Why It Took 20 Years To Make 'Gentleman Jack,' HBO's New, Must-See Period Drama

Aimee Spinks/HBO

Our world is changing all the time, and it has, in many ways, become a lot more inclusive in regard to the LGBTQ community. Of course, there are always people and places and legislation that seeks to tear down those living their authentic lives, but 2019 is a vastly different time for queer people than it was even 20 years ago. That's, in part, why the true story of Gentleman Jack can now be told on TV, after being shot down as a pitch back in 2002.

Creator Sally Wainwright told Collider that she first had the idea for the show nearly 20 years ago, but she's actually grateful that it wasn't greenlit at the time. If it had, she said, "It would've been a very, very niche product. It would've been hidden away on the schedule of BBC Two, rather than what it's got now, which is a massive primetime slot and a massive American company on board, with a primetime slot," she said, referring to its HBO premiere on April 22. "I don't regret that it didn't happen 20 years ago. It's given me 20 years longer with the journals [that inspired the show]. It's allowed me to cast Suranne Jones in the lead, which wouldn't have happened 20 years ago 'cause she wouldn't have been old enough."

Mostly, though, Wainwright thinks the public is more ready now than it would have been in 2002. "Times have changed," she continued. "That we have a very healthy discourse now about gender and sexuality has only happened in the last five or 10 years."

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Gentleman Jack is inspired by Anne Lister's real diaries from the early 19th century. According to BBC News, Lister wrote over four million words in her journals. They documented every detail of her daily life, from the weather to her business pursuits and love interests. Lister was openly (or as openly as you could be in 19th century England) interested in women, and not shy about talking about this in her journals — although large portions of it were written in a complicated code, according to the San Francisco Sentinel. The code wasn't cracked until the 1930s, nearly 100 years after Lister's death, and efforts to decode more entries are still ongoing today.

The plot of Gentleman Jack is largely taken from Lister's diaries, so the show had portions translated even throughout filming. Suranne Jones, who plays Anne Lister in the series, told NPR that getting new sections decoded was thrilling. "It was being decoded especially for us as we filmed, which was really exciting. We'd get an email, and it was kind of like live, as we were filming scenes in the end, where we were getting pieces of information that had never been seen before," she said.

Because the show was informed by its central character's own writing, it's pretty much as accurate as a historical fiction show can get. "There's so much story in the journals, and the series is very true to the journals. I haven't invented a lot," Wainwright told Collider in the aforementioned interview. "I've taken a little bit of poetic license here and there, but it's very authentic and very true to the journals."

Aimee Spinks/HBO

The series covers two years of Lister's life throughout the eight episodes, and portions were filmed at the real Shibden Hall — Lister's former home — to further the accuracy of the show. "The whole experience was magical; I felt like she was with us every step of the way," Jones told NPR of the filming process. "The experience of that really allowed her to get into my bones every single day on set."

Jones also agreed with Wainwright's notion that now is the time to tell this story, as audiences are more equipped to accept and understand it. "I just feel like this is the right time to tell her story in the full-bodied way that it needs to be told," Jones told NPR.

And Wainwright can't wait for viewers to see it. "Even though there are a number of books out there about her, there’s a fraction of the journal that is still being transcribed, so I feel like the world has yet to discover Anne Lister," Wainwright told Collider. "When they do, they're gonna be blown away by her. She should be globally famous. I think she will be, eventually, but what's exciting is that that's a process that's still happening because she's been hidden away for so long."

Now, thanks to BBC One and HBO, Lister will be hidden no longer — and viewers will be ready to appreciate her story in the way she's always deserved.