The brains behind BBC’s Gentleman Jack theme tune, Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, have revealed how their famous song inspired a name change for the series from writer Sally Wainwright.
Gentleman Jack made a storming return to screens earlier this month, as fans saw Suranne Jones slot straight back into the fiery role of Anne Lister.
So far in this series, we’ve seen Anne try to set up home at Shibden Hall for herself and her new wife Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), as the pair try to discreetly navigate their romance back in 1834.
But there are further challenges ahead, with Walker’s mental health struggles continuing to feed in his time around, as well as Lister’s former flames popping up.
With the show now on its second series, there’s plenty of gossip from behind-the-scenes to explore, which Belinda, who performs the famous theme song – and more – for the series with her wife Heidi in folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow, took the time to divulge.
She explained to Metro.co.uk how the show was meant to have a very different name, and how they were approached by Sally to get involved heavily with the series.
’We wrote our song Gentlemen Jack for our 2012 album, Fragile,’ she shared. ‘We’d heard of Anne Lister from a friend and she told us all about the diaries and said that the disapproving residents of Halifax had given her a nickname.
‘When she said Gentlemen Jack, me and Heidi just looked at each other – we knew that was gonna make a great song.’
They wrote the track ‘really quickly’ with Belinda noting: ‘It was really enjoyable to write and we released our album in 2012. It was good really because it was a way of kind of sharing the fabulousness of Anne Lister with people who’d never heard of her. She never reached the history books and things like that.’
Fast forward to 2018, and writer Sally popped up at one of the pair’s gigs in Hebden Bridge, approaching Heidi to ask if she could use that track for her upcoming BBC drama ‘called Shibden.’
Yep, turns out the iconic name of the drama wasn’t in the pipeline at the very beginning.
The pair had been keen to work with Sally, after friends and fans had commented how well their music would fit into one of her programmes – but never thought it would actually happen.
‘The actual reality of that happening just seemed never gonna happen really unlikely. Just how do you get your music to her? It wasn’t us that got our music to her. She actually found us! It was such a pinch-me moment,’ Belinda commented.
Sally revealed to the pair she’d become obsessed with their song and had played it ‘1000s of times in the car.’
‘It inspired her in helping to sort of flesh out who Anne Lister was gonna be,’ Belinda continued. ‘Then she changed the name of the drama from Shibden to Gentlemen Jack because of our song. I feel like it’s had a major part to play in that fast walking that person you see with that attitude – some of it’s got to do with the attitude of the song.
‘In some ways, the programme really is Anne Lister. It’s about her attitude and her swagger. The name Gentleman Jack, even though it was used as an insult, it sounds like she’s taking it on.’
The pair became part of the writing process, with Sally keen to get them involved. As well as their song being used as the show’s theme, they create ‘little bespoke pieces’ to come in before the ending credits.
‘It’s instantly recognisable as our song, it might go off in a slightly different direction before it comes back to being our song as the credits roll. What I love about [Sally] is that she has incredibly she puts a lot of trust in you,’ Belinda added, even though the pair have never done any writing for film or TV before.
They also had to get a bit creative with the process: ‘Suddenly we’re getting phone calls from Sally saying, “I want quite a dark theme for this one, can you do something for me tomorrow?” And I’d be playing stuff down the telephone on the piano – it was quite makeshift, really. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it worked!’
The pair were lucky enough to be present on set during the filming of season one, including the rehearsal of the crucial scene where Lister and Walker shared the Eucharist.
But she warned it was ‘absolutely freezing’ throughout filming the special occasion, noting: ‘It was as cold as it could possibly be. We sat there wearing coats and hats and scarves and gloves and Suranne and Sophie were in period outfits, which are really not warm material, repeating scenes and doing things and trying different angles and all that kind of stuff.
‘I just remember thinking, “People do not know the half of it. When they watch a programme they don’t realise just how much work has gone into it. I was really amazed by their ability to withstand the cold – I don’t know if they had thermal underwear on!’
She also detailed just how much prep was done by leading lady Suranne, even before the cameras ever started rolling.
‘Sally and Suranne researched the role so much and even did rehearsals before they started filming it – which is quite unusual – to make sure that Suranne really got exactly how she wanted to portray Anne Lister to talk it through and try things out.
‘Everything from her amazing acting to the way she looks in the costumes, the photography. It really feels like a tour de force.’
Meanwhile, Belinda also praised the incredible impact the show has had on the LGBTQ+ community, with Lister often recognised as the first true modern lesbian.
‘I don’t think anyone imagined that the story of Anne Lister would be on national television on a Sunday night at 9pm on BBC One – prime time – because she was seen as an embarrassment. Halifax saw her as an embarrassment, someone that they needed to conceal and not talk about.’
Lister famously kept much of her diaries in code in order to conceal details of her relationships, and there were attempts to burn them because of the subject matter they contained.
‘We thought she was just such an inspirational strong woman and she’s done something incredible,’ Belinda remarked. ‘We really wanted [her story] to start to be told, and we were on the ground level by singing her a song about her at gigs and things like that, but it was never going to be anything massive.
‘But Sally said to us it is because of her success with things like Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley that the BBC, she reached a point where they said to her, basically, you can do what you want. She said, “Right, well, I want to do something about Anne Lister because it’s been a passion of Sally’s for years and years and years.
Sally had ‘always wanted’ to write the Yorkshire-based series, but knew it would be ‘expensive’ due to being a period drama – and wanted to make sure it was ‘done properly.’
‘It was the right time really,’ Belinda continued. ‘Me and Heidi, when we turn the television on and watch on Sunday, there’s a feeling of, it’s time people knew about people like Anne, that she’s not shoved into a cupboard somewhere! [Instead] that she is glorious, and she is celebrated.
‘It’s amazing that it’s a multimillion-pound period drama, but she’s at the middle of it and she is a Sunday night – what a celebration.’
Gentleman Jack airs Sundays at 9pm on BBC One.
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