DEBORAH ROSS: This lesbian Poldark’s a gender-busting hoot

DEBORAH ROSS: This lesbian Poldark’s a gender-busting hoot

Gentleman Jack

Sunday, BBC1 


Hatton Garden

Monday-Thursday, ITV


The first thing to say: Gentleman Jack is wonderful and delicious and a hoot. Thought I’d get that out of the way, so we know where we are, and now we may continue. It’s slightly Poldarkian, with its coal mines and old aunts and horrid diseases (poor Mr Briggs and his ‘dropsy’), but it’s Poldark as hijacked by a gleefully predatory, entirely unapologetic lesbian who has euphemisms for sex (‘going to Italy’) and wears a top hat and strides cobbled streets to brisk, jaunty music. She is smarter than any man and does not stay home baking kidney puddings for Ross who has, probably, spent the afternoon doing exposition in the Red Lion pub (the Corn Laws, I expect). Poldark is returning shortly for its final series and I’m now wondering if it could itself be enlivened by a gleefully predatory lesbian. Too late for Aunt Agatha and Elizabeth, alas, but Prudie? Verity? Assuming Demelza is too much to hope for? 

Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle in Gentleman Jack. This is period drama reworked with wit, energy and verve

Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle in Gentleman Jack. This is period drama reworked with wit, energy and verve

Scripted by Sally Wainwright (Last Tango In Halifax, Happy Valley), who also directs, this is based on a true story and stars Suranne Jones (a wonder) as Anne Lister, who was born in Yorkshire in 1791 and was a gender-busting trailblazer. She slept only with women. She dressed solely in black. She also kept a diary amounting to four million words, with her most intimate seductions written in a secret code that has only lately been cracked. Here, she rides into town (Halifax) at a reckless gallop, having commandeered a coach and four. Her new lady’s maid exits the coach and promptly throws up. ‘Must be my driving,’ says Anne, directly to camera. A bit too Fleabag, that. Please leave the fourth wall alone! But it was only the one instance, thankfully. 

This is period drama reworked with wit, energy and verve. This is period drama where the usual trappings are in place – the stately homes, the frocks, the carriages. There will be a grand ball soon, I’m sure of it – but the narrative is led by a woman who is vigorous and fully sexual and not just hanging around boredly waiting for some brooding fella with £10,000 a year or whatever to scoop her up. Instead, Anne is, unusually, a wealthy landowner and can do as she pleases. Mostly, she travels, but she has returned home after suffering a broken heart. (Her lover, Mrs Hobart, decided to marry a man; Mrs Hobart ‘will go to Italy’ but ‘not with me’.) 

Anne is bereft but still indomitable. She does everything at a lick and with a swagger. She collects the rents. She scales walls. She deals with her amiably useless father (Timothy West) and uptight sister (Gemma Whelan). She wants to open her own coal mine. And she does not run from her true nature. ‘Usual sleeping arrangements,’ she tells her maid when Mrs Lawton, a friend with benefits, comes to stay. The bedroom scene was choreographed by ‘an intimacy co-ordinator’. Jiggling under the bedclothes. But those big houses would have been draughty. Really. 

Jones is a wonder. She’s an expressive actress of such range that she can do quiet interiority one second and almost come over as Leslie Phillips the next. When Anne was first introduced to beautiful Miss Walker, didn’t you half expect her to exclaim, ‘I say, ding dong!’ She plans to seduce beautiful Miss Walker (Sophie Rundle) and I plan to follow their adventures. Because this is wonderful and delicious and a hoot. 

Hatton Garden finally made it on to TV after two years of delays (legal problems) so was it worth the wait? It was. And did it glamorise crime? It didn’t look especially glamorous from where I was sitting. I didn’t once think, for example, ‘Terry, with his diabetes and bad back and unpleasant, needling temperament. Isn’t he just like George Clooney from Ocean’s 11?’ 

Written by Jeff Pope and based on the events of 2015 when a group of aged crims – they became known as ‘the diamond wheezers’ – burgled the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company, this had to be entertaining without ever being friendly. And Pope pulled that off in spades. There were moments of humour – Terry (Timothy Spall) and his toenails; Kenny (Alex Norton) falling asleep on the job; Brian (Kenneth Cranham) grumbling about his prostate – but we were never allowed to lose sight of the fact these are not sympathetic characters and we are not rooting for them. In fact they increasingly showed themselves as rotten human beings, particularly Terry and Brian, who became engaged in a vicious power struggle. 

The details of the heist were fascinating and often tensely told – that security guard who came knocking, for instance – and the aftermath was just as fascinating. There was one brilliant scene involving the stash and dustbins. This was well performed all round, although I’m worried about Spall’s weight loss, and also offered a sub-plot just so we wouldn’t come away thinking it was a victimless crime. Hence the jeweller who was ruined. Bit naff, that. But it had to be done, I suppose.