Gentleman Jack review: A ripping yarn of wannabe lesbian coal baron

Suranne Jones plays 19th century landowner, mountaineer, diarist and lesbian Anne Lister in the four-part BBC 1 production of Gentleman Jack.
Suranne Jones in BBC drama Gentleman Jack. Picture: Aimee Spinks/BBCSuranne Jones in BBC drama Gentleman Jack. Picture: Aimee Spinks/BBC
Suranne Jones in BBC drama Gentleman Jack. Picture: Aimee Spinks/BBC

**** - 4/5 stars

Don’t know about you, but I’ve thought for some time that there haven’t been enough corking dramas about wannabe lesbian coal barons with loads of horses and the odd frontal lobotomy and jokes about the 1832 Reform Bill. Now we have one and it’s a start.

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I should clarify: the wannabe bit refers to the coal baroning; Anne Lister is already “not as feminine as some would like her to be”.

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But boy, does Suranne Jones who plays her suit a top hat. And a clickety-clack silver cane. And a long black coat which billows behind her as our bold heroine, to gasps of “She’s here! She’s here!”, storms through the opener of this new series from Sally Wainwright.

I knew it was Wainwright, of course. The “Halifax” caption flashed up over the introductory vista told me this.

Wainwright penned Last Tango in Halifax and had Sarah Lancashire fight Halifax-based crime in Happy Valley. Lancashire was brilliant in that.

I wasn’t sure that Jones could rise to such heights – acting-wise, the height of the Halifax’s Wainhouse Tower, a phallic folly – but she’s made a ripping start here, so let’s see where this four-parter goes.

Voyeuristically you will want to keep watching because despite some torrid publicity about the drama hiring an “intimacy coach”, this wasn’t the bonktastic beginning you might have hoped for (pervert).

But artistically you should want to keep watching, and humouristically too. Gentleman Jack is funny, like when Jones as Lister – a real-life landowner, mountaineer, diarist and of course lesbian (1791-1840) – Fleabags the fourth wall by smirking to the camera, usually after demonstrating how useless men are.

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The blokes here, called Hardcastle and Bottomley and the like, are utterly hopeless. They can’t bring themselves to shoot lame horses so Lister has to do it. Lister vaults walls and drives her carriage like Formula 1’s Jim Clark. She takes on the job of collecting the rents on her estate.

Incredulous Man: “You, ma’am – you yourself?” She derides the local doctor for having a mincing walk. Life would be a whole lot easier for her, says someone, if she were to marry a man. No, she replies, that would be “perverse, absurd”.

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Then over afternoon tea she asks an acquaintance: “And how is Mr Lawton?” “Oh irritable, I hardly see him,” is the reply, which is all the encouragement Lister needs to bed with the woman.

But this romance won’t last.

And Lister, who strides out to an urgent score, doesn’t give the impression she’ll be in Halifax for long. “England is barely big enough to contain her,” says her mum. She says might head for Paris next – “or Copenhagen or Moscow or Virginia.”

But with steam engines all the rage she wants to mine her estate even though her father warns: “Nasty business, coal.”

Then there’s that pretty heiress just over the hill, Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), a wan thing about whom the mincing doctor is at least able to offer an accurate diagnosis: “The best thing one can prescribe isn’t medicine but a little bit of adventure.”

Can Lister cure listlessness? I rather think it can.

For her drama Wainwright has drawn on Lister’s diaries, which had to be written in code.

“The world only sees how odd you are and not how clever,” sympathises a friend. Lister responds: “The only thing I’ve ever run away from is the banal. Banality and mediocrity are the only things which frighten me.” Fascinating and fabulous.