Gentleman Jack review: Fleabag in petticoats

A confident, smart period drama with fabulous sets and costumes

Gentleman Jack trailer

There is a moment near the start of Gentleman Jack (BBC1) that could make the heart sink. The year is 1832 and our eponymous heroine, real name Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), has just disembarked from a coach-and-four she has commandeered and driven with abandon into the middle of sleepy Halifax in Yorkshire. Her new French lady in waiting, Eugenie (Albane Courtois), throws up in the street. Anne turns her head to look straight down the camera, and says: “It must have been my driving.” Noooo, we think. “Fleabag in petticoats” is not necessarily a bad pitch, but do they have to be so blatant? The other similarities are hardly well disguised. Lister is a sharp, witty brunette with cheekbones that could cut steak; too brilliant for her family but far from at ease in the world.

The series, a co-production between the BBC and HBO, has been created by Yorkshire’s own Sally Wainwright, who previously gave us Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, with a team of female writers, producers and directors. Anne Lister was a real-life industrialist and landowner, and the programme is based on her diaries, which were written in code. Lister was gay at a time when women were expected to stay indoors, marry and breed, and certainly not run the family business or have affairs with other women.

As the first episode begins, Anne’s family are awaiting her return to the family seat from a love affair gone wrong. Her situation seems to be understood, even if it is not explicitly discussed. Anne enters like a tornado, setting out to collect the rent on the family’s properties and generally grabbing bulls by horns. It’s the dawn of the railway era, coal is about to become the old oil, and the Listers are sitting on great heaps of the stuff. Anne’s manner winds people up the wrong way, not least her rather priggish sister, Marian (an excellent Gemma Whelan, released from her role as Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones).

“It’s all well and good being different in York or Paris, but this is Halifax,” she says to Anne. “People talk, and it isn’t always very nice.”

For all her confident bluster, Anne’s heart has been broken, but she wastes little time in finding a new target, her neighbour, the heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle).

The clash of old and new might have felt clunky but instead gives things a rollicking energy. If some of the other characters feel a little underdeveloped compared to Anne, that is mainly testament to Jones’s swashbuckling central turn. Her Anne seethes with indignation at being born with the “wrong desires” at the wrong time, but she is intelligent enough to know how she must behave to survive. Her single-mindedness can look blinkered, and her charisma can come across as obstinacy. My initial anxieties were misplaced. This is its own programme, a confident, smart period drama with fabulous sets and costumes, especially Anne’s top hats and black suits, and a large warm heart.

Gentleman Jack airs Sundays at 9pm on BBC1

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