Great LezBritain: The Premiere of “The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister”

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"Great LezBritian" is a fortnightly stroll through the very best of British lesbo-centric entertainment and culture. Plus there will be some jolly good interviews with the top ladies who are waving the flag for gay UK.

There are few things we like more than a lesbian in a tight corset swigging a glass of wine, so when we heard that The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister would open the 2010 BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, we sorted out tickets faster than you can say “Kitty Butler you broke my bleedin’ ‘eart.”

Anne Lister was a 19th century Yorkshire landowner, industrialist, traveller and, of course, gay lady who was gallous and guilt-free about her sexuality and passionate about defying the customs and rules of her time.

Her wonderful story lay bound in a four million page journal, gathering dust in an attic in Halifax until they were found by Helena Whitbread quite by chance almost a hundred years later. A great deal of Anne’s graft resembled Egyptian calligraphic sprawl but within these symbols lay rich tales of lesbian romps and romance that were thankfully deciphered by Helena, who in her own words has now “… lived with Anne Lister for 27 years.” 

Helena’s work decoding these diaries provided the majority of the source material for writer Jane English’s screenplay, which is full of rich and extremely funny dialogue that Jane attributes almost completely to Anne.

 (left to right) Maxine Peake, Christine Bottomley and Anne Madeley
at the Opening Night Gala

Commissioned by BBC2 and made by Oxford Film and Television, the film premiered on March 17 at Leicester Square. We discussed the top five UK gay ladies we hoped to sit beside and set off into the night.

On arrival, we were incandescent with joy to see hoards of girls adorning the railings outside the cinema, taking it as a sign that "‘lesbian drama" had finally mainstreamed. This was until we realised that the fervent squeals were for Robert Pattison whose new film was premiering next door. 

Amid a strong lesbian contingent, we bought our popcorn (a large carton of the sweet variety if you please — how can you Americans be content to eat that salty stuff?), and took our seats amongst the newly out BBC newsreader Jane Hill (with lady friend), cast members from the internet series Far Out and most excitingly author extraordinaire Sarah Waters. She was very short and she was certainly in our top five.

We were slightly apprehensive at the thought of Maxine Peake playing Anne Lister because we’re most familiar with her wearing an apron and a hair-net as Twinkle in Dinner Ladies or being shagged with a cigarette in her mouth as Veronica in Shameless — and neither of these images are what Sapphic dreams are made of. Correct us if we’re wrong.

But any doubts dissolve within the first few minutes of the film as Peake marches across the Yorkshire Moors with a lesbian swagger that is hard to muster if not a natural component of your DNA and declares, “I love her and her heart is mine.”

She spends the next 90 minutes of the film playing this part with such intense, heart wrenching and rather arousing devotion that she turns Lister into the kind of romantic hero that would make Elizabeth Bennet weak at the knees.

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