She’s best known for Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, but screenwriter Sally Wainwright, tells Sarah Freeman why she is turning back the clock for a drama on the life of the Brontës.
The life of the Brontës is perfect fodder for Sunday evening television.
There’s the windswept moors, there’s the broken hearts and there’s the winding cobbled streets of Haworth. Except when Sally Wainwright’s retelling of the lives of three literary sisters and their wayward brother comes to the small screen don’t expect bustles and bonnets. This will be period drama with added grit.
“I’m not interested in chocolate box representations,” says the Halifax-born screenwriter behind Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax. “I want it to be authentic. It’s very easy for these kind of historic dramas to slip into easy cliche, but right from the start I was determined to get past the Brontë myth which has inevitably romanticised and overshadowed the lives and careers of Emily, Charlotte and Ann. I wanted to immerse myself in what life was really like for these three women living in the north of England.”
Wainwright, who describes herself as a lifelong fan of the Brontës, did what she always does when it comes to research and buried her head in books. Lots of books. With just two hours to tell her story, she knew that it would be impossible to tell the full Brontë biopic. Nor did she want to, preferring instead to focus on one particular story arc. In the end she settled on the three years from 1845 to 1848, which for the Brontës were packed with more drama and tragedy than most families see in a lifetime.
“I think there is a perception that the Brontës spent all their lives at the parsonage, living in quiet isolation, but that’s simply not true. Charlotte and Emily went off to Brussels for a while, Ann was a tutor and Branwell had a number of disastrous attempts to forge his own way in life. However, in 1845 they were together again when for various reasons they were all either drawn or forced back to the family home.”
Central to To Walk Invisible, which will hit TV screens next year, is the sisters’ relationship with Branwell whose life spectacularly unravelled when he returned to the parsonage. A failed portrait painter and writer, the second eldest of the surviving Bront children was a serial under-achiever. Dismissed from a job on the railways for accounting irregularities, he ended up becoming a tutor, but again it was a career which did not last long.
“He had an affair with the mistress of the house, a woman called Lydia Robinson,” says Wainwright, who admits to devouring every new book written about Yorkshire’s famous literary family. “When he was found it out, it was disastrous. The Robinsons were very wealthy people and there was a huge divide between them and Branwell in terms of social status. The affair transgressed so many boundaries and he had no choice but to return to Haworth.”
Once back in the West Yorkshire town, he began to drink in earnest and when Lydia Robinson broke off the affair for good, he was consumed by grief, numbing his pain with alcohol, opiates and an expensive gambling habit. By 1847, as Branwell’s life was nearing its unfortunate, but inevitable conclusion, all three of his sisters had their first novels published.
“As a story it really is a bit of a gift for a screenwriter, all I had to do was fashion it into a script,” says Wainwright modestly. “Being women living where they did at that time there was never any pressure on any of the Brontë sisters to succeed. However, as the only man in the house Branwell was expected to do well, but he just wasn’t up to it. The Brontës weren’t a wealthy family. They had to go out to work and they had to prove themselves, but whatever he tried to turn his hand to it just never worked out.
“Life at home must have been incredibly fraught, but against that backdrop Charlotte, Emily and Ann produced some incredible prose and poetry. These were incredibly clever, strong-minded and complex women. Part of that is down to their father Patrick Brontë. While he was a vicar, he was also an Irishman who believed in the power of education. He encouraged his daughters to read writers like Byron. At the time he was widely considered to be quite vulgar, but it helped spark the sisters’ own imaginations.
“I think Emily’s writing speaks to me the most and I think Ann’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an incredible achievement. In the past it’s probably fair to say that out of the three, Ann has been the most overlooked, but I think more recently she seems to be finally getting the recognition she deserves.”
Routinely praised for the quality of her dialogue - Happy Valle won the Best Drama Bafta earlier this year - Wainwright honed her scriptwriting skills with early spells on The Archers and Coronation Street. While she now lives with her husband and two children in rural Oxfordshire much of her work is inspired by her native Yorkshire and it is likely To Walk Invisible, which Wainwright will also direct, will be filmed on location in the county.
“I know what I want the drama to look like and how I want it to feel, so I was keen to direct,” she says. “Sadly we can’t film in the parsonage itself as it is far too delicate, but we are hopeful of being able to film with Brontë county as a backdrop.
“The next step is casting and we have been tossing a few names around. The key is getting four actors who are believable as siblings and that’s not easy. I have watched so many dramas and thought, ‘Who are they trying to kid? They don’t come across as a family’. It comes down to that indescribable chemistry which you only know you have when you actually get the actors in a room together.”
Wainwright has been openly critical in the past of British television, saying it relies too much on aping what’s happening in America when it should be ploughing its own furrow. However, with Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax both recommissioned for a second and fourth series Wainwright is at least doing her part to bring a distinctive northern voice to the schedules.
“Writing the Brontë drama was fascinating, but I am definitely more of a contemporary writer,” she says. “I think television spends far too much time looking back and I much prefer to look forward.”
However, as soon as the words are out of her mouth, she admits that there is another iconic Yorkshire woman on her radar.
“I’ve been talking about doing a drama about Anne Lister for the last 15 years, but at last I think we are getting there. There was a series a couple of years ago based on her diaries, but I don’t think it really did her justice. She was another extraordinary character. Eccentric but extraordinary. In the 1800s she ran the Shibden Hall estate with 15 tenant farmers, was a leading explorer and lived an openly lesbian life, which was incredible for the age.
“The truth is I write the things that I want to watch and the story of Ann Lister definitely falls into that category.”