TV Review: Gentleman Jack Series 2

Suranne Jones is once again titanically good in Series 2 of Gentleman Jack, though I do wish the world around her was fleshed out a little bit more

“With Anne Lister’s wit and your cousin’s money, she could run the whole of Halifax”

It’s taken me a moment to get around to watching Series 2 of the marvellous Gentleman Jack. I did really enjoy the first season, fully appreciating the wonderfulness of a period drama that presented its lesbian protagonist so fully front and centre but just hadn’t gotten around to diving into the second, and perhaps that reticence was shared by others as co-producers HBO have declined to renew the show for a third due to lower viewer numbers, so sorry ’bout that.  

I ended up binging it in a couple of days and found it to be entirely comforting viewing, albeit not necessarily perfect. Sally Wainwright’s writing of the formidable Anne Lister has met its apotheosis in Suranne Jones and Jones’ performance is simply screen-swallowingly, fourth-wall-smashingly magnificent. It is so good though that there’s too much of a vacuum when she’s not there, the writing around her doesn’t quite match up to keep that extraordinary energy going.

This second series doesn’t actually have a massive amount of plot going on in it. Anne is now betrothed to Ann Walker but since it is all in secret, Anne is determined that they will confirm their marriage in the best way she knows how – financially, by changing their wills to combine their estates. The trickiness of this, particularly where the hostility of Ann’s family is concerned, means that – for better or worse – it literally takes all series to get it done.

Around them, the railways are coming, the changing socio-political landscape is leading to rioting in Halifax, former lovers are near-suicidal in their fragility, the servants are troublesome and there’s always something going on with their families, but little else is really given the time to develop into plotlines of weight. Again, not a fatal issue but one which left me wanting a little more from the series as a whole. The life of the household’s servants feels particularly underplayed, given how present they are overall.

It’s made a little worse I think by the luxe casting – when you’ve got Gemma Jones and Timothy West as Anne’s ageing aunt and father, you want them to be given more to do than just offer bon mots here and there. At least Gemma Whelan’s devoted sister Marian is allowed personality and plotline to resonate strongly. The same point stands for supporting players like Michael D Xavier, Jenna Russell, John Hollingworth, Nicola Sloane and more, you just want more – Lydia Leonard and Joanna Scanlan at least get to register vividly as the ghosts of Anne’s past.     

Even Sophie Rundle as Ann has to fight mightily not to get swallowed up by the enormity of Jones (and Anne). The travails of their relationship do at least provide a fascinating portrait of lesbian domesticity lived in quasi-secrecy. The degree to which they are or aren’t open is subtly differentiated with real authenticity (some things really haven’t changed all that much!) and there’s little sugar-coating here either, the challenges of living with someone as abrasively forthright as Anne are confronted too. An entertaining watch, even if I wanted a little more, and a series to be sadly missed.

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