Gentleman Jack ****

BBC1, Sunday, 9pm

DESPITE the racy talk about the BBC bringing in an “intimacy director” to make the lesbian sex scenes in Gentleman Jack look authentic, the only thing to frighten the horses in last night’s opening episode was that a woman asked for what she wanted and expected to get it. She behaved, in short, like a man. Phwoar! How sexy is that?

Boldly steering a stagecoach full of passengers into town after the driver was hurt; striding into the big house like she owned it (she did); demanding tenants pay what she was owed; rolling in the sheets with an old flame - the last TV character to operate on this level of swagger was Jack Regan in The Sweeney. At one point I half expected her to inform some scoundrel to get his trousers on because he was nicked.

But Anne Lister, the Gentleman Jack of the title, would never be so uncouth because she is brought to life by Doctor Foster star Suranne Jones via Sally Wainwright. The real life traveller and landowner has been a heroine of the Happy Valley writer’s for decades, and the admiration is obvious. As is the large amount of brass that has been spent by the BBC and HBO in recreating early nineteenth century Britain. I could swear those village urchins in Lister’s native Halifax were wearing Dolce and Gabbana.

Last Tango in Halifax to return

One thing we did not find out last night, the first of eight episodes, was how Lister came by the name in the title. For now, she is the stuff of local legend, an “entertaining” sort usually to be found travelling the world having adventures. Now she is reluctantly returning home, and all the county is a flutter.

“She’s coming back because something went wrong,” harrumphs her father (Timothy West, just one of a best of British cast that also includes Stephanie Cole). True enough, as we see in flashback and learn from the journal she writes using secret code, Lister’s heart has been bruised again.

An old flame advises her to enter into a marriage of convenience with  someone, anyone, so she has the cover of respectability, but Anne is having none of it. Possessed of many rooms of her own, she wants a wife of her own.

“The reality is that will never happen,” says her lover. Yet the idea is calmly presented as what it is, an entirely reasonable proposition. Lister’s sexuality is dealt with in the same no fuss way. Lister may be hundreds of years ahead of her time but she sees that as society’s problem, not something she should apologise for.

While Lister looks around for ways to fund her next escape from Halifax she learns that Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) is still living nearby. She met Miss Walker and her sister years ago, just after their parents died. “No oil painting,” she sniffs.   But wait. With the sister married and gone to Scotland, Ann has inherited the family fortune. She has also matured into a beautiful young woman. Suddenly she has the potential to be the apple of Lister’s eye. “What she lacks in rank she certainly makes up for in fortune,” Lister confides to the viewers in voiceover. At other times, she will look straight to camera, Fleabag-style, to tell us what she really thinks.

Fleabag ends on a high

As with Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ character, to whom Lister will inevitably be compared (it being so rare to have two strong female characters appear on TV in such close proximity it has to be treated as a thing worth commenting on), it is hard to know yet if we entirely like Gentleman Jack. Is she confident or arrogant? Loving or controlling? A heart-breaker or destined to be forever heartbroken? Jones, and viewers, are going to have a lot of fun finding out.