Monday 31 May 2010, 11:30
I had never heard of Anne Lister until she popped up in an email, one slow Friday afternoon. Oxford Film and Television were seeking a writer to dramatise her diaries and had attached a potted biography. She was impressive: an independent, self-educated landowner, living in Halifax in the early half of the 19th century, who travelled widely and put herself about in business and politics.
I was interested. Then off she strides to meet her married female friend in a Manchester hotel for a night of passion.
It proved to be the tip of the iceberg, and I was hooked.
For Anne was also a lusty, self-aware lesbian who had many flirtations and full-blown love affairs, before settling into what was to all intents and purposes a civil marriage. Her diaries are a page-turning first hand account of being a lesbian in Georgian England, and reveal a whole network of women, either lesbian like herself, or willing to "dabble".
I soon realised that everything I knew about women at this time, I knew from fiction - the novels and dramatisations of Austen and the Brontes - and that Anne's version of events somewhat turned all that on its head.
Writing The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister was a chance to bring an important piece of hidden lesbian history to a wider public, but also to represent women as earthier, funnier and feistier than the genteel creatures more commonly found in period drama.
So where to start? Anne's diaries run to four million words and cover roughly 25 action-packed years. As we were always going to be on a relatively low budget, adventures in Paris and Russia were out, narrowing the focus to Halifax and her beloved Shibden Estate.
Even then, to tell her story fully would take a 10-part returning drama series. With 90 minutes, our drama could only ever be an impression of Anne's life. Which put pressure on getting the essence of Anne herself right.
The voiceover which runs through the drama is comprised from Anne's own words. Anne wrote her most intimate thoughts in an elaborate code. As I was ransacking them and broadcasting them to the nation, I felt it only fair that Anne should tell her own story. In life she longed for "a name in the world" but always remained an outsider, so I think she'd appreciate the gesture.
Composing the dialogue was a joy. Anne has a wonderfully rich vocabulary and a droll turn of phrase to draw from (motley set, suspicious bonnet, grubbling... being a few of my favourites).
She often sounds modern (ie when doubting a lover's character: "Only in bed is she excellent") and writes vivid depictions of her friends.
She records conversations which feel alive and present and surprisingly easy to relate to.
Where possible I've quoted the diaries. Otherwise, Anne's voice is so distinctive that once I'd absorbed the material and thought my way into her head, dialogue flowed quite naturally.
If I strayed from Anne's character, Helena Whitbread, our historical consultant - the Halifax woman who transcribed the diaries and who knows Anne Lister better than anyone - was on hand to tell me, in no uncertain terms, what Anne would or wouldn't say or do.
I'm a sucker for a love story and Anne's passion for Mariana Lawton leapt from the pages of the diaries and provided a strong emotional thread for the drama. Mariana broke Anne's heart by marrying a much older, and richer, man. But this is only the beginning, as the drama explores their attempt to sustain a relationship in spite of this rather large obstacle.
I saw Anne and Mariana as fitting that classic Hollywood romantic mould of the couple who're great together but can't quite get it together. Much of the time you want to shake them and say, "Sort it out!"
In fact, I may have got too wrapped up in the love story because when director James Kent came on board he highlighted a need for a greater sense of social context: society's ignorance and/or abhorrence of lesbianism; the social pressure to be married; the difficulty for women of maintaining economic independence.
James and I talked through every scene in the script. He wanted to 'download' everything in my head, and it gave me a rare opportunity to share my intentions. These discussions enabled us to hone and polish, and push the script for all its emotional worth.
But of course, this drama would stand or fall on its Anne Lister. When it got the go-ahead and casting suggestions started flying around, panic set in: would they find the right person to play her? But when James called to say he'd cast Maxine Peake, I relaxed.
Like Anne, she throws herself completely into a project, and has the range to capture everything from Anne's strength and emotional intensity, to her vulnerability and humour. And rather helpfully, in the latter stages of writing, Criminal Justice aired. Maxine's performance in that expressed so much without words, it gave me the confidence to go through the script with a red pen and really pare down her dialogue.
I love the finished film and think every member of the cast and crew has dug deep to produce something beautiful. My biggest hope is that our depiction of Anne Lister intrigues people enough to want to seek out this unique woman for themselves in her diaries. Believe me, they're an illuminating read.
Jane English is the scriptwriter of The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister.
The programme is available on iPlayer until Monday, 7 June
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Friday 28 May 2010, 11:26
Friday 4 June 2010, 10:35