Tag Archives: Suranne Jones

Jack and Jones

Sally Wainwright writes and directs Gentleman Jack, which sees Suranne Jones play Anne Lister, a landowner, industrialist, traveller and diarist who is often referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian.’ DQ visits the set of the BBC and HBO period drama.

The entrance to Shibden Hall is marked by imposing black iron gates and stone walls, with a large stone lion making its presence felt. The grand house, which dates back to 1420, is noticeable for its black and white Tudor frontage and large Gothic-style tower.

Generations of residents have seen the building and its grounds undergo an extensive transformation over the years, though its biggest evolution came during the ownership of its most famous resident. Anne Lister added the tower for use as a library where she could write, while also installing terraced gardens and a boating lake, with views from the grounds overlooking the stunning Shibden Valley scenery.

It’s here at the house near the English town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, where the majority of filming took place for an eight-part miniseries about the life of Lister – landowner, industrialist, traveller, diarist and the woman described as the first modern lesbian. The way she dressed and conducted herself saw her given the nickname – and the show’s title – Gentleman Jack.

The BBC1 and HBO series opens in 1832, when Lister (played by Suranne Jones) returns from Hastings to Shibden Hall after discovering that her would-be companion and lover, the aristocratic Vere Hobart (Jodhi May), has accepted a marriage proposal from a man.

Sally Wainwright

Despite her affection for her elderly aunt (Gemma Jones), Anne is frustrated by the shabbiness of her ancestral home and finds her father (Timothy West) and long-suffering sister (Gemma Whelan) difficult to live with.

However, when Anne discovers that her land is rich in coal, her plans to transform the estate provide a welcome distraction from her broken heart. On the neighbouring estate, Crow Nest, shy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) is quietly delighted to hear that the charismatic Lister is back.

On a bright but extremely blustery September day last year at Shibden Hall, filming is continuing inside the dark, constricted rooms, presenting a significant task for the lighting crew. Only the small bedrooms have been recreated in a studio, giving Gentleman Jack the remarkable authenticity of filming in Lister’s real-life home.

The historic house is usually open to members of the public, though filming between April and November has seen visitor numbers restricted. Each room has been dressed immaculately for the series, with the kitchen displaying a table laid with cutlery and glasses while pans and tankards hang above the open stove. A shotgun sits above the door.

The series comes from writer and lead director Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax), who has long been fascinated by Lister. “What made me want to write about her primarily was just her character, just what an extraordinarily huge personality she was and the outrageous brilliant bold things she did,” she explains on set.

“I couldn’t imagine who could play Anne Lister because there are so many facets to her personality. She’s so extraordinary. She’s this mass of contradictions, she’s very bold and brilliant and she did so many fantastic, extraordinary things. It was hard to imagine anybody on the planet being able to embody all of that. I think the number of people who could play this part, there’s probably about one of them – we got her.”

Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster) as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

The actor in question is Jones, who first teamed up with Wainwright on TV movie Dead Clever in 2007 before they were reunited on dramas Unforgiven and Scott & Bailey.

“I have a vague memory of [Wainwright] talking about this project because she’s written scripts before on this, but it wasn’t this,” says Jones, wearing a dressing gown in between takes but still sporting Lister’s unique hairstyle. She was asked to audition for the role and read the scripts, and admits she was intrigued to work with Wainwright the director, having previously only worked with her as a writer.

“The work started when I got the call to say yes. A year ago, I then said give me everything. So I got five books sent through, I got a dissertation sent through, some of Sally’s notes sent through. Then we came here and walked all the way round Shibden and stomped over to the coal mines. We even fed some pigs on the way.”

Rehearsals started just before Christmas 2017, with Wainwright keen to afford Jones time to allow her performance to “germinate” as the actor tried to soak up the Bafta-winning writer’s years of research into Lister’s life. “It was very thorough and it was really brilliant. We got the right person,” Wainwright notes.

The production also employed an “intimacy director,” Ita O’Brien, to ensure the actors felt comfortable during the sex scenes between Lister and Walker. Jones would run through scenes in full costume so she could practice carrying herself as the top hat-wearing Lister before the cameras started rolling. “If I hadn’t had all of that, I don’t think I’d have been able to do the part,” the actor says.

Some 320,000 words of Lister’s coded diary entries were translated to inform the drama

Jones says playing Lister has been the most demanding role of her career, becoming totally invested in playing the character through painstaking research and preparation with Wainwright. In fact, her work on BBC drama Doctor Foster, in which Jones played the central character, proved to be valuable preparation for Gentleman Jack, as she was already used to working through every beat of a series. “So when I got to this, it wasn’t a shock because I’m in a lot of it,” she says. “If I hadn’t done Doctor Foster, this might have been a shock in a way – going, ‘Oh, is it me again?’ So I was prepared for it.

“There’s so much to love [about Lister]. She is noble, unlikeable, flawed, beautiful, true to herself, and harsh to herself and to others. She’s a perfectionist, she’s a self-educator, she is an amazing lover. There’s a joyfulness about her love of women, yet there’s such a sadness when her heart’s broken – and it gets broken a lot. She is a carer, she is funny, and a bit mean. And she’s very blokeish but very sensitive. I mean, what isn’t she? She is everything. And getting to play all those things yet finding a constant was the difficult thing.”

Wainwright describes Lister as “a mass of contradictions,” which made the character incredibly hard to realise on screen. “As soon as you think of one thing to say about her, you can think of several things that contradict,” she says. “Hopefully that’s part of the excitement of the drama – that there’s a lot of conflict within her – and I hope the kind of choices we made give it an edginess.”

Central to the scriptwriting process has been Wainwright’s use of the extensive diaries Lister wrote throughout her life. Between 1806 and 1840, she filled 7,500-plus pages with around five million words, as well as writing hundreds of letters, account books and other papers that offer a fascinating insight into her life and the 19th century experience in general. But what makes the diaries unique is that her more personal thoughts – ranging from her relationships with other women and financial information to scathing comments about other residents in Halifax – were all written in code, a mixture of symbols, numbers and Greek letters that Lister appeared to switch into effortlessly.

For the series, Wainwright and advisor Anne Choma, who has written a book about Lister, translated 340,000 coded words for the first time.

Gemma Whelan (left) and Gemma Jones (right) also star in the series

“Sections of the diary have been transcribed before but never all of it,” explains Faith Penhale, executive producer on Gentlemen Jack and CEO of producer Lookout Point. “The section we were looking at, we knew elements but we didn’t know the whole thing. One of the joys that Sally’s found with this is every time you transcribe a new section of the diaries, something new arises that you didn’t know, so it does feel like we’re uncovering something. Anne Lister was a natural dramatist. She loved the drama of her own life.”

Choma consulted on the scripts from the beginning of development to help ensure Lister’s authentic voice could be heard through the series. “Sally would say Anne would write far more exciting things than she could ever dramatise,” she recalls. “We had two major themes, the affair with Ann Walker and the business rivalry with the Rawsons.

“Sally’s scripts are so strong. The big challenge was staying true to Anne Lister and making sure we were producing a portrait that Anne would recognise herself. Some bits are very difficult to get your head around, so some of the dialogue had to be adapted for modern audiences.”

Despite her extensive writing credits, Wainwright has only previously helmed episodes of crime series Happy Valley and single drama To Walk Invisible. Here, she directs the  series alongside Sarah Harding and Jennifer Perrott.

Wainwright says her approach behind the camera puts authenticity above everything else in an attempt to reflect the real Lister and the world around her. “We’re trying to make it for a modern audience as well, so people will sufficiently believe the authenticity and accuracy about the amount of research that’s gone in but equally find it entertaining as well,” she says. “It’s finding that balance. It’s finding a way of telling our story that creates a true semblance of going back into the past, but [in a way that] that will entertain people as well in the here and now and has a resonance now and has things to say, which it clearly does.”

Sophie Rundle (Peaky Blinders) plays Lister’s partner, Ann Walker

The director went against standard period drama convention by making extensive use of a steadicam on set, enabling her to capture sweeping shots of the landscape around Shibden Hall while trying to keep up with Jones.

“It’s in the diaries that Anne worked out she walked at four miles an hour. I got the electric bike out and pushed it so I got up to four miles an hour just to see how fast it was, and I was thinking, ‘That’s fucking fast.’ But I think Suranne walks faster than four miles.”

But it’s those moments at Shibden and in the surrounding countryside where Jones says she truly valued being part of the production. “Every day, even when it’s tough and there are long hours and I can’t remember my lines or whatever, you have to take a step back and breathe and go, I can’t actually believe they let us in this house because it’s her house.”

Though ostensibly a period drama, the series is thrilling from the outset, and while there are elements of it being a domestic drama, it is never dull. Lister, as played by Jones, is a whirlwind of energy, charging around the countryside, driving horse-drawn carriages or climbing walls. Most notable is the fact that the character often breaks the fourth wall to look directly into the camera, while Lister’s inner thoughts are sometimes narrated.

“I always aim to entertain, that’s my big thing,” Wainwright adds. “I always want to make people laugh. It’s got to be true and there’s got to be drama but I do find Anne Lister very funny. I think she was funny. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do.”

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Lennie’s round

Lennie James wrote and stars in Sky Atlantic drama Save Me, about a father’s hunt for his missing daughter. DQ joins him on the set to hear why one of its stars is also its setting – a pub.

They don’t make boozers like this anymore. The Palm Tree in the heart of an east London estate is a classic, old-fashioned pub. The regulars, for all we know, may well have been sitting on the same bar-stool for several years without moving.

The Palm Tree also features a karaoke booth that has very much seen better days, gravy-coloured wallpaper that appears to predate the invention of beer itself and fairy lights desperately clinging to the walls. These decorations are for life, not just for Christmas. “Gentrification” is not a word in this pub’s vocabulary.

For all that, The Palm Tree makes an excellent precinct for Save Me, an absorbing new drama that starts in the UK on Sky Atlantic on February 28. Outside of the soaps, this is not a setting we have witnessed very often before on mainstream British TV.

Lennie James (right) alongside Stephen Graham in the pub in which much of Save Me unfolds

In this new six-part series written by and starring Lennie James, this is the court where the drama’s central character, Nelson “Nelly” Rowe (played by James), holds sway. Nelly is in the Palm Tree every night regaling his fellow punters with colourful tales of his previous night’s exploits. It may have been amusing 20 years ago, but now that Nelly is pushing 50, it’s bordering on sad. At his age, this is a man who really should know better.

Living hand-to-mouth from a series of cash-in-hand jobs, Nelly never stays long in one place, moving in with whichever woman is foolish enough to tolerate him that week.

Chatting to DQ between scenes, James makes for magnetic company. It is easy to grasp why the actor, who was raised in Tooting, south London, has proven such a mesmerising presence in everything from Line of Duty to The Walking Dead.

“I wanted to write a thriller in a place I really knew well,” says James, when asked why he chose this unlikely pub as the principle locus of his drama. With a winning grin, he adds: “Basically, I didn’t want to do hours of research.”

Researched or not, the Palm Tree is the ideal arena in which the drama can unfold. Random people flit in and out of it, but whatever else is going on, you can guarantee that Nelly will always be there, centre stage, playing to an adoring audience (including characters played by Stephen Graham, Susan Lynch and Kerry Godliman).

The thriller also stars Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones

James reflects: “The pub is a very important part of the story because you go there both to drown your sorrows and to celebrate. Both things can happen at the same time and over the same pint.”

Crucially, the Palm Tree and its motley crew of regulars also smack of authenticity. James observes: “In any pub, there’ll always be a Nelly. People like that do exist. All the core characters in Save Me are based on real people. They’re not 100% depictions, but they’re versions of people I’ve come across.”

Lynch, who plays barmaid Stace, confirms that when she served in bars to make ends meet early on in her career, she came across many Nellys. “I worked in nearly every pub on the Finchley Road when I was at drama school. Many were just like the Palm Tree. You always had your regulars. You would start your shift by saying, ‘Really, Tommy, I’m sorry to hear she’s not very well.’ By the end of the shift, you’d be thinking, ‘I can’t engage with Tommy tomorrow or else I’m never going to get my glasses washed and get home.’”

The actor, who was also had leading roles in From Hell, Waking Ned and Enduring Love, continues: “A pub is a very good setting for a drama as all the stories can cross over there. All the stories start to merge in The Palm Tree, and by the end, there is a huge collision.”

Nelly’s bibulous ‘we’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow?’ approach to life is rudely interrupted one morning when the police burst in and arrest him on suspicion of kidnapping Jody, the 13-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen for 10 years.

After Nelly had a brief, summer fling with Claire (played by Suranne Jones) more than a decade ago, Jody was born. But when she reached the age of three, Claire decided to move away from their London estate to a bling mansion in the suburbs to start afresh with her flashy record producer husband. That was the last time Nelly saw Jody. Determined to prove his innocence, Nelly discovers hidden depths within himself. But will it be enough to save him?

It is the very fact that Nelly is so singularly ill-equipped to take on the task of establishing his own innocence that makes Save Me so compelling.

James, who has also starred in Jericho, Critical, Low Winter Sun and Snatch, muses: “This is a thriller, just set in place where no one sets a thriller. And the hero of the piece is completely unqualified to be a hero.

“But in attempting to prove his innocence, Nelly finds some sort of redemption. This is a story about the cost of redemption and what it does to him, his ex-lover, his friends and his community.”

Save Me premieres on Sky Atlantic this Wednesday

For all that, Save Me is very far from an irredeemably grim ‘woe is me’ drama. It is replete with vibrancy, vim and vigour. Jones, who drew widespread acclaim as the titular character in Doctor Foster, comments: “People love dark stories because they take you to a place you think you don’t want to go, but really you do.

“Having said that, the reason Save Me is so different is because it’s also so full of the humour and the history of these people. It portrays a community you’ve never seen before. It’s so warm.”

The estate depicted in Save Me undoubtedly overturns our expectations. Jones continues: “This world is sometimes painted as depressing. But this is very different. When you watch Save Me, you want to be there. Even if you haven’t grown up on an estate like this, you want to go to that pub and meet these people.”

Writing and starring in Save Me required a lot of effort from James. But it has all been worth it. Made by World Productions and distributed by Sky Vision, this is a riveting drama about a man desperately attempting to rescue himself from a life of self-medication, muddling-through and mediocrity.

James declares: “I’m proud that I’m the first person to get a thriller set on a south-east London estate made. I don’t know if it will spawn a new genre, though.”

Perhaps the best part of Save Me, though, is that its producers evaded the easy option. They avoided the temptation to turn out another Richard Curtis-lite version of London. This is perhaps a more accurate reflection of the capital city most people know. It is not prettified and full of red post boxes and red telephone booths, but red in tooth and claw.

Save Me shows us a London we will never glimpse in a tourist brochure.‎ Simon Heath, head of drama at World Productions and executive producer on this series, concludes: “This is a world we don’t see on our TV screens outside EastEnders, but that’s a very different genre. To set a drama in south-east London feels fresh and surprising. We’ll see a different side to London in Save Me.

“It’s not the London of Notting Hill and red buses and black cabs.”

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Foster care

Dinner parties will never be the same after BBC drama Doctor Foster became the surprise hit of 2015. DQ hears from stars Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel and writer Mike Bartlett about what’s in store for season two.

When the BBC first announced Doctor Foster way back in 2014, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the pubcaster’s answer to ITV’s light-hearted hit Doc Martin.

After all, both shows are about local GPs serving close-knit communities in fictional English locales – the town of Parminster in Doctor Foster’s case and Portwenn village in the Martin Clunes-fronted series.

Mike Bartlett

However, any similarities end there, with medicine playing only the smallest of parts in BBC1’s dark, sexually charged and thrilling drama about a woman scorned.

Starring Suranne Jones in the titular role, Doctor Foster was a surprise smash hit for the channel in 2015, thanks to a combination of terrific writing from playwright-turned-TV scribe Mike Bartlett and a stellar performance from Jones.

It became the BBC’s highest-rated drama of the year, attracting an average of nine-and-a-half million viewers and securing top gongs at the National Television Awards (NTAs).

Doctor Foster’s first season saw GP Gemma’s seemingly perfect life begin to unravel after she discovered her husband, Simon (played by Bertie Carvel), was having an affair with a much younger woman and had also secretly jeopardised the family’s finances.

Unfolding across five episodes, the show followed Gemma’s journey from despair to rage and revenge as she uncovered the full extent of Simon’s betrayal, culminating in an excruciatingly uncomfortable dinner party scene in the finale as everything is laid bare.

Yet despite the show’s success, news of a second five-part season took many by surprise, with the story seemingly having reached a natural conclusion at the end of the first run.

“I didn’t know when we started season one that it would go further,” admits Bartlett. “But when we were shooting it, I started to realise that there could be more, that there could be another story.

Season two sees the return of Simon (Bertie Carvel), now married to former mistress Kate (Jodie Comer)

“The more I looked at the last scene, the more I thought that while it looks like a happy ending, there are lots of threads untied. And then when it went out, people said, ‘Did Gemma really get justice?’ That showed that the audience was feeling what I do – that it doesn’t end there and there’s more to tell.”

Details of exactly how that story advances are scarce, but what we do know is that it picks up two years on from the events of season one. Simon, who had moved away, drops a double bombshell by simultaneously announcing his return to Parminster and his impending marriage to Kate (Jodie Comer), the young woman at the centre of his breakup with Gemma.

As if that weren’t bad enough for Gemma, who has been trying to get on with her life, her now ex-husband appears no worse off despite all his bad behaviour – in fact, he’s better than ever. And then there’s the impact of their acrimonious split on their son, Tom (Tom Taylor), who finds himself caught up in his parents’ animosity as he enters his teenage years.

Jones, who won Best Drama Performance at last year’s NTAs for her portrayal of Gemma, says she couldn’t wait to put on Doctor Foster’s stethoscope once again when she found out about the second season. She describes her character as being “embalmed,” highlighting the decision to have Gemma wear some of the same items of clothing as in season one to illustrate her failure to move on from the turmoil of two years ago.

The new season picks up Gemma (Suranne Jones)’s story two years on

“She’s put up her walls,” the actor continues. “She would have been comfortable, but [Simon] has come back and he’s put a mirror up.

“As well as it being exciting, thrilling, sexy and dark and all those things, I looked at them both and thought, ‘You’re both really hurt,’ and I hadn’t seen that before. Now it makes even more sense where we go [in this season], because you’re looking at vulnerable, damaged people.”

Revealing that the show takes a darker turn this year, Jones believes her character has different motivations in the new episodes. “Gemma doesn’t behave well,” she says with a smirk. “Before, she did that through hurt; now she has channeled her anger. It becomes dark and twisted.”

The actor is full of praise for Bartlett, whose other TV work includes 2012 series The Town for ITV and the upcoming Trauma for the same network. “We’re all very lucky to be working on a Mike Bartlett project – he’s a brilliant writer. When you read one of his scripts, you can’t wait to jump in. Without being rude, there are a lot of scripts that don’t do that to you.

“It feels different and exciting, and at times bizarre, unusual and bonkers – yet you understand it in your gut and you know how you’re going to express that.”

The first season of Doctor Foster was the BBC’s biggest drama hit of 2015

The softly spoken Bertie Carvel, meanwhile, comes across as worlds apart from scheming love rat Simon, a character that saw him become arguably the most hated man on British TV for a few weeks in autumn 2015.

“I hope no one recognises me,” he jokes ahead of tonight’s season two premiere. “Or that maybe they’ll have a more nuanced understanding of the character I play!”

Echoing Jones’s praise for Bartlett, Carvel says: “He gives us incredibly three-dimensional characters. What’s really fun as an actor is even though you’re playing a character who is apparently very Machiavellian, whose objective might be dark and quite cruel, there’s enough space and recognisable humanity.”

The actor refers to the show as the “moral equivalent of a hand-held camera,” explaining: “It’s not comfortably tracking along; there’s a sort of wobble to it. We catch things in the frame, in the characters, that aren’t necessarily what the steady shot is tracking towards. Often you find that, half-an-hour later, you’re looking at something from a really different point of view. That’s what’s so exciting about the series as a whole.”

Bartlett is coy over whether the series, produced by Drama Republic and distributed by BBC Worldwide, could continue into a third season. “It depends what happens in this series really – you’ll have to wait and see,” he teases.

But no matter how it ends this time around, don’t be surprised if the writer manages to come up with a fresh set of twists and turns to ensure further appointments with Doctor Foster.

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