“Are you a man?” a boy asks Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) in BBC One’s Gentleman Jack. “That’s a question,” she replies. “I’m not a man. I’m a lady… woman. I’m a lady-woman.” It’s a statement of intent from the outsider, who returns to her home town of Halifax in the 1830s, and does so with all the swagger, confidence, purpose and ruthlessness of a man – or, rather, a woman who refuses to let her gender stop her from doing any of the things a man would normally do.
Within the opening two episodes of Sally Wainwright’s sensationally good TV series, we’ve seen her do everything from ruffle feathers and jump over walls to take over a business and wield a weapon. She does all of this while recovering from a broken heart, after her former flame hitched her wagon to a bloke, and seductively wooing her new intended. That new intended is Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), a local, wealthy heiress. “She already seems thoroughly in love with me,” Anne muses to herself, with a knowing smile and no shadow of a doubt. Because the fact that she’s a lesbian in the 1800s, in a society that regards her with suspicion and disapproval, doesn’t for one second stop her narrative from being exactly what she wants it to be.
That sheer determination is breathtakingly fun to witness, and breathes a fresh vivacity into the period drama proceedings. That’s where Wainwright’s writing is so smart; after decades upon decades of costume dramas teaching us what behaviour to expect, Gentleman Jack knows the social rules we regard as normal, and pushes aside each convention with breezy disregard. Then, it invites us along for the ride, to share in the excitement as confidantes, rather than mere onlookers. Wainwright is a queen of modern drama, with shows such as Happy Valley delving into characters and communities with realistic dialogue that never feels scripted, and that naturalistic sensibility translates wonderfully into a historical setting – this period piece feels electrifyingly contemporary, performed and directed with an immediacy that allows for serious moments and sincere emotions but mostly an endless parade of laughs; Jones is whip-smart good, as hilarious and cunning as she is likeable and heartfelt, her imperious exterior unflappable but not impervious.
This series is based on Anne’s own diaries, which were belatedly deciphered from the code she wrote them in. But while there’s a wink-to-the-camera conspiratorial streak to her secretive navigation of scandals and business deals, that doesn’t mean that Gentleman Jack has no time for other characters. The show is populated by wonderfully realised companions and enemies, from Timothy West’s wary father and Gemma Jones’ kindly aunt to Gemma Whelan’s scene-stealing sister, Marian, who ironically finds herself always eclipsed by her go-getting sibling. Joe Armstrong is clearly having a whale of a time as Samuel Washington, Anne’s number two, who helps her build on her family estate’s foundations of coal. He’s contrasted brilliantly by Vincent Franklin and Shaun Dooley as the Rawson Brothers, weaselly rival mine magnates who find themselves at the pointy end of Anne’s razor wit.
Politics and power, corporate wheeling and dealing and the joy of a burgeoning romance? In only two hours, Gentleman Jack already has everything to make it your new favourite TV show, with a light, playful tone, a superb cast and costume design to die for. As events unfold and more complications arise, it’s a thrill just to see this unstoppable woman go out and take the life she wants. The only thing more thrilling? There are still another six episodes to go.
Gentleman Jack premieres at 9pm on BBC One on Sunday 19th May, with new episodes arriving weekly.