THE last time we saw Sophie Rundle she was in danger of getting blown to bits in Bodyguard as screen husband Richard Madden’s finger hovered over a detonator. Now she’s facing down the fury of Victorian society in unconventional period drama Gentleman Jack. It’s fair to say Rundle’s getting used to explosive situations.
The 31-year-old actress is a lively, chatty interviewee but what feels like a straightforward question prompts a pause. ‘No,’ she muses. ‘I don’t think I’ve played a lesbian before. You’d think I’d remember, wouldn’t you?’
In what’s set to be an unforgettable performance, Rundle plays Ann Walker, a demurely respectable society lady who the title character, the (very far from demure) mould-breaker Anne Lister, sneeringly dubbed Gentleman Jack by Yorkshire’s snooty upper classes, takes a shine to. Their liaison goes down none too well, to put it mildly.
But while Suranne Jones’s Jack gets to stride around in striking top hat and show-stopping black, Rundle’s Walker cuts a much more respectable figure, every inch the blushing young heiress. Did Rundle ever wish she could reverse roles?
‘That would have been mental, Suranne and I swapping each other’s costumes,’ she laughs. ‘We’d have loved that — I’m going to send Suranne a text now and tell her I want the top hat and she can have the pink dress!’
Rundle and Jones clearly formed a close bond filming Gentleman Jack, a story adapted from Lister’s extraordinarily detailed diaries, which run to millions of words, by Sally Wainwright, one of TV’s most in-demand writers, whose credits include Scott & Bailey, Last Tango In Halifax and Happy Valley. It’s a story that lives or dies on the connection of its central lovers.
‘Suranne and I did a chemistry read to see if we sparked off each other as actors because that was so important for our characters,’ says Rundle. ‘More than anything, this is a love story, a very complex love story. They were two very different characters.’
The chemistry between Rundle and Jones is undeniable because as Gentleman Jack unfolds you get a tangible sense of opposites attracting in what, on the surface, seems a barren breeding ground for passion. But while it’s Lister who sets about crashing through society’s boundaries, Rundle believes that, in some ways, Walker was the stronger character.
‘The more I knew her, the more I found her massively inspiring, because where Anne Lister didn’t care what people thought and had the swagger to pull it off, Ann Walker knew she would be cast out by her family and lose her position in the world,’ says Rundle. ‘She was a very shy, quiet and private person. It’s easy to write her off because of that but the choice she made, to marry the woman she loved at a time when that just wasn’t done — she was incredibly brave.’
It was a choice that almost unhinged her life. Walker’s internal battle to define her sexuality and reconcile it with a world that shunned her led to depression and anxiety. Rundle was struck by how attitudes to mental health have shifted over two centuries.
‘She was the victim of homophobia and in some sense she hated herself,’ she says. ‘You had to understand the cloistered world she was coming from. These days we have a much better grasp of how to deal with those issues and we have the language to understand it. But in Ann Walker’s day she would have been dismissed as a hysterical woman.
‘The toughest thing she had to face was the realisation that had she never met Anne Lister she would probably never have confronted her sexuality. She would most likely have been married off and that would have been that. Their meeting changed their lives completely — but it came at a cost.’
All of which sounds like Rundle developed a bit of a girl crush on Ann Walker. ‘Yes, I’m enamoured and protective of her,’ she cheerily admits. ‘She overcame so much personal stuff. It wasn’t an easy shoot — it was a very challenging story to portray because Ann goes through emotional turbulence, so much of it beneath the surface.’
That Rundle gives Walker a glint of the inner steel behind the demure frocks and ringlets is credit to the skills of an actress much in demand. Aside from Bodyguard (‘we had no idea how big that was going to get’), she is also a Peaky Blinders regular, returning soon to the role of Ada Shelby in the gangster drama. With so many shining supporting roles under her belt, a lead turn surely awaits?
‘I don’t know, I just feel I’ve been very jammy,’ she bats back modestly.
No doubt about it, next time she’ll get the top hat.
Gentleman Jack is on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm. Episode one available on iPlayer now
Leading Lesbian turns on TV
Charlotte Coleman in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1990)
Coleman gave a memorable performance in this witty and refreshing take on Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel, which unpeels a teenager’s quest for sexual acceptance in a repressive religious household. At the time, a ground-breaker.
Anna Friel in Brookside (1994)
Friel has gone on to achieve many things in her career but her place in TV history was assured when, aged 17, she instigated Britain’s first pre-watershed lesbian kiss in her role as feisty teenager Beth Jordache. And the name of the character Beth locked lips with? Give yourself a point if you came up with the name Margaret.
Keeley Hawes and Rachael Stirling in Tipping The Velvet (2002)
Nudity aplenty as Hawes and Stirling threw themselves with gusto into a full-on adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel featuring Kitty and Nan, two characters grappling with their emotions — and the intricacies of corsetry — in a heaving slice of Victorian-era life.
Maxine Peake in The Secret Diaries Of Miss Anne Lister (2010)
The BBC has a short memory because we’ve delved into Anne Lister’s diaries before — not that you’d know it from the promo for Gentleman Jack. Maxine Peake gave a bravura performance in a TV movie version, with Christine Bottomley as her soulmate Ann Walker.