Gentleman Jack: Redefining Period Drama

Often enough, the term ‘period drama’ does not garner the best reactions.

There is a preconception, or arguably there are many preconceptions, surrounding period pieces. Usually this comes down to a misunderstanding of what period dramas are, and the richness of the countless examples of this type of work.

In truth, period dramas are simply any work set in the past, and as such anything from Bleak House or The Favourite to Agent Carter, The Get Down, or Mad Men could be defined as a period drama. Nonetheless, presumptions and expectations persist. Often, period pieces seem to be connected in audiences’ minds with the British Regency period, or with the writings of Jane Austen. In turn, period dramas such as Middlemarch or Pride and Prejudice seem to have been associated – whether fairly or otherwise – with female audiences, and over time this has arguably been a way of belittling the term and works associated with it.

Based on its pilot episode (which aired in America on 22 April, and on 19 May in the UK), Sally Wainwright’s new period drama Gentleman Jack both fulfils and subverts some of these preconceptions. The show opens in 1832, barely more than a decade after the Regency period ended. It certainly seems that women are a large part of the target audience, but it is a somewhat different and more specific demographic of women that are at the heart of this story. This, however, is where its conformity to stereotype ends.

Gentleman Jack introduces us to nineteenth century Halifax, where one Ann Lister is on her way back to her ancestral lands, having previously left the north of England to visit the European continent. Ann Lister, dubbed ‘Gentleman Jack’ by the town locals, was a real person: a landowner who, when not travelling, lived at Shibden Hall in West Yorkshire. She was known for keeping meticulously detailed diaries – totalling more than four million words in total – in a combination of English and a cryptographic code of her own devising. Ann inherited her land from her Uncle because even from a young age she had displayed entrepreneurial flair. Nothing at all about her was conventional for the era in which she lived, and this is of course one central focus of the television show that aims to bring parts of her life to the small screen.

Well-loved British actress Suranne Jones brings Ann Lister to life in Gentleman Jack, and she does so with an assuredness and confidence that fits the role perfectly. In historical biographies the real Ann is described as being eccentric, in both personality and appearance, from a young age, and this trait seems to prevail into her adult life. In 1817 Ann reportedly decided to always wear black, making only infrequent exceptions when the demands of social propriety could not be circumvented. Jones is dressed accordingly in the show, often donning a top hat and sporting a cane, both of which she carries with what can only really be described as immense swagger. She inhabits the role in her physicality, striding with a long, confident gait that feels fitting to the character. Paired with a jaunty, somewhat up-tempo soundtrack throughout, Jones’ movements give the pilot episode a certain pace that at times feels almost frenetic, as though we can almost tangibly feel Ann’s impatience with the slowness of life in Shibden.

Indeed, we get the sense that Ann is here to upset the apple cart. If she is unhappy to be back in Shibden, then she seems content to force it to acclimatise to her and not the other way around. She returns on a carriage she elects to drive herself and, once home, immediately sets to collecting her own rents when the family’s usual employee is too sick to work. She has a verbal altercation with one of their tenants before starting to lay down plans to sink her own coal pits. None of these things are remotely befitting of a woman of that era, and this immediately commands the attention of the audience in a way that feels different from many other comparable period dramas. Gentleman Jack takes the idea of someone who steps outside of norm and convention, and commits to it in a way that feels bold and decisive.

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Gentleman Jack (2019)

More so, these commanding moments of non-conformity from Lister are juxtaposed wonderfully with interspersed scenes of polite society in and around Halifax. This, in part, is how we get to know of another Ann – this time, Ann Walker from a nearby estate (played by Sophie Rundle of Peaky Blinders). She is surrounded by polite society, often women dressed far more conventionally and with far more frills and ruffles. If Ann Lister is often shown scaling walls and driving carts, then Anne Walker and other women in the pilot episode are just as frequently sitting down idle and completely lacking in any adequate diversion. This feels an almost tongue-in-cheek exploration of the life of women in bygone years, as though the show wants to laugh and poke fun at the weird and wonderful interpretations of how a woman should act and behave.

Even from the pilot episode alone, Gentleman Jack is evidently a show which wants to have a little bit of fun. There are moments when Jones looks into the camera with a rather commanding quirk of her eyebrow, and when a scene is overlaid with a monologue of Ann’s inner thoughts. This is clearly a show which has not set out to take itself too seriously, but rather to work playfully with the source material it has chosen to adapt.

The real Ann Lister recorded much about her business dealings in English, but she wrote about her personal life in code. When this code was eventually cracked, it was revealed that she was what many now call the first modern lesbian. Although there is a debate to be had about the use of terms that did not exist in Ann’s day, it is certainly inescapable that her relationships were with women. This is put immediately to the heart of the television show. There is no attempt to work around this part of her life, and in the pilot alone it is mentioned consistently. Two servants briefly discuss Ann’s past relationships, showing that although the real Anne went to great pains to keep this part of her life a secret, Gentleman Jack’s Ann Lister is not quite so reticent, even if she cannot be at all open about her attraction to women.

Within the first episode, we also learn that Ann returned to Shibden due to the breakdown of a past relationship. When the woman she was living with received a marriage proposal from a man, Ann was devastated to discover that it would be accepted. By way of several flashbacks we are shown the moment Ann learns that her relationship is over. In a moment of vulnerability that jars arguably a little too much with the persona the rest of the episode has established, Ann is seen clinging to her ex-lover’s skirts as she breaks down and sobs.

However, this means that when she is re-introduced to the young Anne Walker back in England, Ann Lister finds herself very much an eligible woman. It is clear too that the initial spark of attraction is reciprocated. Rundle’s strength in this episode lies in the subtleties of her performance. As the refined and obviously restricted Miss Walker, she delivers a great deal of nuance through her facial expressions alone, which forms the perfect antithesis to Jones’ flamboyance as Lister.

Indeed, this is an all-round enjoyable contrast. The plain, drab colours that characterise Lister’s appearance and the slightly darker, more brooding atmosphere of Shibden Hall could not be more dissimilar to the bright, exuberant dresses Walker wears. And yet the personalities that meet us in the first introductions of Lister and Walker not only contrast with each other, but with the characters’ outward appearances. Already, we get the impression that any bond that forms between these women will in part have the knock-on effect of bringing Anne Walker out of her shell, and the show has made no secret of just where the relationship between the two Annes is heading

As a final important and related point, Gentleman Jack is shaping up to be a beautifully shot piece of television. As a period drama it is a gem in the sense that it is almost always well-lit, and the sets are dressed in a way that does not immediately stand out as inauthentic, but does still appeal aesthetically. In particular, Anne Walker’s house is light and airy with a lot of bright colours that create a mood of levity and abundance. Exterior shots are executed beautifully too, and the West Yorkshire landscape has thus far been celebrated within the show, as it very much deserves to be.

Overall, Gentleman Jack is shaping up to be an exciting offering. Certainly, there has already been a lot of interest from sapphic women, for whom finding a television show that has the potential to offer good representation is something of a challenge. It is heartening to see that promotional videos for the show feature a discussion about Ann Lister’s identity from Wainwright and Jones, and that the show seems to be approaching this part of the character with the respect and earnestness it deserves. Just as Ann Lister very much refused to be a typical nineteenth-century woman, so Gentleman Jack looks set to be an unconventional Regency period drama, and I for one am extremely excited to see where the show goes next.