Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Tonight sees the long-anticipated debut of Gentleman Jack on BBC1, Sally Wainwright's take on the tale of Anne Lister, a 19th-century Yorkshirewoman and industrialist widely held to be the first modern lesbian. Starring Suranne Jones, Wainwright's eight-part serial looks set to be a rompy affair...but it's not the first time Lister's life has been adapted for the screen.

In 2010, the BBC broadcast Jane English's The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. Starring Maxine Peake in the title role, it was a much more touching and tender depiction of Lister as a woman before her time and, as such, was a wonderful period drama in its own right. The period, region and society in which it was set played to the usual tropes of a Bronte or Austen adaptation but, by virtue of Lister herself, it was a deeply original story.

Anne Lister kept extensive diaries detailing her life and her forbidden love, written in an elaborate cipher. These diaries, which inspire much of this biopic, were only decoded 150 years after her death and prove that she was very much an individual born before her time. She held a desire to marry her girlfriend Mariana (Anna Madeley) or as her diary called her '-Zp4z-z', in a kind of proto-civil partnership that was simply unheard of at, and frankly scandalous for, that time. The shrewd Mariana however understood that the only match she could make in an oppressively patriarchal society was one with a man of prospects, and so she ultimately chose an older, wealthy landowner Mr Charles Lawton (Michael Culkin) as her husband, thereby breaking Anne's heart and shattering her naive illusions that they were ever true soul mates. Alone, Anne devoted her time to her studies becoming a canny businesswoman in the coal trade and ultimately finding love and companionship with her young business partner Ann Walker (Christine Bottomley).

In the lead role, Maxine Peake brings her curious mix of comedy, heartbreaking vulnerability and skilfull dramatic intensity that helps fully round the character beautifully. On paper I imagine Lister could easily come off a touch predatory or simply gloomy at the misfortunes that befall upon her because of who she is and what her sexual preference is, but with Peake's remarkable talent this is neatly avoided and the drama bends to her passionate playing and sheer will.

I found this a very moving and well made production which boasts an excellent supporting cast to accompany Peake including the aforementioned Madeley and Bottomley as her romantic interests, Alan David as her uncle and Gemma Jones as her aunt (a role the actress reprises in Gentleman Jack). Susan Lynch delivers a bittersweet turn as a Lister's friend Tib Norcliffe who chooses to live her life as open about her sexuality as possible, whilst Peake's former Shameless co-star Dean Lennox Kelly as a jealous business rival determined to spread malicious gossip about Lister's relationship with Miss Walker.

Will Gentleman Jack be as good as this? Given that Wainwright is behind it, I have high hopes. It certainly looks set to have lots of panache - a story played more positively towards the notion of Lister being some kind of trailblazer than this tale which captured the pain of someone whose love had to be hidden away from 'polite society'.


  1. Just watched Gentleman Jack tonight and so far so good. I really didn't like Dr Foster so by association (very unfairly) wasn't a fan of Suranne Jones. In this she is blistering and I do love when they break the 4th wall.

    1. I thought it looked fabulous and is clearly well produced but felt Jones and the writing made Lister a touch too unlikeable, something which Peake avoided with more skillful playing. I quite like Jones (primarily for Scott and Bailey and before that Vincent) but I do feel she's 'Acting' a lot of late; first dull Doctor Foster and now this