Alan Morrison on
The Brontës of Haworth (1973)
Written/Adapted by Christopher Fry
(BFS Entertainment, US and Canada Region 1 NTSC, 2003)
and Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë
(Victor Gollancz, 1960; Penguin, 1972)
Being a devoted lover of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and a self-confessed fan of – particularly 1970s – vintage television costume drama, I’d always wanted to see this biographical series of the quirky Irish-Cornish doyens of 19th century gothic romantic fiction. My mother had always remembered this dramatisation vividly from 1973, in particular, Michael Kitchen’s supreme turn as Branwell Brontë and the far too unsung Alfred Burke’s masterly portrayal of the eccentric, aloof and taciturn head of the family, Patrick Brontë. Both actors excel in their performances, but in spite of Kitchen’s tour-de-force of tangible torment (excuse the alliteration) as Branwell, it is Burke’s jackdaw-like Patrick that makes this series especially enjoyable. Indeed, Burke’s husky – replete with convincing Irish accent – catchphrase, ‘Goodnight my children; don’t stay up too late’, which he whispers to his restlessly creative daughters on his way to bed every night in some ways serves as light relief amid the domestic intensity of this series. Burke’s understated take on the near-myopic, bespectacled, beaky-faced Reverend – whose chin, throughout the five episodes, recedes further and further behind an increasingly waxing neckerchief until his mouth is practically embalmed – is one of the most subtly nuanced characterisations I have ever witnessed; masterly. If only Burke had been given more opportunities to shine as one of our greatest character actors, instead of being miscast as Long John Silver in 1977’s adaptation of Treasure Island (apart from the long-running Public Eye 1969-1971, in which he played a down-at-heel detective, and as a Nazi Officer in Enemy at the Door, 1979-80, I can only recall one other outstanding performance from him as the sinister man on the bus in one of the superior episodes from Tales of the Unexpected, 1980’s The Fly Paper).
Burke and Kitchen aside, it would be grossly misrepresentative to omit mention of Rosemary McHale and Vickery Turner as Emily and Charlotte respectively. Turner’s Charlotte is an infinitely more intriguing and emotional figure than one might be led to expect; in fact, while Anne (Ann Penfold) is the more passive and composed of the three sisters, and Emily, the aloof and taciturn black sheep, it’s Charlotte here who is depicted as the most frustrated and self-torturing, as exemplified in her beautifully powerful internal monologue at the end of one episode, in which she castigates herself for feeling wanting in the kind of single-minded creative passion that drove others before her to write great things. I can think of no other television series – and as you might be able to tell from the size of my contribution in this section of the site, I’ve seen, and re-seen, an awful lot of them – before or since this forgotten masterpiece, that so uncompromisingly depicts the true nature of artistic agony. It is indeed episode three which stands out as the peak of the series, possibly the most intense 50 minutes of television costume drama I can think of. Apart from Charlotte’s outburst, we also witness another, equally heart-rending one from Anne while working as a stultified governess, groaning to herself on the floor ‘Oh I despair of humankind’. And to top it all, in this episode we reach the true nadir of Branwell’s continued breakdown for his sense of complete failure both morally and creatively. There are tormented monologues galore from him throughout, only made comical to the more cynical viewer by Kitchen’s diminutive, puffy-haired demeanour, resembling a cross between Mr Tumnus and Bilbo Baggins (with a smattering of Percy Bysshe Shelley thrown in for good measure). Kitchen’s delivery of Branwell’s defence of the superficially base nature of Byron is deeply moving, especially on considering the profligate, unpublished poet’s sincere empathy with the artistic spirit of his hero: ‘it was from such a base nature that the wells of a higher soul sprung’ (sic).
The entire cast excels in its each portrayal of the Brontë kin, their stormy-browed housemaids, and of their very few but loyal friends and acquaintances. Rosemary McHale proves herself well worthy of her casting for Emily, dour, aloof and almost continually glowering throughout the series, and, stubbornly staggering down the stairs on the day of her death from tuberculosis – the illness that the family was famously and fatally susceptible to – and shrugging off Charlotte’s concern as fussing. The casting of Emily in particular is a tall task, being probably the most obscure and mythical of the three sisters – through the reputation of her one and only novel, the brooding Wuthering Heights – and McHale is a brilliant choice with her bleak beauty and large gloomy eyes. Indeed, all three sisters are cast expertly in terms of character and looks – and this is played on early in the series when they are shown posing behind Branwell’s famous portrait of them, which is facing the viewer by way of facial comparison (though the lack of emphasis on Branwell’s famously brushing himself out from the painting is, strangely, unmentioned; this, along with the preference for focus on Charlotte’s journey through the writing of Jane Eyre, but not of Emily’s seminal gothic-romance, remain the only disappointments in this otherwise comprehensive depiction). Furthermore, one only needs to take a look at the surviving side-profile photograph of Patrick Brontë to see how uncannily similar to him a white-haired, bespectacled Alfred Burke is.
Anyone who has visited the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, will witness how authentically its interior is reproduced in this serial; in particular, the legendary sitting room where the sisters were known to pace round a small table discussing their ideas and reciting their stories to one another (a spell-binding image which rather disturbed me as a small boy when entering that dark creaky room). Location work, of which there is a fair bit for a series of this period, is appropriately filmed in slatey Haworth itself, and around the grounds of the real Parsonage, set like a windowed sepulchre among its churchyard of leaning headstones.
Special mention has to go to writer Christopher Fry for his boldly poetic script, which, rather than – as would be more the case today via irrelevant sex and restless cameras – skirting around long speeches, expositions and, even, silences, actually lingers on such aspects to this series, which are as one might expect abundant throughout; Fry clearly realised that words were the very bone and sinew of this setting, and so drives the narrative through extraordinarily beguiling speeches and monologues, that almost make any attempts throughout at reality-based domesticity and actual recorded events seem comparatively mundane (though still entertaining and interesting in themselves). You simply wouldn’t get a script of this quality being broadcast today, at least, not without it being cauterised into verbal snatches in-between overly visceral visual exposition and pretentious and distracting camerawork).
But still on the subject of the actual writing, we are to assume the main source behind the script and depictions of the Brontës, most particularly Charlotte and Branwell, originate in Elizabeth Gaskill’s Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857). This is made patently clear to any doubters by the actual appearance of Gaskill in the series itself, coming in towards the end to meet, get to know, and begin writing about Charlotte, a writer whom she perceives, no doubt correctly, as superior in ‘genius’ to herself (though one equalled, if not transcended, by her sister Emily, and, at least potentially, by her brother – but of course only the living famous and not the posthumously recognised have the privilege of knowing their biographers). It is also, as we realise by the end, Gaskill’s voice narrating the family story from the beginning and throughout – and Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s dulcet tones serve the purpose well. Inevitably, in a script drawn largely from Gaskill, much of the series’ focus is on Charlotte, and a considerable amount too on her brother, probably because the two were, at least as children, inseparable, feeding off one another as Genius Tallii (Charlotte) and Chief Genius Brannii (Branwell), often formatively co-writing the minute-scripted tales of Angria and Gondol together. Naturally, Branwell’s growing insanity would have been of much significance to his closest sister, and so the series spends almost as much – if not more, at least, for the first three episodes – focus on her brother as on herself. Emily (Genius Emmii) is, in a way appropriately for her reputation, an ever-watching enigma in the scenario, but almost always imposing an unspoken objectivity on the rest of the family by her enviable detachment (helped by McHale’s simmering stare), often only breaking her silences for quipping aphorisms: ‘I suppose endurance is a form of occupation’.
But having recently read Daphne du Maurier’s utterly riveting work of faction, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (Victor Gollancz, 1960; Penguin, 1972) – possibly the best storyline she ‘embellished’ on (her famous Rebecca being almost identical to the plot of Jane Eyre), and second only in strength to her ingeniously ambiguous My Cousin, Rachel – I’ve been transported into a slightly different take on Branwell’s nature and life, although Gaskill’s depiction is admittedly every bit as ‘infernal’ as du Maurier’s. But there are certain intriguing aspects to du Maurier’s pseudo-biography of Branwell that are absent from the Gaskill source, and understandably, since the latter was of course a biography on Charlotte and not her brother. While the irrational, temperamental, precocious character of Branwell is portrayed in both du Maurier’s work and Fry’s adaptation from Gaskill, in the former, we are allowed greater insight into the extraordinary workings of the brother’s creative imagination, every bit as distinct and powerful – as evidenced, in glimpses, through the variously quoted fragments of poems and prose throughout the book, occasionally hackneyed and un-drafted though they remain – as each of his sister’s. The difference seems to be that through a misperceived notion of an innate superiority in purpose to his sisters, as tempered by the society of the time, and a volatile and unfocused artistic nature palliated ruinously by alcohol, laudanum and opium, Branwell’s potential genius never developed beyond its potential, at least not sufficiently on the page to lift his name to the heights of those poets who populated Blackwood's.
Through a tragic combination of transparent precocity, inelegant egoism (re a letterhe wrote to the editor of Blackwood's on the death of a lauded poet, announcing his own poetic gifts as a consolation), addictive nature, epilepsy (then still religiously misinterpreted and stigmatised) and possible schizophrenia, the fundamentally morbid and obsessive Brontë temperament which he shared with his three sisters, in his case, floundered and turned-in on itself instead of flowering into full bloom through the channel more focused and single-minded creativity. So whereas, in turn, Anne, Emily and Charlotte made the morbid Brontë duende work for them into published authorship, Branwell became victim to it, and it destroyed him. Apart from a rag-tag portfolio of literary and poetic scraps – some fleetingly brilliant but many, as du Maurier often observes, ‘amateur’ or ‘doggerel’ – and a few highly promising canvases, Branwell left scarce evidence of his intrinsic ‘genius’ behind him, famously noting this on his death-bed: ‘I had done nothing neither great nor good’. This is his tragedy, and it is testament to the sheer power – or even genius, if you like – of his turbulent and rebellious personality, that Branwell came posthumously to inspire such a zealous and intricately-drawn biography by one of Britain’s most popular novelists. A flattering tribute indeed, and by way of belated consolation for such an ‘infernal’ life, a means to the posterity he died thinking he’d denied himself.
Equally interesting as well in du Maurier’s book, is the fact that, among other poet and artist peers of his – all of whom were, conversely, ‘recognised’ in their lifetimes – Branwell counted among one his closest friends the fascinating figure of Hartley Coleridge (son of the famous Samuel Taylor), a poet and critic of some repute in his own right, but whose own gifts were ultimately stunted in the overwhelming shadow of his father’s reputation. du Maurier’s descriptions of Hartley Coleridge are intriguing, this having been a young man whom through extreme sensitivity lived his whole life as a recluse, and, possibly by some neurological quirk, was prematurely white-haired and had the gait and bearing of an old man while only in his twenties (almost a genetic metaphor for his aforementioned creative stunting). But the greatest near-revelation in du Maurier’s account, is the possibility some sparks of Branwell’s own imagination might have filtered into the basic storyline of Emily’s Wuthering Heights. This is not substantiated by du Maurier, who, indeed, goes to some length to argue that it was simply Branwell’s fraternal hubris in claiming he had had a hand in his sister’s masterpiece: apparently on brandishing the manuscript of Wuthering Heights to his friends in a pub, he realised on beginning to read it out that he had accidentally picked up a piece of Emily’s writing thinking it his own, but then decided in the moment to pretend it was his own so as not to lose face. Nevertheless, one can’t help thinking that so many aspects to the mood and setting of the story, and in particular, the tormented, demonic nature of Heathcliff, echoed uncannily not only the characteristics and preoccupations of Branwell, but also some of his formative fantastical narratives and characterisations. But one might further assume that inevitably some of his own thoughts and ideas might have unconsciously found their way into the psyche of his similarly-tempered sister (the novel’s character of Hindley Earnshaw, in particular, bears a striking resemblance to her love-abandoned, alcoholic brother; as does, in part, the frail doomed youth Linton, though perhaps as well more than an echo of Branwell's friend, Hartley Coleridge).
What is clear, in the end, is that even though his own creative development was truncated through mental and physical maladies and a series of unlucky events in a far too constricted home life, Branwell, by his very artistry of personality, indirectly influenced and coloured much of his sisters’ literary achievements. The fact too that, as du Maurier goes into great detail to expose, Branwell was evidently a child prodigy (an ambidexter, he could apparently put down two entirely separate and distinct pieces of writing simultaneously) and thus originally the obvious focal point for all the family’s worldly aspirations, makes his case even more tragic.
But to return to the dramatisation, which is the main focus of this review. One can only puzzle, greatly, as to why, as yet, this riveting and moving series has yet to be released on DVD in the UK. I managed to get hold of it from Canada, and although it is Region 1, I must have through sheer will power, enabled it to work on my Region 2 player – and this review is proof that it has, and a few times over. One might hope that with the recent box set of adaptations of the Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, that a release of the actual biopic of the writers’ lives, for a viewing public far more enamoured to the medium of ‘docu-drama/fact-based adaptation’ than to ‘fiction-based dramatisation’, will come imminently in the future, for surely there’d be wide demand for this. But who knows? I certainly wouldn’t hold my breath, since for some reason the UK seems to show a rather philistine disregard for its own vintage television gems, preferring more often than not to release contemporary series on DVD, most of which are not only practically embryonic in reputation for having only just been broadcast prior to release, but are also frequently pale and poorly-written shadows of their artistically superior Seventies forebears (why, for instance, buy a sexed-up mediocrity
like Elizabeth I (2005) when you can get the authentic, superiorly scripted and acted article, Elizabeth R (1972)? and who in all sanity would prefer a grunting cockney Ray Winstone (Henry VIII, 2003) to Keith Michell’s ingratiatingly bumptious portrayal of 1970’s flawless The Six Wives of Henry VIII?). It was some small miracle when the BBC finally released the classic 1978 serialisation of Wuthering Heights, the only adaptation – on small and big screen – that comes near to the brooding gloom of the novel, with a definitive, goblin-like Heathcliff in relative unknown Keith Hutchison – and though it is included in the new Brontës box set, I’d recommend buying it separately, since the superior version of Jane Eyre is the 1973 small budget set-piece with the metallic-voiced Michael Jayston excelling as Rochester, and not the more rose-lensed one with the metallic-faced Timothy Dalton, which is the one included in this set. But the same year’s sister production is still unavailable, in the UK. For those who can’t hold their breath beyond this review, I recommend a quick transaction via Amazon in order to acquire and treasure this brilliantly written and acted masterpiece, tellingly only available as a US/Canadian release – our cousins over the Atlantic showing far more reverence to our own costume drama heritage than we evidently do. But then, as with Branwell, a prophet hath no honour in his own land….
Alan Morrison © 2008