‘Gentleman Jack’ creator Sally Wainwright and star Suranne Jones on bringing this true-life love story to HBO

The new HBO limited series “Gentleman Jack” tells the little-known story of Anne Lister, a woman far ahead of her time in Victorian England. Openly gay, she chronicled her extraordinary life in a diary that ran to more than four million words. BAFTA-winning writer Sally Wainwright (“Happy Valley,” “Last Tango in Halifax”) tapped into this tome to bring to the screen a glimpse into the world of this fascinating woman.

Suranne Jones, who won a BAFTA for her riveting work as a woman scorned in “Doctor Foster,” takes on the role with abandon. In just two years, Lister took over as the head of her family estate and opened a colliery that employed hundreds, all the while romancing Ann Walker, a young heiress (Sophie Rundle) who she wants to marry.

Sally revealed that she had wanted to make this TV series for more than two decades. As she explains, “I used to visit Shibden Hall a lot as a kid in the 1970s but there was no mention of her at the time. I read a book in 1998 (Jill Liddington‘s “Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority: The Anne Lister Diaries”) and got this huge massive hit of who she was. I instantly wanted to dramatize the life of this extraordinary woman.”

She welcomed the chance to work again with Suranne, who quickly reels off their past collaborations on three crime dramas: the telefilms “Dead Clever: The Life and Crimes of Julie Bottomley” and “Unforgiven” and the hit series “Scott and Bailey.”  “As soon as I read her scripts, they felt fresh, a new take on a period piece. But they had to feel modern and unique because Anne Lister was just that.”

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The actress readily admitted to being wary of breaking the fourth wall but explains that the writer gave her a better understanding. “I was nervous and it wasn’t until I sat down with Sally and she explained that these asides were diary entries and this was a way for me to engage with the audience.” It helped that Sally was also one of the directors, a role she had wanted dating back to “Unforgiven,” unbeknownst to Suranne.

Each recounted winning their BAFTAs, with Sally having made history with Best Drama Series wins for two different shows. As Suranne recalled, “I had just had my son, he was eight  weeks old. I was nearly falling asleep before my category. I’ve got a picture of my son with my husband’s bow tie in front of the BAFTA. My memory of that time is of two wonderful things that I created.”

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