sun 22/09/2019

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, BBC Two

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, BBC Two

The tribulations of a 19th-century lesbian

In Anne Lister's diaries, X did not denote a kiss: Susan Lynch as Tib and Maxine Peake as Anne

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister joins an ever-lengthening list of dramas detailing the joys, the struggles of lady-on-lady love. It’s never quite clear who these entertainments are for. Blokes, as we know, have a response to this stuff that hovers between complex and Neanderthal. Sometimes you wonder why the schedulers don’t always screen them during major sporting tournaments, when the chaps are all looking the other way. On the other hand, do fans of six-hanky chick flicks, legs curled on sofas across the land, really want to watch girls getting it on with girls? So you never know which box, if you will, these bi-curious mainstream dramas are ticking.

There’s one every couple of years or so – a new version of The Rainbow, say, or something fragrant from the pen of Sarah Waters. One day soon they'll no doubt do the Ladies of Llangollen, who created the prototype of the beautiful lesbian friendship and in the remote wilds of Denbighshire received visits from the likes of Wellington and Byron, all no doubt eager to gawp. The affecting story of Anne Lister is also all true, give or take the odd bit of push-me pull-you by scriptwriter Jane English.

Miss Lister’s romantic career was carefully noted down in encrypted journals, finally decoded a century and a half after her death. She was a wealthy Yorkshire heiress in the early 19th century who, we were promptly advised in the first scene, had eyes only for her own gender. We met Anne (Maxine Peake) on the moors in a picnic party, and within seconds she was being exceptionally friendly with a chum in a dress behind an oak (I think it was an oak). Once upon a time, a drama with such a heroine would have followed at a respectful distance as she slowly discovered her leanings. But we’re past all that nowadays. This was the story of a pioneer and explorer whose fieldwork was done not by peering down microscopes or sailing up the North-West Passage, but among the lesser-known corners of the human heart.

Anne’s narrative, as picked out here, told of her thwarted love for Marianna (Anna Madeley), who to secure her future chose to marry a fat wheezing moneybags. Their mutual longing produced occasional trysts, and a sort of private betrothal which would bring Marianna to Anne once her husband died, which he promised to do daily. As Anne waited, she filled the void with bouts of learning, land management and the odd roll in bed with one of her huntin’, shootin’ neighbours nicknamed Tib (a delicious turn by Susan Lynch).

annelister_251838sAfterwards, in Revealing Anne Lister (BBC Two), Sue Perkins told the yet more secret, even more dramatic story of saucy Miss Lister (pictured right), who started grooming early, rummaged under the petticoats of many a Halifax female and left none of the juice out of her diaries. X marked the spot where, of a lonely night, she would be obliged to entertain herself. Entries triumphally recorded those times when she induced a hat-trick of petits morts in one of her lady friends.

But the purpose of the drama was to shape Anne’s romantic odyssey towards a loving redemption after Marianna, for fear of society’s judgement, seemed finally to reject the possibility of cohabitation. Peake, her ashen face bare of make-up, invested this made-up Anne with a remarkable array of tones and colours - predatorial, flirtatious, deranged, audacious, broken and finally becalmed in a second, lesser romance with a local heiress.

It should be recorded in a brief footnote that the requisite sex scene was in there. Its point was to illustrate that Anne definitely wore the trousers (if not actually in bed). On balance, you’d much rather they just skimped on the writhings, the way they did in the extremely cheering Kissing Jessica Stein. Not that it happened here, but the anxiety is always that you’re watching pretty actresses enacting some phallocratic male director’s fantasy, and that’s never any fun. The winning thing about Anne Lister’s story, at least in this telling, is that in a man's world she managed never to cede the organisation of her destiny to a man. She’d certainly have been watching the dramatisation of her diary, and she'd have rightly liked it, despite the hollow contrivance of the ending. She’d have probably wanted a lot more flesh, mind.

Comments

Jasper Jasper Jasper. The ever-lengthening list (3?) of TV programmes that are not a) for the blokes or b) for bi-curious, but as you seem to rather stupidly omit, for the gay female audience. Yes we are here - we are the invisible ones who only usually get a cursory mention, often in the negative and sadly too frequently by our gay male counterparts, just to reaffirm how masculine and unaspirational we supposedly are. So to watch a programme about a strong and driven lesbian female, who knew who she was and had the means to live her life authentically, was indeed an inspirational story, as many of us gay women are inspirational and our stories are rarely told. I thought the sex scene was appropriate, as yes (shock horror) we do do more than just hold hands, and no, our lives are not some sort of sick male fantasy, they are real women's lives. So next time you think about writing off one of these dramas, imagine if every programme that had a relevance to you was removed from the schedules - I bet you'd get bored of a blank screen all too quickly.

There's one every couple of years or so!! Wow I do hope that we are grateful for such a plethora of representation. Sorry if you felt a little uncomfortable Jasper for having to review this (well if you weren't you do a damn good of seeming to be). I'd advise you to make yourself scarce in autumn when Lip Service arrives. Either that or stick around and you may just learn a thing or two.

Thank you Kitty, a very well deserved little slap on the wrist for Jasper. Very very ignorant comments indeed....he makes it sound as if lesbians should be appologising for making men a little uncomfortable. This uncomfort usually comes from not knowing whether to be aroused by ''girl on girl'' action or to be worried because we can have just as much fun without them. Just change the channel next time Jasper, for heaven's sake.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature

★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.