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'Gentleman Jack' a year on, and my cancer saga
Last uploaded : Sunday 7th Jun 2020 at 21:22
Contributed by : Carol Gould



It is several months since Gentleman Jack was broadcast here in Britain but not a day goes by that I do not smile to myself as a warm feeling washes over me and a memorable line from the BBC series pops into my head, or I watch the news and think, ‘I wonder what Anne Lister would think of THAT?’

Had I written this essay shortly after Series One had reached the end of its run I would not have had the perspective of months passing and being unable to convince 95% of my circle to watch it, either during the May to July 2019 primetime broadcast or subsequently on iplayer.. (Interesting that the only friend who adored the series and is champing at the bit for a Series Two is 91-year-old sophisticate Sheila Vogel, who featured in the Channel Four documentary ‘My Granny the Escort.’ Anne Lister would have loved her – a kind of latter-day dowager Mrs Rawson, portrayed by Sylvia Syms.)

So why am I alone in my wide circle, which includes BAFTA members, in adoring this series and knowing it changed my life?

As brilliant as the 1985 feature film ‘Desert Hearts’ was, ‘Gentleman Jack’ struck to the core of my being as soon as Anne Lister, portrayed with explosive vigour by Suranne Jones, jumped off the ‘High Flyer’ stagecoach and put a male passenger, griping about her, in his eyes, reckless driving, in his place. The series unfolded with a stream of bold, gorgeous and sexy female characters – from Anne Lister to Ann Walker to Mariana Lawton to Maria Barlow (if you blink you miss her, but it is in my top five of favourite scenes Anne and Maria in glorious cunnilingus) passing in front of us on the small screen, nineteenth century gay women expressing their passion through Sally Wainwright’s brilliant scripts. Though one was aware of the taboos of the time the ability of these women to sublimate guilt and shame was one of the most powerful aspects of this captivating production.

Why did the series change my life? Having been a successful network drama executive in the 1980s and 90s I had forgotten how stunning a well-devised multi-episodic series can be, and ‘Gentleman Jack’ was the closest I had seen to perfection in decades. Expressions like ‘blown away’ irritate me but the performance by Suranne Jones as Anne Lister for me matched the majesty of Janet Suzman as ‘Hedda Gabler,’ to me the most towering acting achievement of post-war theatre and television. At the end of episode two of ‘Gentleman Jack’ when Vere Hobart, one of Anne’s great passions, marries a Scottish military man in a lavish church ceremony, Jones gives what can only be described as the most exquisite cornucopia of emotions to which any of us can relate, straight or gay. My heart was torn apart by her wail of anguish in episode one when Vere tells her she has decided to accept her male suitor’s proposal and here at the wedding I relived every romantic disappointment of my life in a few minutes of the profound pain in the eyes and face of Suranne Jones. I have forever since called that scene Oscar material. When I say ‘Gentleman Jack’ changed my life, that scene replays in my mind’s eye at least once a week and has afforded me the realisation that I am not the only fool of a woman to mess up, lose a great love or think that great love is real but actually isn’t. The end of this scene establishes the reason why Anne wears black – even to a wedding – as she reminds Vere that she is still in mourning for the ultimate betrayal when Mariana married Charles Lawton. That in 1832 a gay woman can be so forthright in asserting her sexuality (she mentions her mourning attire again, to no less than the Queen of Denmark) embedded itself in my psyche. It gave me the courage to come out to many old friends who, perplexed, having attended my wedding to a man some forty years ago, to this day cannot fathom why a ‘TV show’ would have such a profound effect on me. Hey-ho, as Anne Lister would say.

The series is full of exquisite one-liners; when Anne is in bed with Mariana Lawton, she is lectured about the advantages of marrying a man – wealth, security, pretty much everything a woman could want –but Anne turns to her with ‘Have we met?’ I sat watching this scene realising that Anne Lister’s self-assurance – in 1832! - about never, ever wanting to cohabit with a man was something even in 2020 I would be loath to confront in my own sexuality in my 60s – until I watched ‘Gentleman Jack.’

Another unforgettable one-liner is Anne’s aside whilst sitting and courting innocent, young Ann Walker that she ‘only went to Paris to study anatomy;’ the scene shifts in a nanosecond to naked Anne, pleasuring lover Maria Barlow, moaning in the throes of passion. I adored this , and the scene in a bar with a platoon of soldiers as a young Anne beats them at cards, puffs away on a cigarette and bangs her hands on the table in glee. Even more amusing is her father, Revolutionary War veteran Captain Jeremy Lister, at the dinner table recounting such incidents to the rest of the family, talking about her in the third person.

This leads me to another aspect of the series that had such a profound effect. I had been suffering from protracted writer’s block for over two years but watching Sally Wainwright’s brilliant series made me realise that there is so much to write about; when I picked up a reference by Anne in episode one about Captain Lister’s American Revolutionary War service, including the Boston Tea party, I thought ‘God, I must do some research on this and write about it.’ Indeed I spent the rest of the summer of 2019 ploughing through his book, ‘Concord Fight,’ and with the help of Halifax archivists and historians compiling a screed about the Listers in early eighteenth-century America and his compelling, death-defying tour of duty in the 1770s. I continued to write other articles and can thank the sparkling words of ‘Gentleman Jack’ for curing my writer’s block.

The themes that run through the series are as relevant today as they were in the 1830s. Henry Hardcastle, a young lad whose leg had to be amputated after a terrible collision of his father’s cart with a rampaging gig, loses his power of speech from the trauma. Then he is visited by the family’s landlord, Anne Lister. He is so fascinated by her that his speech is restored: he asks ‘Are you a man?’ Of course her response is amusing : ‘I am a woman. A lady. A lady-woman’ but for me it is the scenario of his parents hearing him speak once more that I found so moving.

Domestic violence is another theme that runs through the series, as are the complex tableaux of mental illness. Ann Walker, whom Anne Lister sees in episode one as a valuable prospect for marriage and wealth but with whom she soon falls deeply in love, is plagued by night terrors, imaginary voices, obsessive religious fervour and bouts of self-doubt, would even today in 2020 be marginalised in some families. The fact that Ann Walker, brilliantly portrayed by Sophie Rundle, eventually comes to terms with being gay and being inexorably, passionately in love with Anne Lister is one of the most life-affirming aspects of ‘Gentleman Jack’ for me.

Finally, I do want to share with readers the fact that I was diagnosed with Stage 4 terminal, incurable breast and lymph node cancer in November 2016. I was sitting in the BBC cafe, having done a marathon Emma Barnett Show about the US presidential election when my cellphone rang and it was the Royal Marsden Hospital with the terrible news. My soulmate, Issy Benjamin, a celebrated architect, Kabbalah scholar and Torah codes expert, AND an afficonado of anything and everything Anne Lister and Ladies of Llangollen, had died the year before and I embarked on chemotherapy alone. When ‘Gentleman Jack’ premiered on British television in May 2019 I kept ‘talking’ to Issy and telling him how much he would have loved the series. He had told me about Anne Lister’s diaries being designated a World Heritage treasure by UNESCO and even begged me to write a screenplay about her life.

The series, the new friends I HAD to make from around the world because my circle -including some fellow BAFTA members and a close US relative ( she went into a paroxysm of rage when I suggested she might like the UK dvd) - could not fathom why it had inspired me to lift myself out of despair, I am convinced ‘Gentleman Jack’ has sustained me and will continue to sustain me through brutal cancer treatment as I await series 2. The finale of the series in episode eight when Ann and Anne are reunited and are ‘wed’ in a searingly moving church service in York, have to have been the two most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed in British television drama. I have been on the BAFTA/British Film Commission group advising on protocols post-Covid19 and pray the virus will disappear and filming can resume – I pray most of all that I live long enough to see the genius of Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle and the ‘Gentleman Jack’ production bringing the brave lives of Anne Lister and Ann Walker to life once more.
Carol Gould is a BBC and LBC political commentator and was for eleven years Commissioning Editor at Anglia Drama and Anglia Films for ITV network and PBS. She is the author of 'Spitfire Girls' and 'Don't tread on me -- anti-Americanism Abroad.'


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