Great LezBritain: Interview with Jane English


AE: Watching the film I hope that she did end up having a happy life with Ann Walker because although it was gut-wrenching that she couldn’t be with her one true love, she did at least get to live her life with someone that she could at least be herself with.
JE: It wasn’t the happiest marriage but I think it is a triumph that she found anyone at all in the period that was willing to live with her. There were frustrations between them because they are two very different characters; Anne Lister was so outgoing and Ann Walker was so introverted, but they travelled widely together.

Anne Lister died whilst they were traveling in Russia together and Ann Walker spent six months in Russia trying to get Anne Lister’s body sent back to Halifax with her diaries, which I think speaks volumes about her feelings. There is another whole film that could be written about their relationship.

AE: Did you read anything from the diaries that made you feel uncomfortable or reluctant to use in the film?
Mariana did get a venereal disease from her husband, which she passed onto Anne who, in turn, passed it on to Tibbs. While my first instinct was to use everything that you wouldn’t see in a Jane Austen drama — and I’ve never seen anything about sexually transmitted diseases — in the end I thought it was a bit yucky and would sully the romance somewhat.

AE: How much of the film are your words and how much have you lifted straight from the diary?
JE: I have tried to use as many of Anne’s words as possible. Most of the voice-over is straight from the diaries. The things that you think she can’t possibly have said are probably verbatim quotes. Other than that, I tried to write in her style and use as much of the vocabulary from the diaries as possible, because she has such a wonderful droll turn of phrase, and I really wanted to bring out the humour. She is such a wry commentator on her own life and the other characters in Halifax, a trait I think she shares with Jane Austen

AE: The film is much funnier than we had anticipated because we had put it into the Andrew Davies screenplay adaptation box — did you feel a pressure to get yourself out of that box by making it especially funny?
JE: I was really keen to do things differently. I think in a sense the Sarah Waters adaptations are coming-out stories, but I love that this story kicks off with Anne and Marianna as fully-fledged lesbians in the midst of an affair. So their story is not about how they come to terms with their feelings, but rather how they sustain their relationship against all the odds.

AE: We think Maxine Peake’s performance as Anne Lister is brilliant, what did you think of the choice of cast?
JE: I was hoping and praying they would get the right Anne Lister, and when I was told that Maxine Peake had accepted it I did a little jump for joy. She commits so fully to her roles and she really did this with Anne Lister — she gave everything to it. She also has such a brilliant light touch with humour. I was worried that they might cast someone over earnest, but she has the right balance of humour, strength and vulnerability. I think she nailed it, and Helena Whitbread, who knows Anne Lister better than anyone said she approved too.

AE: Director James Kent’s speech at the premiere was very moving. He talked about his pride, as a gay director, that this film will resonate so strongly with people watching — is this something you feel as a gay writer?
JE: I think for me personally, there was so much I could identify with in the diaries and I think for all gay women there will be much to identify with. From a lesbian point of view, Anne Lister is an important part of history and the fact that until now, it has been an untold history, makes the film feel important and exciting too. But ultimately it’s a universal story about the highs and lows of love. I hope it resonates in some way with everyone who watches it.

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