s focus on a historic lesbian couple in a prime-time slot has been among the praise it has received and Huddersfield-born writer Wainwright has spoken of how it has evoked a profound emotional response from gay women in particular, previously telling The Yorkshire Post: “People are saying it’s changed their lives...For them to know that as gay women, they have a history and a past, it has been such an emotional thing.”

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As the second series of the show airs on BBC One, tourism chiefs have now spoken again about the effect of the show and how its success is creating a legacy for West Yorkshire to build on.

Calderdale is now known globally as a cultural, LGBTQ+ and heritage destination, they say, and Gentleman Jack has helped to make it a centre for creativity and TV production, as well as a tourist hotspot.

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Gentleman Jack stars Gemma Whelan and Suranne Jones on the red carpet at the Halifax premiere of Gentleman Jack, with writer Sally Wainwright.Gentleman Jack stars Gemma Whelan and Suranne Jones on the red carpet at the Halifax premiere of Gentleman Jack, with writer Sally Wainwright.
Gentleman Jack stars Gemma Whelan and Suranne Jones on the red carpet at the Halifax premiere of Gentleman Jack, with writer Sally Wainwright.

Visitor numbers to the area peaked on the back of series one and council chiefs say work on Gentleman Jack projects and the wider tourism offer is a key strand of Vision2024, the strategy for Calderdale by the time the authority reaches its 50th birthday in two years time.

They are preparing for another bumper year for tourism as the area once again experiences the Gentleman Jack effect. Cultural Services Manager Bobsie Robinson says: “The response following the first series was incredible, with record visitor numbers at many of our high-profile attractions and the resulting economic impact directly benefitting local businesses.

“We’re confident that we’ll see similarly impressive visitor numbers following the airing of the second series. Even during the pandemic, we heard from so many people who were eager to be able to visit the borough and now restrictions have lifted we’re looking forward to welcoming visitors from across the world.

“We’re also delighted that thanks to the BBC, more people are now discovering Anne Lister’s amazing legacy and we have been especially moved by the deep, personal impact that Gentleman Jack and Anne’s story are having on people around the world.

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“It’s fantastic that Calderdale is becoming more widely known as a key cultural, LGBTQ and heritage destination. The series plays a huge part in making our borough vibrant and distinctive and we’re harnessing this as part of the Vision2024.”

The year 2019, when series one of the show aired, was the best year ever for Calderdale’s visitor economy, with tourism worth just under £400 million.

Visitor numbers in 2019/20 trebled at Shibden Hall, Anne Lister’s family home, and exceeded all previous records; in August 2019 alone, there were 14,419 visitors compared to just over 2,500 in August 2018.

As well as attracting visitors to the area, Gentleman Jack has inspired artwork, tattoos, Anne Lister cocktails, themed nights, and tours and, earlier this month, the celebratory Anne Lister Birthday Week, the events of which drew in people from more than 10 different countries.

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Many have sought to walk the paths of Lister’s former stomping ground and visit some of the filming destinations in and around West Yorkshire that were used for the show. It means nearby places, such as Bradford, are feeling the impact too.

Lister’s family owned the Lister Mills in Manningham, Bradford – once the beating heart of the world’s textile industry – which was recently animated in a projection show, bringing to light its industrial history, as part of the Bradford district’s UK City of Culture 2025 bid campaign.

Shanaz Gulzar, chair of Bradford 2025, says: “Anne Lister personifies so many of the characteristics that are synonymous with this part of West Yorkshire – ambitious, bold, radical, game changing. It’s brilliant that the BBC has not only brought her story to millions – but that it’s filmed on location and showcases so much of our landscape and heritage.”

The world’s first UNESCO City of Film, Bradford launched a ten-year screen strategy last year to develop the sector in the area. “We’re privileged to have such a rich source of inspiration from the communities, cultures and individuals that make the Bradford district one of the most diverse young places in the UK,” Gulzar continues.

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“Gentleman Jack shines a light on how this diversity has played a role in shaping Bradford and the wider region for hundreds of years and continues to do so. We’re thrilled it’s back for a second series as there’s so much more of Anne, and West Yorkshire’s, story to tell.”

Gentleman Jack is a Lookout Point production for BBC One co-produced with HBO. It is based on Lister’s extensive diaries, which were part-written in cryptic code and document all aspects of her private and public life, including her relationships with women.

Series one followed her life as she inherited her uncle’s fading estate, Shibden Hall, and attempted to restore it while beginning a romance with Walker. In series two, in 1834, all eyes are on the pair as they set up home together at Shibden as wife and wife, determined to combine their estates and become a power couple.

The Film Office at Screen Yorkshire, the agency backing film and TV industries in the region, supported filming for the show at a range of locations and worked with Lookout Point to secure job roles for local people through its crew database.

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Chief executive Caroline Cooper Charles says: “The benefits of a hit series like Gentleman Jack are hugely impactful for the region, in terms of the significant job and supply chain opportunities the drama provides during filming and thereafter, as visitors from around the world travel to Yorkshire to follow in the footsteps of Anne Lister.

“Sally Wainwright is a fantastic advocate and inspiration for local talent and it was brilliant to be able to watch some of the trainees that she spoke to when we launched the Centre of Screen Excellence in Leeds in 2020 go on to find paid roles on the show.”

Gentleman Jack is on BBC One at 9pm on Sundays and also available on iPlayer.