Tonight sees the US debut of To Walk Invisible, Sally Wainwright’s new one-off period drama chronicling the story of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, the sisters and world-famous authors who struggled with sexism and their alcoholic brother Branwell while living at their now-renowned home at the Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire.
And when it came to recreating the Brontës’ iconic living environment (now a museum with 70,000 visitors a year), executive producer Faith Penhale tells us that there was only really one option – rebuild the whole thing from scratch.
“The key thing for Sally and for all of us was we wanted to recreate the world of the Parsonage and Haworth as authentically as possible,” Penhale tells journalists including RadioTimes.com at the wet and windy Yorkshire set of the new film.
However, it soon became clear that using the real Parsonage wasn’t an option, with the building now wildly different from how it was laid out in the 1840s both on the inside (with regards to the width of hallways and rooms) and out (a large number of trees have grown up outside the Parsonage that weren’t there during the Brontës’ time).
The real Parsonage in 1940
“What we found when we started really exploring and looking, looking at the script, and the amount of material in the script, and then looking at how we could achieve that, was actually we needed to build the Parsonage,” Penhale says.
So that’s what they did, building a three-story wooden replica of the Parsonage on Penistone Hill, Penistone Country Park (the only bit of flat land close to the moors that inspired various scenes in the sisters’ novels) near the real town of Haworth that was painted black to simulate the pollution-stained stones of the time period.
The massive construction of timber and MDF took several months to create, and also featured the Parsonage’s side street and neighbouring buildings, including the church and graveyard (though scenes of Haworth's shopping streets were filmed in the real town) – and it wasn’t an easy replication to make.
“There’s only one actual map of the Parsonage that exists that shows you this geography,” production designer Grant Montgomery explains as we trudge through the authentic side streets and unintentionally authentic rain on the set, “and that’s it, that’s really all you get."
The wooden exterior set of To Walk Invisible - all the buildings and constructions were purpose-built for the drama
“You have to piece it together from all the descriptions, you know, from Charlotte’s letters, and you start piecing it together.”
The end result is undeniably convincing, with members of the Brontë society reportedly blown away by the building’s accuracy – though in one respect the building wasn’t entirely as the family lived in it, with interior scenes filmed instead at nearby studios in Manchester.
Meanwhile, the wooden Parsonage’s smaller rooms were filled with enough set dressing to make them look convincing when filmed through the windows (some interior scenes of characters looking out through the windows were also shot at Penistone Hill), full of authentic-looking props down to recreated versions of the Jane Eyre first editions.
An interior studio scene from To Walk Invisible
“We’ve reproduced a lot of the graphics from the first editions of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey,” Grant tells us. “They wouldn’t be new, so it’s all cut and bound as it really would have been.
“I think it’s that authenticity that you get, I think that gets through to an audience very much, they feel that. I think it’s really important.”
Sadly, the building was set to be torn down after filming finished – but we’re sure viewers will appreciate the effort.