“I always feel like I’ve been lucky with my casts, but then good scripts attract good actors…” - Sally Wainwright talks making Gentleman Jack
Writer Sally Wainwright has created some of the finest dramas of the last 20 years, from the searing Happy Valley to the slick legal series Scott & Bailey to the eccentric Last Tango In Halifax. Though constantly working, there’s always been one story Wainwright has been desperate to put on screen and she’s been trying to do so for all of those 20 years.
That story is the story of Anne Lister, who Wainwright has brought to life in Gentleman Jack. We meet Lister in 1832 as she leaves Paris brokenhearted and heads for her hometown of Halifax with plans to restore her uncle's estate of Shibden Hall. Expected to defer to male colleagues, Lister instead begins to make her mark as a fearsome landlady and entrepreneur, after she discovers that she is sitting on a vast quantity of coal.
An androgynous dresser and an LGBTQ+ trailblazer, Lister not only pursues a new fortune, but also a wealthy heiress named Ann Walker, who she pursues relentlessly.
Lister kept extensive diaries during her life, which contain over four million words and are written largely in secret code, as they document a lifetime of lesbian relationships. It is from these that Wainwright has created the series, after working through them.
Suranne Jones, who Wainwright worked with on 2009’s Unforgiven and Scott & Bailey, stars as Lister, with Sophie Rundle, Joe Armstrong, Amelia Bullmore, Rosie Cavaliero, Gemma Whelan, Gemma Jones and Timothy West among the supporting cast.
Gentleman Jack, which is a co-production between the BBC and HBO, has already been confirmed for a second season and arrives on DVD shelves today (July 15th).
We spoke to Wainwright about bringing Lister’s story to life and her plans for the new seasons of Last Tango In Halifax and Happy Valley…
The show has just finished broadcast and it seems like it’s gone down pretty well. You must have been pleased with the audience's reaction to it?
“It’s gone better than pretty well! I’ve been overwhelmed. People have had really emotional responses to it, which wasn’t something I expected. I’ve been really pleased.”
It’s taken you a long time to get the work on screen...
“It was very exciting. I’ve been working on this for 20 years and having HBO and the BBC was something I really didn’t anticipate.”
Did you enjoy working with HBO?
“They’ve been very good and very supportive. I’ve not been overwhelmed with notes, they’ve been very respectful. We had a really healthy budget and we’ve really been able to realise the story in so much detail. They were a big help in doing what we wanted to do. They liked Anne Lister and they liked my take on it. Nothing was taken away.”
You’ve worked with Suranne before, was she always someone who you had in mind for Anne Lister?
“No, for a long time I couldn’t see Anne Lister. I know too much about her. She was a real person and that’s a different process from inventing a character. I really struggled to see who it could be. I couldn’t imagine anyone bringing enough to it. Then Suranne came in to read and she was very, very good.”
What made her stand out?
“I don’t know if it’s because we’re both Northerners, but I feel like we’ve got very similar taste. Suranne isn’t scared of being funny and that served the character really, really well.”
When it came to putting together the supporting cast, were any of the roles difficult to get right? Was there anyone you were particularly pleased to get?
“It was really well cast, but I was really delighted when Gemma Jones and Timothy West came on board. I think Sophie Rundle is extraordinary. We really struck gold with her. The chemistry she has with Suranne is incredible. I’d wanted to work with Gemma Whelan for a long time and I was delighted to get her. I always feel like I’ve been lucky with my casts, but then good scripts attract good actors.”
You shot in Shibden Hall, where Anne Lister lived, that must have been a boost for the production?
“Most dramas aren’t about real people, so it’s an unusual project. This isn’t an adaptation of a novel, it’s an adaptation of a life. Authenticity is a huge part of this story and being able to film where she lived has added to that hugely. It definitely helped the shoot psychologically, feeling that you were where this all happened.”
Did it make things difficult practically?
“There were considerations, but it was actually quite easy to film there. The people who run Shibden Hall were very accommodating. We couldn’t use the upstairs of the house, we had to build a set for two of the rooms. The fabric of the building is very delicate because it’s so old. It’s not the biggest house in the world, but there was room to work. I’ve shot in much smaller spaces.”
You directed around half the series. Is that a deal-breaker for you now? Do you always want to direct as well as write?
“I wish I’d directed the whole thing. But it would have been very difficult to shoot all eight episodes. I love directing, it’s something I want to do more and more of.”
Has directing changed how you write?
“No. I wondered if it would. It hasn’t, really. If there’s been an effect, it’s that I’m more precise with my stage directions. But it hasn’t changed me as a writer at all.”
Season two is locked in, how far are you along with that?
“I’m currently reading September 1834. Series one ended in March of that year and I think we’ll do another 18 months in series two. I’m going through it now. It’s very time-consuming. It takes me about a day to read two months of journal. It’ll take me a while to wade through it all.”
Do you know when you’ll be back shooting?
“The schedule’s already there. We’ll be working again in May of next year.”
Does that leave you any time to do anything else?
“Hopefully. I’ve just finished the new series of Last Tango In Halifax and we start filming on that in September.”
Finally, do you have an update on when we might see more Happy Valley?
“It’s definitely going to happen. I’ll say that. I’m just not sure when.”
Gentleman Jack is released into hmv stores on Monday (July 15th). You can pre-order it here in hmv's online store.