Sally Wainwright stands on the red carpet rolled out for the Halifax premiere of Gentleman Jack series two somewhat relieved. “I’m glad we’ve got here,” she says. “It’s been a tough shoot.”
Filming for season two of the show, which is inspired by the diaries of Anne Lister, one of the most formidable women of Halifax’s past, began in November 2020, nearly six months later than expected as a result of the pandemic.
Covid-19 put a halt to its production four times in total and programme lead Suranne Jones, who plays Lister, sadly lost her father in early 2021 after he contracted the virus.
Wainwright, who also directed series one, only stepped onto the set once because of the protocols relating to Covid.
“It took us a year to film it,” she says. “It should have been all done and dusted now, it should have been on and transmitted but we’re here now, we got there...I’m really proud of it.”
Gentleman Jack series one was a hit for BBC One and iPlayer, averaging 6.8 million viewers across its eight-episode run. Fans across the globe have eagerly awaited its return and turned out in their hundreds to see Jones, Wainwright, and Gemma Whelan, who play’s Lister’s sister Marian, walk the red carpet at the Piece Hall last Tuesday.
A special premiere screening was held at Square Chapel Arts Centre, featuring a performance by theme tune writers Yorkshire folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow, ahead of the launch of season two on April 10.
Set in 1834, the series follows regency landowner, industrialist and avid traveller Lister, who is widely regarded as “the first modern lesbian”, as her lover Ann Walker, played by Sophie Rundle, moves in with her at Shibden Hall.
All eyes are on the pair as they set up home together as wife and wife, determined to combine their estates and become a power couple.
“It’s not a perfect marriage which is a good drama, it’s about the ups and the downs,” Wainwright says. “They lived in a society that really didn’t want them to be together so it was an incredibly challenging marriage in that sense.”
The programme is a dramatisation based on the diaries of Lister, who wrote an estimated five million words, around a sixth of which were in a code of her own devising which she used to detail her most private affairs including her intimate relationships with women.
“Anyone who is familiar with the diaries will recognise it within Anne’s speech,” Wainwright muses. “I do make stuff up now and again but to me, it’s recognisably her voice from the journals.”
Jones, whose other credits include roles in Vigil and Doctor Foster, describes Lister as being “top” in the list of characters she’s played in her career. “She’s so intelligent and so ahead of a lot of other characters. She’s in the next scene before we have got to the next scene. I don’t think there will be a character quite like her again.”
“Everyone else (the other characters) is like ‘oh s***, let’s try to keep up with that’,” she adds.
Lister continues to be on the receiving end of sister Marian’s trademark eye rolls in series two, something Whelan jokes she practices on her husband, actor Gerry Howell.
“Marian is the very uninteresting sister of a very interesting woman and she’s always trying to get involved,” Whelan says. “I love the messy rivalry we have.
“At the end of it, they absolutely love each other, they’d do anything for each other, it’s just complicated,” she adds.
As Lister and Walker settle in to married life together, this series – spoiler alert – Marian gets a marriage proposal of her own. “Someone may or may not get in the way of that,” Whelan teases, glancing at Jones.
As for the show itself? “It’s bigger, better, more funny, sad, dramatic, everything the first season was,” she says. “We’ve just dialled it up, just as extraordinary writing, brilliant relationships, and great drama.”
Though Lister had been the subject of a number of books before the airing of series one, her story was not widely known outside the circles of those who had studied her diaries, certainly on a global scale. Now thanks to the show, a Lookout Point production for BBC One, co-produced with US-based HBO, her name is known around the world.
Visitor numbers in Calderdale rocketed after the show’s airing, part of what has been dubbed the Gentleman Jack effect, and this week a long-awaited festival of events is being held there to mark Lister’s birthday. A sculpture of her, celebrating her legacy, now stands in the Piece Hall’s courtyard too.
Today, more than 180 years after she lived, her story resonates with people across the globe, held particularly dear among the LGBTQ+ communities as an icon in lesbian history. Jones and Rundle have received countless letters from people sharing their own stories and expressing their love for the show.
For too long, Wainwright says, Lister has been Halifax’s “best kept secret”. She’s thrilled Gentleman Jack has helped Lister“finally get the global recognition she deserves”.
Speaking on the red carpet last week, she said the response to the first series had been “phenomenal”. “I think for gay women to realise that they’ve got history, and that Anne Lister has been there and done it all 200 years ago,” she said. “I think most people who saw the first series just did not know she existed, so I think it’s been a real energising experience for them to realise that this fantastic woman lived 200 years ago and was so true to who she was, lived her life so openly and freely and with such charisma and intelligence, and panache.”
Far from putting the pressure on though, the extraordinary response has only served as greater motivation for Wainwright, who first began working on a script about Lister in the early 2000s. She had become gripped by Lister’s story after reading historian Jill Liddington’s book Female Fortune on the 1833 to 1836 diaries.
“People have been asking if it puts more pressure on when so many more people know about Anne Lister now and the truth for me is that it makes me want to do this even more,”
Wainwright explains. “It makes me know that people are interested and they want to know what happens next...It has been a real delight working on the second series knowing so many people have been excited by it.”
For Jones, portraying Lister in Yorkshire for a second time felt like “coming home”. “It’s great to hear about how the area has taken her on...I feel like Halifax has accepted us and warmed to us which is wonderful and also is bringing Anne Lister and Ann Walker to the fore, grabbing them from history.
“Being back at Shibden is delightful,” she adds. “Before I was just finding my feet, but now it feels like I’m really part of the landscape.”
Gentleman Jack series two is on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Sunday, April 10, at 9pm.