Bringing life to the Brontës

This post was contributed by Dr Siv Jansson, Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. She was Literary Advisor on To Walk Invisible (written and directed by Sally Wainwright: BBC).

The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored

The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored

A drama about the Brontes was something which Sally and I had talked about over a number of years, and I knew it was a topic she had long wanted to do. In 2014  it was green-lit by the BBC, and by the end of that year the process of producing the script began.

Sally did a tremendous amount of research and had clear ideas concerning the approach she wanted to take, and it was my job to support that. There is no clear ‘job description’ for the role of literary advisor; it depends upon the people you are working with and the nature of the project. The literary advisor is there to do just that, advise: the decisions rest with the writer/director and producer. Sally and I had many, many lengthy discussions, and I read the drafts of the script bit by bit as she wrote them. I’d comment or suggest, but it was always Sally’s script. She made the decision to focus on the period 1845-8, and I agreed with this; even though the BBC gave us an extra 30 minutes – making it a120-minute instead of a 90-minute film – to try to fit all the Brontes’ lives – and deaths – into two hours would have been an impossible task. 1845-8 is the period when the writing emerged into the public domain so it made sense to concentrate on that.

A major part of my role was research; for example, I found the newspaper story which Charlotte is reading to her father in one of the early scenes. It’s from the Leeds Intelligencer: Sally wanted something which would have been in the news at that time and of interest to Patrick (it was a story about Irish politics). I also re-read all the biographical material available and anything Sally didn’t have time to look at, looked up details – for example what information was available at that time on delirium tremens – put together a compendium of descriptions of the Brontes and the various images which are or have been claimed to be them, and also investigated some of the most well-known but possibly unfounded Bronte myths. As Juliet Barker has pointed out, Branwell not only didn’t go to London, but was never intended to do so – there is a letter from Patrick which talks about sending him the following year. Following up on this, I spent an afternoon in the British Library looking at coaching timetables and journeys to establish that he actually could not have made the journey he is supposed to have made on the dates or times he is thought to have made it, and that the planned trip to London was, indeed, a myth. We considered whether to excise the flashback scene where Branwell is describing to his father and aunt that he had been robbed in London (while Emily observes from the doorway), but decided that it did important work in terms of establishing character and Emily and Branwell’s relationship, and that it should stay for these reasons. These kinds of decisions are part of the business of producing a drama.

We were very lucky to have rehearsal time with the cast who were playing the family, and they spent a week in Haworth with Sally, where I joined them for a couple of days. It was an opportunity for them to see the Parsonage and spend time with the staff, work with Sally, benefit from the expertise of people like Ann Dinsdale (Principal Curator at the Parsonage), Juliet Barker (historian and author of The Brontes)  and Patsy Stoneman (Bronte scholar), and to bond in a way which I firmly believe contributed a great deal to the success of the film and the strength of their performances.

There has, of course, been some coverage in the press over Branwell’s use of the word ‘fuck’. I understand that some people have been troubled by this as being inappropriate or too contemporary but Branwell would have been mixing with quite a range of individuals as his drinking and opium habit developed and I think it perfectly credible that he would have sworn at all of the family as his life deteriorated. We referred this to Ann Dinsdale who concurred with us. I also think that there remains an assumption that great writers, or even those associated with them, must talk in some kind of ‘elevated’ way rather than like ordinary human beings. Anyone who knows Sally’s work will be aware of the sheer believability with which she imbues her characters and her dialogue. One of our key principles in developing the script was that the Brontes should behave and interact as much like a real, ordinary family as possible; there was to be no mystic wafting on the moors or notions that people born and bred in Yorkshire would talk as if they had just left elocution school. It is also essential, from a commercial point of view, to create characters who will have some resonance with contemporary viewers who may not be Bronte experts, or even fans.

Getting details right was a commitment made by everyone involved, and when I saw the recreation of the Parsonage rooms at the studios in Manchester, I was, quite frankly, amazed; without the benefit of any contemporary images from which to work, Grant, our designer, and his team came up with brilliant representations. Equally, the reconstructed parsonage on the moors was astonishing; seeing it built (and seeing what it looked like before it was finished!) gave me a real appreciation of the levels of skill involved in making something like this happen.

As anyone who works with biography will know, it is a slippery art form. Biographies are shaped by their cultural moment and the direction pursued by the biographer, whether on paper or screen. Bronte biography is particularly problematic because it is so dogged by myth-making , as Lucasta Miller has so aptly observed, and also because it is so patchy and erratic. We know a reasonable amount about Charlotte, though there are significant gaps; less about Anne and Branwell; relatively little about Emily. This is both a gift and a curse; it leaves wonderful imaginative spaces but at the same time means that speculation is inevitable. All any biographer or dramatist can do is provide their interpretation of the information we have. Dramatising the Brontes brings with it additional demands because they carry such a mystique with the public and their readers, and I think we were all aware that whatever we did, there would be some who would not like it.

Do I like it? I love it. The film does exactly what I wanted it to do when Sally and I first discussed it; it resists the myths, it shows a real – and sometimes dysfunctional – family, and it portrays the significance and development of the writing. I am somewhat baffled by those who complained that it didn’t show enough of this – I could itemise so many scenes which showed, or talked about, the poetry, or the novels, or the juvenilia. It even revealed Branwell as a writer, though clearly nowhere near the stature of his sisters. Writing is not a dramatic act: it is necessarily static and largely internal as a creative process. To show repeated scenes of people writing at tables – or even walking round them – would have been utterly tedious; nor do I think it was imperative to keep reminding the audience that the Brontes wrote. Yes, I have favourite scenes: Emily and Branwell’s nocturnal exchange sitting on the gate, the opening with the children, Emily speaking ‘No Coward Soul’ to Anne, the scene in Smith, Elder & Co. in London, the discovery of Emily’s poetry (and her reaction), the visit of William Allison to Branwell in the Black Bull, and the bailiffs’ scene.

What advice would I give to anyone taking up the job of literary advisor on a similar project? Be flexible and open to ideas, be thorough, respond speedily to queries and requests, love the topic (but) keep the genre of TV and its demands in mind, don’t expect drama to operate as a documentary, accept that your suggestions or advice won’t always be taken, and realise that the writer, director  and producer have the final say.  I had never worked on a project like this before and it was a (sometimes steep) learning curve; but I loved the experience, was delighted with the response, and am very proud of what we achieved.

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Why Remember Shoulder to Shoulder?

This post was written by Dr Janet McCabe, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, and Vicky Ball, De Montfort University

Helena Bonham-Carter and Carey Mulligan recently marched through the corridors of Parliament agitating for female suffrage. It made the news. Not the protest. But because it was the first time that a commercial film had been shot inside the Palace of Westminster. In recreating what women did in that constitutional space to get the vote 100 years ago Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, brings that historic campaign back into public consciousness. While the struggle for emancipation shaped the political landscape in Britain in the early 1900s and changed irrevocably the position of women in society, it is a story that hardly ever makes it on to our screens; and it has been 40 years since we saw the suffragette movement last dramatized for television.

2014 marks the fortieth anniversary of the BBC miniseries, Shoulder to Shoulder, which focused on the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia (1898-1918). It consisted of six specially written plays and it came about through the collaboration of three women, the actress Georgia Brown, filmmaker and feminist Midge Mackenzie and TV producer Verity Lambert. A sense of the public service remit pervades the series as Shoulder to Shoulder dramatizes particular events of the early suffrage movement, albeit from a decidedly socialist perspective. Its importance as a landmark BBC drama documenting the history of feminism and the emergent public voice of women is unquestioned. That said, the series seldom gets repeated and has never been released on DVD. This neglect prompts us to ask: why is such a politically important drama about women’s history still buried deep in the BBC archive?

Shoulder to Shoulder first aired on Wednesday 3 April 1974 at 9pm on BBC 2. It seemed an inauspicious start. Competing as it did with the extensively praised documentary series, The World at War, on ITV, and the popular ‘fly-on-the-wall’ series, The Family, on BBC 1. A quirk of scheduling has perhaps contributed to the amnesia, with the suffragette drama squeezed out of our collective TV memories as we recollect instead the ambition of the multi-award winning World War II series (still on television screens somewhere) and one of the first ‘reality’ shows in the history of television, which documented the everyday life of the Wilkins, a working-class family from Reading. What defined these shows at this moment in British television culture when BBC and ITV dominated was a focus on stories rarely told: ordinary people caught up in history; or those who had scarcely been given representation or a public voice on television before.

It is well known that Emmeline Pankhurst was alive to the importance of capturing the media to help shape her political message; and some of the W.S.P.U.’s preoccupations—with the media, penal reform and direct action—chimed in with Britain in the early 1970s. The IRA bombing campaign (with the Price Sisters on hunger strike in Holloway prison—and forcibly fed), industrial strife and economic crisis meant that the series carried more than a whiff of controversy.

Shoulder to shoulderBut maybe it was its feminism that lay at the heart of why Shoulder to Shoulder has been forgotten then and why we should remember it now. At the cast and crew reunion held at Birkbeck last Thursday both Siân Phillips and Angela Down, who play Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst respectively, admitted to knowing little about these women before making the series. While Phillips was politically active and involved in the trade union movement, she had no formal education about the Suffragettes.

She wasn’t alone.

Midge Mackenzie spoke often of how the project grew out of her experience of filming the Golden Jubilee of Women’s Suffrage in 1968, when she discovered the story of how women won the right to vote had been ‘almost successfully erased from the history books. The women who fought for the vote had vanished from our history,’ she wrote. ‘Their writings were long since out of print and their newspapers buried in archives’ (Shoulder to Shoulder 1988; ix). In good documentary fashion Mackenzie filled her book, which one feels was a response to the betrayal she somehow felt at having men write the TV series, with women’s voices—original experiences as expressed in the words of those taking part, from diaries, letters, memoirs, speeches, as well as newspaper reports and the Suffragettes own publications, Votes for Women and The Suffragette.

The series, like the book, focused on the militant campaign; but these Suffragettes were by no means the only campaigners demanding enfranchisement. Shoulder to Shoulder (like all history) is a product of its time and, for example, it doesn’t address the contribution of other dedicated Suffragettes like Countess Markievicz, the first woman elected to Parliament, or Charlotte Despard, an Irish-based campaigner and Sinn Féin activist, for as Irish revolutionaries it probably was not the right time for reassessment as the troubles in northern Ireland still raged. And the non-violent, but constitutionally minded, Suffragists, led by Millicent Fawcett, barely got a look in either. But then committee work and letter writing is far less televisual than the drama of arson campaigns and bruising clashes with the police. What is rescued and recovered is not random, but the fragility of remembering the complexity of our history adds to ignorance and concealment.

But this is no excuse to forget Shoulder to Shoulder. Margaretta Jolly, Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, offered a useful intervention at the symposium that followed the screening, when she spoke of using the Suffragettes to ‘measure new feminisms’ and of the importance of passing these stories onto the next generation, however difficult and contested. What the act of recovery from this entanglement of ‘official’ history and personal stories, public speeches and oral testimonies, teach us is that the fight for equality didn’t end with enfranchisement—despite what postfeminism would have us to believe.

Remembering Shoulder to Shoulder isn’t only about reclaiming our stories, but about who has the power to tell them. Even within the production of the series there was a feminist struggle (of sorts) between an ideal and a challenging of power from the margins—Mackenzie, and shattering the glass ceiling and able to change the script but from the inside—Lambert.

Remembering the earlier fight for emancipation happened in the early 1970s at a time when a new feminism was struggling over questions of inequality, images of woman as Other and the culturally awkward position of women within the public sphere and their right to speak. Forty years and we remain preoccupied with similar questions. Reconnecting voices and the experience of women and women’s history across time and space is crucial.

Shoulder to Shoulder thus reminds us why the struggle still matters.

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