Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Monday, 31 May 2010 12:33 UK

Drama gives 'first' lesbian fresh life

By Michael Osborn
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
Anne Lister (Maxine Peake, right) embarked on many passionate lesbian affairs

"On the day of filming I wondered if I'd go to pieces or start giggling," says actress Maxine Peake of her latest screen role.

"The first day I had to kiss someone, it was [actress] Susan Lynch and she just went for it and set the precedent.

"Kissing somebody is kissing somebody, at the end of the day."

The 35-year-old star talks candidly about filming lesbian love scenes for a costume drama about the life of Anne Lister, a woman from the early 1800s who lived ahead of her time.

Even Peake jokes that her clinch with former Coronation Street star Tina O'Brien will inevitably attract viewers.

"Show them a bit of that and they'll all be watching!" she laughs.

Tina O'Brien in The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
Ex-Coronation Street star Tina O'Brien features in the drama

But the Criminal Justice and former Shameless star stresses that the film sheds light on an important historical figure and brave woman.

Anne Lister was open about her sexuality and had a partnership ceremony with her female lover, faithfully keeping a coded journal detailing her love life and struggle against society.

"Anne did go forward and didn't try to cover it up. But she wasn't screaming from the rooftops 'I'm a lesbian' because there wasn't the word for it then.

"She took the flak and developed a hard skin - it was distressing for her," explains Peake. Indeed, the landowner was referred to as Gentleman Jack by her tenants and suffered abuse.

"I thought she could be naive at times and could be prone to histrionics, but she was driven and she wanted to live her life how she wanted to live it.

"What drives this character is her passion," continues the actress, who then mentions Lister's love of travel - and women.

"She had a very strong sex drive and had a lot of affairs, flirted with married women and was very competent at it - almost an arch-seducer," says Peake.

Bafta disappointment

"I think women had romantic friendships then, particularly before marriage. I can't imagine many marriages were very sexually fulfilling for women then, so there was some intimacy between them.

"Most of them eventually went off and got married, but for Anne it was all or nothing."

As for the Bolton-born actress, she put her heart and soul into a gritty lead role in last year's series of Criminal Justice, but was left out of the Bafta nominations despite critical acclaim.

"They obviously didn't think the performance was worthy enough. I didn't even get on the longlist, so I knew a long time ago," she says.

"It means I don't have to come down to London that weekend and wear a fancy frock. I can go and have a good night out in Manchester!

But Peake adds that Sophie Okenedo - a co-star in the series - thoroughly deserves her nomination.

Maxine Peake in Dinnerladies
2010 - The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister
2009 - Criminal Justice
2008 - Little Dorrit
2004-7 - Shameless
1998-2000 - Dinnerladies (pictured)

The actress says she doesn't know what her next role will be, but would like to return to the comedy that brought her to fame in Victoria Wood sitcom Dinnerladies.

"I want to play somebody really out there, a mad character, real physical comedy.

"You need someone with the guts to create that kind of character for you. There's nobody who can write comedy like Victoria Wood."

As for Anne Lister, she died in 1840 but still has a great deal of relevance in the 21st Century, according to Peake.

"She is still resonant today because there's still a lot of prejudice. It's not just about being gay or lesbian - the story is about anybody who wants to be who they want to be.

"It's so inspiring and fascinating. Hopefully that comes across on screen," says the actress.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is on BBC Two on Monday 31 May at 2100 BST.

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The life and loves of Anne Lister
25 May 10 |  History


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