It is a cold, wet and windy night in Hebden Bridge.
This Yorkshire town is a mere stone’s throw across the beautiful moors from Haworth where the Brontë sisters lived in virtual seclusion at the Parsonage during the first half of the 19th century. It’s the kind of night where you can almost hear the ghostly voice of Cathy calling for Heathcliff on her way back to Wuthering Heights.
As luck would have it I am in the snug and incredibly beautiful Hebden Bridge Picture House for a special evening courtesy of the BBC, about to watch To Walk Invisible, the latest offering from local (and national) hero, Sally Wainwright, the multi-Bafta-winning writer responsible for, among other things, Happy Valley and Last Tango In Halifax. It’s safe to say that To Walk Invisible, a new one-off drama about the Brontë family, is a departure from Wainwright’s trademark gritty realism. Or is it?
Along with 1,000 other Wainwright fans, I wait with bated breath to see what this television writer and playwright does with the story of three remarkable women, all of whom produced, despite some seemingly insurmountable obstacles, some of the greatest novels of all time.
The Brontë story has been told time and again, ultimately focusing on the fact that all three sisters (as well as their younger siblings and brother Branwell) died young. But Wainwright resolutely refuses to dwell on this part of their lives. She chooses instead to shine a spotlight on the period of success they enjoyed before tragedy struck – repeatedly. And it’s refreshing to see them vital and inspired.
Wainwright was present at this early screening. Afterwards, she told the audience: “I didn’t want to see Emily and Anne die. It’s well known that Emily in particular had an unpleasant death so it was a conscious choice not to show it.”
But when this is shown on BBC next week, viewers expecting a happy tale of women overcoming the odds in a man’s world should tread carefully. This is Sally Wainwright after all, and there is a huge blot on the landscape in the form of Branwell Brontë, the brother all three sisters worship but who in turn worships the bottle.
“I was interested in Branwell’s decline and the girls’ ascendency,” explains Wainwright.
The story could be jettisoned forward some 200 years and the arc of how a family is destroyed by alcoholism would still ring true. Wainwright pulls no punches in her portrayal; we see the dreadful state that Branwell gets himself into, falling on sewage-infested streets and begging for shots of gin. And we also witness how this impacts each one of the sisters differently; the resilient Emily being the most sympathetic to her deteriorating brother while Charlotte displays a steadfast determination to be published no matter what the cost. All this leaves Anne stuck in the middle, close to both sisters and trying to keep the peace.
Wainwright has taken the whole production as close to what is generally regarded as the truth as possible. There are no clipped BBC accents here; each sister has a Yorkshire dialect and life is depicted as unrelentingly tough, even for three seemingly well-to-do daughters of the local vicar. On that front, Jonathan Pryce plays their father perfectly, totally bewildered by the modern problems tapping at his door and trying his best to keep his family together.
The cast is small and that is to the production’s credit. It serves to enhance the claustrophobic solitude that these sisters must have lived in, and demonstrates how incredible it was that, not only did they get one book published, but book after book, all under pseudonyms leaving the world to assume they were men. Avoiding spoilers in any shape or form, there is a scene in London which is truly wonderful.
So, if like me, you are a sucker for a period drama over Christmas then the BBC has really spoilt us this year.
By Chris Park
To Walk Invisible is on BBC One, December 29, 2016 at 9pm. It would be a crying shame to miss it.