TV and Radio

Happy Valley writer Sally Wainwright walking tall over new Bronte drama

Last Tango In Halifax and Happy Valley writer Sally Wainwright is a byword for good quality drama, and her latest one-off piece for BBC One, To Walk Invisible, about the Bronte sisters, looks set to be another hit. She discusses the Brontes' enduring appeal

Writer and director Sally Wainwright with actor Jonathan Pryce behind the scenes of upcoming BBC drama To Walk Invisible

WHY DID YOU WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THE LIVES OF THE BRONTE SISTERS?

I wanted this to feel as authentic as it could. When people watch it, I want them to feel they are transported back in time. It's not a chocolate box world and I hope it does reflect the real world they lived in. The primary aim of To Walk Invisible is to entertain people, for people to engage with it as drama and enjoy it.

YOU ALSO DIRECT TO WALK INVISIBLE. HAVE YOU HAD THE IDEA FOR A LONG TIME?

I was first asked to do it eight years ago, so the idea has been there for quite a while, but I've only just got round to it because I've been lucky and have had lots of other projects on. I was waiting for the perfect time to get on with it. We wanted to coincide with the bicentenary of Charlotte's [Bronte's] birth, so finally I found time to do it.

WHY DO WE REMAIN DRAWN TO THE BRONTES?

It was the fact there were three geniuses in one family – and they all were geniuses. Charlotte was so ambitious and Emily was so eccentric that they tend to take the limelight, but I think Anne was clearly as talented as they were. [The sisters' father – who was born Patrick Brunty but later changed his surname – was born near Rathfriland, Co Down, and taught in a small school in Drumballyroney before moving to Yorkshire.]

Anne's not just making up the numbers – she was equally talented. The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is an extraordinary novel, it's absolutely up there with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. They were three extraordinary women, not privileged, but well-educated and they understood the power of literature. I think that's the most important thing about them.

What's interesting about the Brontes is it's not just their work that fascinates people, it's them personally. I don't know any other literary figure, even Dickens, Shakespeare and Jane Austen, where people are as fascinated by their lives equally as with their literature as we are with the Bronte sisters. I suspect that's because there is something quite tragic about their story – as soon as they became successful, they had very little time to enjoy it.

AS A WOMAN WRITER, CAN YOU RECOGNISE SOME OF THEIR STRUGGLE TO BE NOTICED?

Charlotte makes a couple of speeches in the drama that I feel I can identify with. When she goes to meet her publisher for the first time, she has to really convince him that she is Currer Bell [her pen name] and he clearly was expecting someone else. She says to him, 'What makes you doubt that I am Currer Bell? Is it my accent? Is it my gender? Is it my size?' Emily also says something which I still feel is true, where she says that when a man writes something, it is what is written that is judged. When a woman writes something, it's her that's judged. I still think that's true today in many ways.

DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU'RE JUDGED WHEN YOU WRITE?

I used to feel like that. I think it's less so now because I think I've proved that I do write things that people want to watch so now they [critics] do tend to look at just the work. After the first transmission of the first series of At Home With The Braithwaites, some **** in some newspaper wrote, 'Sally Wainwright has been given six hours of television and she doesn't know what to do with it'. How can you judge that after one hour? Anyway, people don't say things like that anymore which is nice.

DO YOU FEEL MORE PRESSURE NOW YOU'RE SUCCESSFUL?

No. I feel very lucky at the moment because I work with some great people who give you so much confidence in yourself. I have a nice group of people around me, wonderful crew, wonderful teams of people, so you feel that you are, as a team, creating something good. I'm lucky that on the whole, I feel confident about the direction we're going in.

:: To Walk Invisible is on BBC One on Thursday, December 29

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