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tv Gentleman Jack Changed My Life Review – Who Knew Art Still Had Such Power?

Women the world over speak up about how seeing Anne Lister’s life on screen gave them the courage to come out. This is TV as a triumphant act of resistance

Given a second chance … Sami wearing a top hat inspired by Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack., Photograph: Screenhouse/BBC

“When I was younger, I felt like around every corner there was someone who was going to hate me.”

“There was a chance of being beaten to a pulp because she lives in this body.”

“People think they can convert you … The threat is always looming.”

Such are some of the testimonies of gay women around the world – primarily young, some masked to preserve their anonymity – who have contributed via video to the BBC One documentary Gentleman Jack Changed My Life. The programme about the impact of Gentleman Jack – which is written by Sally Wainwright and stars Suranne Jones as the early 19th-century landowner, industrialist and lesbian Anne Lister, a real-life figure who left a series of diaries about all three things when she died in 1840 – could have been gruesomely self-congratulatory. But instead, it presents real women’s stories simply and unsensationally, letting the whole work serve as a tribute to Lister’s strength and to the programme by being a striking contribution – as direct as Jack herself – to lesbian visibility.

In addition to the video interviewees, Gentleman Jack Changed My Life follows the stories of four women negotiating different challenges in their attempts to come out, to gain acceptance, to find the path to a certain kind of peace.

These include 22-year-old Chichi, an illustration of how coming out is not a one-time thing but an ongoing process. She told her parents she was gay after they watched Gentleman Jack together. The conversation with her sisters didn’t happen until a year later, and she now faces telling her beloved grandparents, who are less likely to be tolerant. Internalised homophobia and fear linger, too. “I still,” she says, “have to push the word ‘gay’ out.”

Sami, 35, an ebullient, charming barrister, is the carer for her mother, Hazel. She came out to her 10 years ago, but the reception – which they recall very differently – was such that she effectively went back in the closet. Now, with the support of Gentleman Jack, its fan community and all that it signifies for greater tolerance, Sami is broaching the subject again and hoping for another chance to live her life honestly.

Yvonne and Pauline (not the latter’s real name) have also waited long enough. Yvonne, 63, is a divorced mother of two grownup children whose youth came flooding back to her as she was watching the series; it helped her finally make sense of it. She wasn’t straight. Her children have offered nothing but love and support, but Yvonne knows that in future she will have to make a choice between her Mormon faith and a relationship. “I will get: ‘I love you but I don’t love your lifestyle.’”

Pauline was a young woman when she fell in love with Trixie nearly 40 years ago. But Trixie decided she wanted to pursue marriage and a family, and they broke up. A few years ago, inspired by Lister’s courage, Pauline sent her former girlfriend a note hoping she was well. They are now back together. “When I got engaged to people, there was never any depth of love there … deep down, there was only one person who ever took my heart. This lady, really.”

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It is a bittersweet hour. The palpable anxiety, sorrow, fear, all those wasted years, the lives lived under the cosh of other people’s expectations, could hardly make it otherwise. But it is also a testament to the fact that things can change for the better: as Trixie returns, as Yvonne’s children tease her (“63! Everything to play for!”), as Hazel continues the struggle towards acceptance (“Would you come to my wedding?” asks Sami. “Course I would.” “Would you be proud?” “Have to cross that bridge when I come to it”). At a time when many lesbians still struggle for the freedom to love who and how they want, it feels like a quiet act of resistance to have such a celebratory show.

And of course the women from whom they have taken strength – Lister, of course, but Wainwright and Jones too, and their rendering of her, front and centre, on screen. Who knew art still had such power? “It’s the first time I feel like I’ve written something important,” says Wainwright. Those who worship her show Happy Valley for its brutal, brilliant depiction of middle-aged women’s lives – 10 parts responsibility to one part quick cup of coffee in the garden – might beg to differ, but only in the matter of timing. Gentleman Jack strides on.

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