Thursday 27 Nov 2014
Bank Holiday Monday 31 May on BBC TWO
Maxine Peake stars as Anne Lister, a pioneering lesbian, whose remarkable diary and her truly extraordinary life in the 19th century form the basis of The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister.
The actress, most recently seen in BBC One's Criminal Justice, explains to Programme Information why she fell in love with this true story.
"I loved that sparkiness of Anne and how it became slightly dark; I thought Jane English had crafted the character of Anne and the relationship with Mariane so brilliantly. Plus the women in it – to have so many strong female protagonists is just so rare today," says Maxine.
"You look at how abundant the diaries were, and when you think of all the dramas we have and the fact everyone's fascinated with Jane Austen, you wonder why these diaries are not more heard of. Aside from her sexuality, they are absolutely such detailed documents of that period of time."
Maxine threw herself into more research immediately: "Initially I trawled the internet and ordered every book with her name in it. Then I met Helena Whitbread, the Anne Lister expert; she's amazing. Her story in itself and how she stumbled across Anne is fascinating. Helena has got such a fantastic relationship with Anne – sort of a love affair – so I was quite nervous about meeting her. I walked in to the room and she said 'oh thank goodness you're tall'. Although Anne was only about 5ft 4in – I'm 5ft 7 – in those days that was tall, so I thought that's good because I did start panicking thinking I'm physically nothing like her!
"I spent the day with Helena and that was the best because she'd formed Anne in her imagination, which really helped me to form the character. Every day she's doing something with Anne Lister, so she's got a very strong image of her. I thought I'm going to go with that – this woman has spent 20 years researching her – so I asked her about her views of Anne. She was very into her being romantic, this very dark figure, so I took that nugget away and worked from there."
Although Maxine had never previously heard of Anne Lister and her incredible story, she's delighted that it's now going to gain a wider audience.
"I do have a couple of lesbian friends who had heard of her through lesbian literature, but I hadn't. It's weird that it's just been assigned to lesbian and gay literature; you think why is that, because it's got broad appeal – especially as I think we're lacking in positive female role models at the moment. If Anne wanted to do something she just went and did it – she's truly inspirational."
It was an inkling of that personality that first interested Maxine in the role. "I heard about it through a friend of mine; he knew nothing more about her apart from that she was a traveller and an industrialist, and he said they're doing a drama of it up in Yorkshire. So I got on to my agent – I thought that sounds brilliant, a strong female character...
"I was sunning myself on holiday when I got a call saying they wanted me to play the role and I was over the moon. I read the script and thought this is just a really beautiful love story. It's not about being a gender drama; it's about being a love story."
Maxine was surprised to learn that society in the 1800s wasn't quite how many perceive it but in fact was somewhat similar to life today, and admires Anne's strength to accept and be open about her sexuality.
"Anne did change history. When you think of that period of time, a woman at that time, stepping out – it must have been frightening. Even reading her diaries, I was surprised at how modern they sounded – you think everything was so restrained, but obviously she was an exception and she lived her life by different rules to most people. But when you read about the everyday social existence, the parties and the drinking, you think, wow it wasn't as stuffy as I always thought it was. You see Austen and similar things and that's become our perception of that time now, based purely on one view of it."
Maxine felt she had a lot to live up to, playing such a pioneering woman, and explains how Anne was a unique role to her.
"In BBC One's Little Dorrit I played Miss Wade, who had lesbian tendencies, but Anne is not like anyone I've ever played before. The story spans 20 years, really, but I don't age in it – though you feel Anne's personality changes from her late teens to a woman in her forties. So that was a real challenge because there is a real personality shift in it.
"It was a privilege – I panicked about playing her at first because she is such an important figure and because she is very much part of lesbian and gay culture and you want to do a good job – you're representing a group of people, so I wanted to get it right. I didn't want them to go 'oh no, I don't believe for a minute, that's not right'. So I was very nervous about it.
"James Kent, the director, is lovely and we did a good week or two of rehearsals beforehand – we sat in his flat with cast members and we'd talk through scenes. Everyone wanted to do it because of the scripts and the story – it's nice when you're on a job where people are not just doing it because of the pay cheque. We were all doing it for the love and not for the money."
The fascinating story attracted a stellar cast which Maxine enjoyed collaborating with.
"I was shocked when I heard who they had got on board. It obviously caught a lot of people's imaginations. Dean Lennox Kelly – Kev and Veronica [their characters in Shameless] reunited! It was great to work with Dean again; we haven't worked together since Shameless, and these are completely different characters so we had to try not to go into 'Kev, you idiot, what the hell do you think you're doing!' He was brilliant and it was great to see Dean playing something a bit different because he's such a good actor, so detailed and so subtle with his comedy."
Maxine relished her opportunity to delve into the world of Anne Lister.
"I wish I'd had more time with her, to play her and put her to bed; I wish I'd had another few weeks to be her and to spend with her. To play a woman of that kind of calibre and intelligence – I got lots from it. I did feel sad afterwards, because even though she did extremely well in business and she did settle with Ann [Walker, played by Christine Bottomley], it wasn't a perfect relationship. It had its ups and downs and I did feel this passionate woman never quite got the love she deserved or really wanted."
Maxine spent weeks filming in and around Yorkshire. "It was cold, sometimes freezing being up north but it was beautiful being up on the Moors. It was fascinating. We spent a bizarre day with three gamekeepers learning about their life. You just think they go round shouting, telling people to get off their land and shooting pheasants but there's a lot more to it than that! It was lovely. We also filmed in York which is such a beautiful city."
Though Maxine has never previously played intimate scenes like the ones Anne has with her lover Mariana [played by Anna Madeley], they were not a concern for her.
"I found them absolutely fine – in fact, girls are slightly cleaner than boys in a strange way aren't they? Anna was brilliant and we just went for it. After Shameless I'm not particularly frightened of doing anything really so it was no problem at all."
Reflecting on her highlights of the drama, Maxine recalls some period pieces.
"I got to fire an old-fashioned rifle and an old shotgun! Another highlight was sitting on top of the horse and carriage on a gorgeous sunny day, with a young actor who was playing the fiddle while we were trotting along. Anne was quite an active woman, so there was lots of mud; I remember being dirty a lot, running down hills and over moors! But it was fantastic; I just wish it had been longer.
"Anne Lister is a one-off, she's unique and I'd definitely play more interesting, strong female parts – I'd be over the moon."
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