Sally Wainwright and Suranne Jones On Creating a Gentleman

Norm-disrupting. Unapologetic. Vulnerable. Badass.

Kathleen McCaffrey, HBO’s Senior Vice President of Original Programming, was effusive in her praise of Anne Lister, the historical figure rendered by Sally Wainwright in her upcoming series, Gentleman Jack. Before Western culture developed the categories to describe her identity, desires and lifestyle, Lister’s trailblazing pursuits as a businesswoman and embrace of her queerness was largely unknown — partly by her own design.

After the screening, Wainwright and series lead Suranne Jones (who plays Anne Lister, a.k.a. Gentleman Jack) discussed the themes and inspirations behind the new season, and why they want to free Lister’s story from its relative obscurity.

Decoding Lister

Lister’s journals were the primary source material for Gentleman Jack. According to Wainwright, the diaries are comprised of 27 volumes written over the same amount of years, with over 300 pages in each volume. But Wainwright encountered a major obstacle: The diaries were partially written in code. Writing the series meant Wainwright had to learn Lister’s language.

“The books available contain extracts from the diary, but the whole thing has never been transcribed,” explained Wainwright. “I started transcribing on my own. This is all brand new stuff even for us.”

For Jones, the process was exhilarating. “The excitement of getting an email while you’re filming a scene that announces new information about the scene you’re filming was incredible because you know it’s something no one had ever seen before.” Wainwright added, “It’s like history alive.”

Breaking the Fourth Wall

On occasion, Jones will temporarily loosen the boundaries of her time and location and stare directly into the camera to address viewers without any layer of remove. That maneuver is called fourth-wall breaking, and it’s a technique that Wainwright judicially applied to her script. Why? “I didn’t want to make this feel like a typical period drama,” said Wainwright, citing the wall-breaking importance to her cinematic vision. Additionally, it was the only way she believed she could communicate the intimacy of Lister’s diaries.

“When you read the journals and you’re looking at the page,” explained Wainwright, “you realize that you might be the first person to read this besides Lister because so much of it hasn’t been transcribed. It’s an emotional experience, and cinematically, it was the only way I could conceive of creating that sensation. Thus, it's organic to the source material.”

FIlming at Shibden Hall

Anne Lister's regal estate is an artifact in itself. For Wainwright, who grew up near the compound, it was a “privilege” to film on location. “We were conscious that they walked through these same halls,” said Wainwright, who hails from Halifax. “We know that the stuff we did actually happened in the same rooms we recorded.”

Capturing the Spirit of Anne Lister

“I read all the diaries that were translated, read the few books that exist, and walked through her Shibden,” said Jones. However, she admitted that preparing for the role was difficult because many of her recent acting roles were more nuanced than what Wainwright called for in her direction. “Sally would tell me, Get bigger. Stand bigger. More gestures. Walk faster. You need to push this character because she’s larger than life!

Gentleman Jack premieres April 22 at 10 PM on HBO.