There’s more to Anne Lister’s life than Gentleman Jack

Sally Wainwright has so far missed the wider story of a woman who crossed continents and scaled mountains. Plus, Paxman’s new project and Jellyfish at the National

Gentleman Jack – which finishes tonight on BBC One – is to return with another series. Good, provided the drama’s second series offers a rather more rounded picture of the extraordinary Anne Lister, played with such brio by Suranne Jones.

While reading a biography of Lister by Angela Steidele, I was struck that she was one of the most remarkable Englishwomen of the first half of the 19th century, and should not just be famed for her sexuality.

Lister was a pioneering mountaineer, being the first Brit of either sex to climb the highest peak of the Pyrenees. Then in 1839, after marrying Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle in the series), the two travelled to Denmark, Sweden, St Petersburg and Moscow. Next, despite the reluctance of Walker, they continued to the Caucasus, Baku and Tbilisi, enduring freezing weather, terrible terrains and hostile locals. Lister then wanted to go on to Tehran and Baghdad, but catching a fever in modern-day Georgia put a stop to that. Now, that is a remarkable story to put on the screen.

Far more interesting than a rather narrow one of an admittedly courageous lesbian and canny businesswoman who sold her land for coal mining. Sally Wainwright is a terrific writer, but I wish she would not just see the world through the prisms of Halifax and West Yorkshire. That’s what has largely come across in most of Gentleman Jack, and also in her comedy hit Last Tango in (you guessed it) Halifax and in Happy Valley with its Calderdale setting, where (yes), Halifax is the main town.

Jeremy Paxman
Jeremy Paxman Photograph: David Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

Talking of coal, I gather Jeremy Paxman is writing a book on its lengthy history in the UK. Having received a three-book deal in 2014 from HarperCollins for close to £1m, he first produced his memoirs, A Life in Questions. Frankly, they were rather flat – Paxo, who these days can be a parody of his grumpy self, clearly found it awkward to write about himself. But coal? Well, despite the demise in the UK of the fossil fuel, its history is absolutely fascinating. Apparently, Paxman has been researching at his old Cambridge college, St Catharine’s, where he is an honorary fellow. Oddly, Catz has not fared well in University Challenge since Paxo began chairing the TV quiz in the mid-1990s.

Jellyfish starts started previews at the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium on Friday, with its opening night this Wednesday. First seen last year at the Bush in west London, it’s a play centred on a young woman with Down’s syndrome, played by Sarah Gordy, who herself has Down’s.

All performances will be in a more relaxed environment, letting people come and go from the auditorium if they need. The National is making a conscious effort to encourage people with disabilities to see Jellyfish. By staging a play about a subject that some people might find awkward, and by bringing to the Dorfman members of the public who often find going to such a place very tricky, the venue is truly fulfilling its remit as a national theatre.

Sarah Gordy in Jellyfish.
Sarah Gordy in Jellyfish. Photograph: SR Taylor


Richard Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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