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TV review: The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister

The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister, BBC2

LIKE many another 19th-century costume drama, The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister began with two eligible young ladies being told of the arrival in the neighbourhood of a single man of good fortune. "Apparently he has 6,000 a year," they learn – but he's no Mr Darcy, just an elderly, well-padded widower. And more to the point, they're not the Bennet sisters or any other Austen character looking for a sensible match: they are lovers and would prefer to marry each other.

Yet the man with 6,000 does marry one of them, leaving the other bereft and raging. Donning black mourning to attend the wedding, she writes in her beautifully drawn, coded diary: "What is her match but legal prostitution?"

The script for this drama was based on that diary, a real document which was decoded only many decades after the death of Anne Lister, a lesbian heroine whose wealth and position allowed her to defy more of her time's restrictions than you would have imagined possible.

Maxine Peake, who is becoming one of British TV's most interesting actors, played her with great energy, her small, alert face full of expression and emotion. And her fiery performance held together a script which wobbled around, perhaps as a result of having to stick to the true story. In a work of fiction, the events would have unfolded more neatly: we would have seen how Lister and her beloved Mariana got together, or how Anne had realised that she "loved and only loved the fairer sex", perhaps along with her needier friend, the boyish Tib, whose place in the story was a bit unclear.

And there was a lot of repetition, too, as a year after her marriage, Mariana resumed contact with the besotted Anne, stringing her along with promises that they would live together – ostensibly as lady companions – after her husband's hoped-for death. Anne eventually got fed up waiting (since a postscript revealed he lived to be 89, she was probably just as well) and found another lover, a shy local heiress whom she regarded as her wife.

She also became a successful mine-owner, defying local gossip, but this part of the story was only sketched, with Dean Lennox Kelly's neighbouring landowner standing in for the forces ranged against her in a slightly cartoonish fashion. Originally introduced as a potential suitor, he was rather put off by her form of after dinner conversation: "Let's talk coal!" Her chat-up line for any female possibilities, on the other hand, was the more seductive: "Do you like Byron?"

With Peake's excellent performance driving it, this drama should have been more gripping than it was: certainly Anne Lister's own life is fascinating. But somehow it fell a bit short, while also dragging on a bit too long. Like most 19th-century stories, hers is as much about money as love and I wish they'd found a way to demonstrate how her financial independence made it possible to live a life almost of her choosing, while also pushing her less well-off first love into a marriage of convenience which, perhaps, was more reliable as long-term security than Lister's sincere promises which could not be backed up in law.

Still, despite all that, this was a great insight into a hidden world. And, in a small role as a maid, it featured an actor with the utterly fantastic name of Jemima Foxtrot.

 
 
 

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