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Gentleman Jack: Suranne Jones on the remarkable Anne Lister

Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack. Photo/Supplied

A historical drama about a 19th-century landowner who secretly diarised her relationships with women comes to Neon.

Suranne Jones was once on Coronation Street, but she’s since played a string of interesting women, from Dr Gemma Foster to Rachel Bailey in police procedural Scott & Bailey. In Gentleman Jack, she plays the real-life Anne Lister, a 19th-century landowner and industrialist who documented her relationships with women in diaries written in code.

How do you think the world will receive the remarkable Anne Lister?

People seem to have fallen in love with her for many different reasons. I’ve spoken to people from all over the country, from all over the world, gay and not, and they are intrigued by what an amazing woman she was, and her story. Why do we not know about her? I think that’s the thing that’s struck most people. I mean actually, if she was sat here today, she’d still be a really impressive woman. It’s not just about the fact that she was impressive in 1832-34, she’s just impressive full stop.

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What makes her story relevant and universal?

This is a woman from a working-class background, who stands up in society and makes sure her voice is heard. She stands up to be educated, which everyone deserves. She stands up for who she is, for authenticity, to challenge gender roles and to be a mentor to others – to [her wife] Ann Walker, to her sister and to her family, in a way. I think that’s all extremely relevant to women now. If a young lesbian was watching this, or if a woman was watching it with her wife at home, of any age, it’s great to see a representation of themselves on the television. What makes Anne Lister relevant is that she pushed for what she deserved, even though it was really difficult for her at every turning. That courage comes across today as well.

How did you prepare for the role?

I’d just been pulled out of a show in the West End because I was physically and mentally exhausted. So I was starting this show in a place where doctors had said to me, “You need to look after yourself”. I remember going to Yorkshire and settling into this farmhouse and me and my husband making a pact that we were going to cut ourselves off from everything and make Anne Lister my life, because there was no other way to do it. I was going to physically look after myself. Eat well. Do what I could with my son, because we had a then two-and-a-half-year-old as well at the house. All my time was dedicated to either speaking to Sally [Wainwright] about the next episode, having meetings with the costume designer, because the costumes were all made for me, so I had to constantly be fitted for the new ones, and learning lines. It was our whole life.

What was it like filming in Shibden Hall, Anne’s real home?

Normally, in historical places like that, you can’t even walk on the set or touch anything. There were certain parts of Shibden where the cameras were too heavy, because the floor would collapse. They had to rail those off. But the downstairs, we were able to go anywhere. Shibden is a beautiful place to visit, and hopefully they will get visitors, now. You’ve got the landscape that she designed and changed, and at the bottom, there’s a pond, which is now a duck pond; then you’ve got a land train, and a rail train, the cafe, and a child’s park. It’s quite a big place. We only cordoned off the top half, where the house was, during filming so you would still have visitors coming to Shibden throughout. I get a bit stir-crazy, so rather than putting me in the car to get down to where our meals were, I’d be like, “No, I'm going to walk myself,” and off I’d go.

Very Anne Lister!

Very Anne Lister, striding down Shibden in costume, and there were people on the land train looking very confused. I’d quite happily just wave at all these people who were waving back at me, because I felt like it was my land.

Is there scope for more Gentleman Jack?

I think it comes to a beautiful end because as we all know, Anne Lister and Ann Walker got married in 1834. We filmed their marriage at the real place, which was just magical. But then, you could also say that’s a natural beginning to the next part of the story, because then it’s the two of them and how on earth are they going to navigate their relationship within society, as a married couple? Ann Walker went to live at Shibden in real life. I think, if it did go again, the dynamics of having two wives in a house of people that aren’t allowed to acknowledge that they’ve got two wives would be brilliant. I mean in real life they opened a casino at one point, which is bizarre. And then their travels were amazing. It would be fun to see them together, with their life as a couple.

GENTLEMAN JACK, available on streaming site Neon from August 15.