Telling the story of Anne Lister was a 20-year passion project for writer Sally Wainwright

Suranne Jones, Sally Wainwright and Sophie Rundle on the red carpet in Halifax. Picture: Stu Johnson Photography
Suranne Jones, Sally Wainwright and Sophie Rundle on the red carpet in Halifax. Picture: Stu Johnson Photography

Sally Wainwright is known for writing stories that bring attention to life in Calderdale with Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax proving to be massive hits in recent years.

But her latest series has been a 20 year passion project for the writer and director from Calderdale.

Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) and Anne Lister (Suranne Jones). Picture: Lookout Point - Photographer: Jay Brooks

Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) and Anne Lister (Suranne Jones). Picture: Lookout Point - Photographer: Jay Brooks

“I grew up in Halifax,” said Sally. “I knew Shibden Hall really well but I didn’t know anything about Anne Lister as a teenager growing up in the seventies I’d never heard of her.

“I started to become aware of her in the nineties. I became aware of this quite bold, daring woman who owned Shibden but I couldn’t find out anything about her.”

Read: Gentleman Jack: everything we know about BBC's new period drama about Halifax's "first modern Lesbian"

As she was living in London at the time, Sally asked her friend for help finding out more about the 19th century landowner.

She was pointed in the direction of Female Fortune, a book written by Jill Liddington detailing the extraordinary life of Anne Lister.

She said: “That’s when I got my first really big, really clear impression of who Anne Lister was and right from that moment I’ve wanted to do this. It’s taken me 20 years to get here.”

Anne Lister was a recognisable figure in Halifax back in the 1800s, known for being a landowner, mountaineer, traveller and for her passionate relationships with women. But her story seems to have been forgotten in the history books over the years.

But Sally has brought this unusual character to life and is very pleased to have been the one to do so.

She said: “I just feel really lucky that I’m the one who got to do it. I’m the one who was in the right place at the right time to get all this information and that my career was in a place where I said I want to do this now.

“She’s the most exciting character I’ve ever written. It’s because she’s fun and she can be very dark but she’s very funny as well.

“It’s a dream come true.”

Read: 19 photos from the Halifax premiere of new BBC One drama Gentleman Jack

Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister in the upcoming series which will hit our screens on Sunday (May 19). But was she the actor Sally had in mind to bring the role to life?

"It was really hard. I knew what I wanted her to be like but I could't think of anyone who could be all the things that Anne Lister was.

"I'd written about three episodes and then Faith Penhale (one of the executive producers) said you know we've got to cast somebody at some point.

"It was odd to me really that I hadn't though of Suranne because I've worked with her before but I'd always thought of her as a really contemporary actress and it felt like because it was a period drama it felt wrong. But that's what was the magic element.

"It works really well because Anne Lister was born out of her time in a way. But in many ways she was a product of her time but because of her attitudes towards homosexuality she was very progressive. She had a very healthy attitude towards homosexuality.

"Suranne came into read as well and she just got it. She had so many ideas was buzzing off her and it was a real delight watching her bring that character to life."

The first episode of Gentleman Jack will appear on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday (May 19).

Read: Anne Lister: The woman who had a lesbian church ‘wedding’ – and whose diaries turned everything historians knew about sex on its head