To Walk Invisible is a major new BBC drama from Sally Wainwright about The Bronte Family, Jonathan Pryce plays patriarch of the family Patrick. Here he talks about the production.
Tell us about your character…
I play the father of the Brontë family, Patrick Brontë. He’s the minister in Haworth. I knew nothing about him, only of his daughters and their writing, but Patrick is someone that had never figured much in my thoughts.
It was a surprise to discover that he came from Northern Ireland and left when he was 18 to study at Cambridge. When he introduced himself at Cambridge to the Gatekeeper his name was ‘Prunty’, but they couldn’t understand what he was saying so wrote down Brontë, and he must have liked it! So he stayed with it and added the umlauts.
He was a very, very bright man and forward thinker. He was a widower and had cataracts, which you see in the film. He has an operation to have them removed, which would have been quite an extraordinary event in the 1880s and would have been very scary then, as the survival rate wasn’t great. That made him go in on himself a little – I know that when I had my cataract lenses in to play the character it does do that to you, it’s a claustrophobic experience.
What is To Walk Invisible about?
It’s about an extraordinary family. Three very self-contained women and then there’s Branwell. There’s a lot of focus in this story on Branwell and it’s certainly the focus for me, because the girls were getting on with their writing, which was a secret from Patrick. People know less about Branwell and you discover what his problems were.
Branwell was a deeply unhappy person, an alcoholic and a source of regret for his father. Because his father home-schooled him, everything he knew, he learned from Patrick. He was a super intelligent boy and I think he suffered in a way that sons can when their father is seen to be intellectually superior. Somehow he didn’t quite measure up to the girls and that for me is a very strong pull for my character and for me to the script.
What makes it unique?
I’ve done films and TV programmes in the past based on real people and the benchmark for me is, does this stand up if you didn’t know the names of the people involved?
Take away the Brontë name and it still has to be an exciting and relevant drama. Sally focuses on the tensions among the family; it’s about a family who happen to be called Brontë and happen to be very successful authors. It’s not all sweetness and light, it’s quite dark and troubled.
What is the one thing that you want people to take away from To Walk Invisible?
You want them to be moved and to be able to feel some kind of compassion for the characters, as well as finding out a little more about what drove the girls. You wouldn’t think that these three girls closeted in this parsonage on a windy hillside in Yorkshire would turn out to write novels with such depth and such insight as they did because they hadn’t travelled and they didn’t mix in the community. They were very much a law unto themselves and I hope that the audiences go away learning a lot more about them.
There are more dramatizations of their novels than dramatizations about them. I think it will be quite refreshing for people to find out how they actually functioned.
To Walk Invisible soon on BBC One.