Gentleman Jack is one of the big prestige shows of 2019 – a period drama that was made by the BBC and HBO. It is a show that history enthusiasts will immediately enjoy.
In 1832 Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) returns to her family home in Yorkshire after having her heart been broken in Paris. Miss Lister intends to travel once again but she has to sort out a number of issues affecting her family estate before she can go. These include farmers not paying their rents, the house needing repairs, and finding out a local businessman has been stealing coal on her land. She’s also drawn to the beautiful Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle.)
Gentleman Jack was a passion project for Sally Wainwright who has wanted to make a series about Anne Lister for 20 years. Wainwright is a well-regarded screenwriter in the UK, her credits include The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard and Happy Valley and likes to set stories in the North of England. Gentleman Jack was very much her baby – she directed four of the episodes as well as writing all eight. She has made a fantasizing show.
Wainwright has shown she can make highly dramatic and lighter stories and with Gentleman Jack she mixes the two styles. Gentleman Jack has a fair amount of humor spread throughout the series. Miss Lister’s first scene in the series shows her literally speeding down Halifax town center and continues from there. The series has lots of witty exchanges and because the show was based on Lister’s diaries she breaks the fourth wall by speaking to the camera at times.
The show does look at darker subject matter. There is murder, violence, betrayals, corruption, and heartbreak. The heart of the series is Lister’s relationship with Ann Walker and there are trials on the way because of family judgments, Ann Walker’s religious beliefs, and her delicate mental state. As well as being a witty character Lister experiences moments of raw emotion.
The main two plotlines were Lister’s business dealings and her relationship with Ann Walker but there were a few subplots. One of the biggest was focused on the Sowden family, one of Lister’s tenant farmers who were dragged down by the family patriarch (Anthony Flanagan). Others included Lister’s sister, Marian (Gemma Whelan) looking for a husband and Ann Walker having a potential suitor. Like with many British period dramas there is a look at both the upstairs and downstairs drama.
Gentleman Jack was a show filled with historical details. As someone who studied the period at university, there were some great little tidbits. One of my favorites was referring to the Great Reform Act of 1832 which as the name suggests an important piece of legislation – but Lister argues she would lose out because of the reforms. The sets and costumes looked fantastic and the show was shot on location at the real Shibden Hall. Any fan of Dickens would enjoy little aspects like the use of children in the coal mines.
Due to the show being set mostly in the Halifax and Lister’s attempts to enter into the coal business Gentleman Jack acts like a British version of Deadwood. When Lister negotiates deals, talks about politics, and face off against the dastardly Christopher Rawson (Vincent Franklin) it gave Gentleman Jack that Deadwood air. Deadwood was praised by historians for its historical accuracy and Gentleman Jack should have a similar reception.
The show made Anne Lister out to be a woman way ahead for her time. She was highly educated with a great brain for business and much more masculine compared to her contemporaries. Lister did not wear dresses like other women around her and was willing to get her hands dirty. She was an early feminist due to her independent and determined nature – who would not let anyone get in her way.
Gentleman Jack was blessed with a terrific cast. Jones is a fantastic actress and she delivers as the lead character – she was determined, witty, but she was prone to bouts of anger and upset. She was not someone to be crossed. And she was surrounded by great actors like Gemma Jones and Timothy West. My favorite member was Whelan as the younger sister because Anne Lister dismissed her as being intellectually lacking whilst Marian feels her older sister should keep to her duties. Their relationship evolves as the series progresses to one where they care about each other. Plus Whelan is completely different to her role as Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones.
Gentleman Jack is one of the most unique period dramas to be broadcast in recent years because of its subject matter and Sally Wainwright’s approach to the material. Gentleman Jack‘s energy makes it a period drama that can appeal to people who are not normally interested in the genre.