Sally Wainwright: ‘I didn’t want To Walk Invisible to be just another period drama’

The writer behind Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax has turned her pen to her childhood inspiration, the Brontes

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who the Brontës were. I grew up in Sowerby Bridge, about eight miles from Haworth, so they were part of our local history. I visited the Parsonage dozens and dozens of times and was very familiar with the story of the Brontë family. Later, I came to the books; I think I’ve read all of them now, but it was reading Wuthering Heights when I was about 14, possibly earlier, that really pulled me in. I was blown away by how it’s so unlike anything you think women would be writing at that time. It’s so down-to-earth, it talks about the coarseness of real life, and that’s something that appeals enormously to me as a writer. 

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I’ve now done a lot of research into how the Brontës lived. Life expectancy in Haworth at that time was 19, mainly due to poor sanitation – the main street would have been running with sewage. It was a bleak place to grow up, but it was close to Halifax, which had concerts and a thriving Philosophical Society and a Literary Society, so in many ways life for the Brontës was more sophisticated than we realise.

Writing a period drama is very different from writing contemporary drama and it’s often harder, because you’ve got to respect that people spoke in certain ways. I recently watched the 1970s drama serial about the Brontës, and they all spoke extremely correctly, posh and stiff, as if they’d been to drama school. Certainly they would have known correct grammar, but they would most definitely have had a Yorkshire accent and used local phrases. We’ve got books that have dialect in them, but we don’t know how accurate they are, so I’ve had to be quite inventive with the use of language, because I desperately wanted to get away from making it sound like just another period piece. 

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The BBC approached me about five years ago to do something for the bicentennial of Charlotte’s birth in 1816. They wanted a biopic, and it could have been a full series, but I wanted to focus on the Brontës as mature adults, so I chose the three-year period leading up to Branwell Brontë’s death in 1848. The tragic aspect of the Brontës – three of the siblings died within ten months of one another – has always been a draw, but in this film I really didn’t want them to be defined by their deaths. What fascinates me is the fact of three literary geniuses sitting in the same room, and the fact that they were all women. It’s an extraordinarily compelling story, and I hope I’ve done it justice.

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To Walk Invisible airs on Thursday 29 December at 9pm on BBC1