Fans of the actress Sarah Lancashire will recognize her as Caroline from Last Tango in Halifax and Catherine, the police sergeant in Happy Valley. But they may not recognize Sally Wainwright, the creator and writer behind both of those British TV series. Wainwright has been writing for television since the 1990s, but these two programs in particular have slowly been raising awareness of her name, if not her face, to American audiences.
In addition to writing To Walk Invisible, a new biopic about the Brontë sisters (Anne, Emily and Charlotte), Wainwright also directed the film. During a recent telephone interview, Wainwright spoke about her interest in the Brontës, the origins of the project and what it felt like to write in the voice of someone from the 19th century.
What was your introduction to the Brontës’ work?
As a teenager, I was first drawn to Wuthering Heights. As an adult, I’ve been much more engaged by Emily’s poetry. I’ve never particularly got on with Charlotte’s work, although she is very clever, obviously. It was because of her ambition and her drive that they ended up getting published. But I like Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall best. That’s my favorite novel.
I grew up in West Yorkshire, about eight miles from Haworth [the village where the Brontës lived]. I visited the parsonage a lot when I was little. I’ve always known who the Brontë sisters were, and feel like they’re a part of my own personal culture.
How did To Walk Invisible come about?
About five years ago I was approached by the BBC. They wanted something to commemorate the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth, so they asked me if I would write a drama about the sisters’ lives. It seemed to me that the most dramatic part of their lives was the last three years when they were all still together. I took a few liberties and a little bit of poetic license, but on the whole it fell very neatly into a dramatic structure. It’s slightly truncated, obviously, because I’ve got to get three years into two hours, but I think it is pretty faithful to what happened in real life.
At the beginning of the program, there are fiery halos above the children’s heads. Did you use that imagery to reinforce or demystify the Brontë mythology?
I wanted to demystify them. I wanted us to see them as they were before anybody imagined they would be famous. The halos of fire were meant to be about the magical world of childhood. It was probably the happiest time of their lives ,and they were on fire with their creative brilliance and imagination. I didn’t want to mythologize them at all. I wanted to get away from that because I think they’re mythologized too much.
What made the three of them so unique?
I don’t think their circumstances created their genius. What’s extraordinary about the Brontë family is that three very, very talented people . . . well, four very talented and intelligent people [including their brother Branwell] just happened to be born into the same family. That’s the most extraordinary thing about them.
When you’re writing, is there any difference in the way that you hear 19th century characters as opposed to their counterparts in the 21st century?
It took a long time for me to get the characters to speak in a way that I was happy with. I didn’t want it to sound like other period dramas. We in the [television] industry have developed a language that is not necessarily authentic. We take everything from novels, and novels often use very heightened language. I wanted to try to re-create something that would both be accessible to modern ears and be a semblance of how they would have spoken in the past.
I listened to some very old tapes of recordings of ordinary people speaking. The oldest ones I could get hold of were like a 100 years old. It’s really tricky to imagine what it would have been like. Even if one could know, it probably wouldn’t work on television because it would be so remote and alien to how we speak now. It’s like all TV dramas. It’s a bit of a balancing act between authenticity and creating something that the audience will be engaged by and understand.
You grew up near the moors, and you have set several of your television series there. What does that particular landscape mean to your imagination?
West Yorkshire, where I set a lot of my work, can be very bleak and intimidating, but it’s also breathtakingly beautiful and dramatic. The area also has a very particular dialect. For me, it’s about authenticity, so if I write something that’s set there, and I use that landscape and I use that accent, it will feel very real to me, and I hope, in turn, it will feel very real to other people too.
For American audiences who aren’t familiar with your earlier work, what would you like them to watch?
The first big series that I had on over here that was successful was called At Home with the Braithwaites. It went four series over here and it was very successful. It was nominated for an Emmy actually, so it must have been on in America. Then I wrote a series in 2007 called The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, which is very timely, actually, because it was about a supermarket manager becoming prime minister.
Masterpiece: To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters airs Sunday, March 26 from 9 to 11pm on KQED 9.