When I first heard that HBO was promoting Sally Wainwright’s version of the Anne Lister diaries in a series, I approached the news with trepidation. The last experience that I had with Sally Wainwright was The Last Tango in Halifax. I waited weekly for each installment. Planned my Sundays around it. The writing, directing, and acting were nothing short of spectacular.
Much to my surprise, she paired Caroline with Kate. How lovely. As expected, as a couple they had their ups and downs, their joys and struggles. She portrayed two professional, intelligent women, about my own age, who wanted to love and be loved. They were doing the dance but couldn’t quite get in step. As we all experienced, they really weren’t quite sure.
Then they danced. I still think of them when I hear Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. Then, the scene where Caroline is answering the science quiz show questions and Kate is feeding her chocolates. How else can that be described but sexy, romantic, intimate. It was beautiful. Caroline and Kate were beautiful. They actually get married. Finally, I thought, someone got it right.
Then Sally Wainwright made the decision to kill Kate. She killed Kate. Kate. Was. Killed.
The old standby lesbian trope. Two lesbians find happiness. One has to die. (I know, lesbians die in real life. But really, does one lesbian have to die so soon after they consummate the relationship?)
My friends and I here in America who watched Halifax, just stopped. Our viewership didn’t matter but we “voted with our feet.” We left.
I didn’t hear Sally Wainwright’s name mentioned again until the horrible and painful ending of Berena. I had made a decision not to get invested in another TV portrayal of a lesbian relationship. But with the beautiful story line unfolding between Serena Campbell and Bernie Wolfe plus the public assurances of the executive producer, Simon Harper, that Holby City was invested in this relationship, that representation mattered, I couldn’t help but invest my emotions in Berena.
I even forgave and overlooked the countless negative tropes that unfolded after Bernie and Serena consummated their relationship. One didn’t die, but Holby gave us the next best thing: Serena’s daughter died. (I know that in real life lesbians experience the painful death of a child. But really, once again, do TV programmers always have to have to have these tragedies happen so soon after lesbians consummate their relationships?) I forgave all of this because I believed that the powers-that-be at Holby City were invested in representing a woman-loving woman relationship in a positive way. Serena and Bernie were strong enough to overcome these hardships together. They had each other’s back. They could figure it out.
Then December happened. Serena cheated with an F1 who she supervised. There was an implication, however subtle, that maybe Bernie cheated as well. And, of course, we got the 2 minute breakup drill filled with bins and slippers and swings. In an episode that was marketed and said to be a celebration of love, Simon Harper, decided to end Berena.
The Holby lesbian viewership was led done a primrose path, promised the world, and then pushed off a cliff. I am still devastated and perplexed why it had to unfold the way it did.
Enter Sally Wainwright.
When Berena was chucked into the bins, comparisons were made to Kate and Caroline. At least, it was argued, Simon Harper didn’t kill Bernie. Yet, Simon Harper killed our faith in his own words. Sally Wainwright apologized for killing Kate. Some of us called for an apology from Simon Harper. We are still waiting.
Holby has burned my emotions to the point that I promised myself not get invested in a woman-loving woman relationship depicted on TV. I refused to even watch for the fear that I might care.
Enter Sally Wainwright and Gentleman Jack.
So you understand my trepidation when I started reading about Gentleman Jack. I read about Anne Lister’s story and how Sally Wainwright and Anne Choma (who authored the companion book to the HBO series) meticulously researched Anne Lister’s story and gave each element of the story the attention and tenderness it deserved.
From the opening of Gentleman Jack, where Anne is dressing and the camera zooms in to her hands as she ties her vest to the lively music that accompanies it, to Anne Lister turning to the audience when she wants to confide in us, to the way she walks with strength and dignity, to the set that is bright and lively, to the final song by O’Hooley & Tidow accompanying the final credits, Gentleman Jack is a celebration.
It exemplifies how a lesbian relationship should be represented and portrayed on TV. When programmers put the time and effort and are truly invested in representing a lesbian relationship in a respectful yet provocative manner, viewers are given a magnificent tour de force. Simply put, a masterpiece.
There is so much more to say about Gentleman Jack but I don’t want to spoil it for my mates across the pond who are just able to view it.
But what I will say, Gentleman Jack has put Berena and Holby and Simon Harper in perspective for me. Holby and Simon Harper could never match the creativity and vision of Sally Wainwright. Even with killing Kate on Halifax, Sally Wainwright gave us a sensual intimacy between Kate and Caroline that Simon Harper could not deliver with Serena and Bernie. I truly and fundamentally believe that the acting abilities of, and the bond, between Catherine Russell and Jemma Redgrave made Berena more than what the producers and directors ever intended Berena to be.
I am not over the Berena breakup and still hope that they will have their eternity, but I will not invest my time to see if they get there. I’ve been spoiled by Gentleman Jack. I expect something so much better now. I deserve something better now. We all do.