Being otherwise engaged on the evening of 29 December, I finally got around to watching this BBC drama about the Brontës last night. It made for two hours of engaging viewing, with nineteenth-century Haworth brought to life with the assistance of a little CGI and ample additional muck strewn across its cobbled main street. It was a handsome production that paid a great deal of attention to period detail, so what we saw certainly looked as authentic as is practicable in such pieces. For the greater part of the time, the village and surrounding landscape were enveloped in a characteristic Pennine gloom that appeared to have penetrated to the very heart of the parsonage and the individuals who lived within it.
Although the programme opened with the three Brontë sisters and their brother Branwell as children, it dealt, in the main, with their lives as adults, with Branwell’s failures and mental and physical disintegration providing much of the meat of the drama. The story was strong, as was the cast, and the script was, to the greater part, solid, and yet for me this production seemed not to quite realise its full potential. It seemed to suffer from a phenomenon that has crept into much television drama in recent years: ‘soapification.’
‘“Soapification”? What in the blazes does he mean?’ I hear you ask. Well, it is nothing more than the process of making drama fit increasingly into the mould of soap opera, more specifically, making it conform to those exemplars of the genre that revel in misery, shouting and perpetual ill-temper; it was an approach pioneered and popularised by Brookside, and taken up and further exaggerated by Eastenders. Thus it was that the only laughter that we witnessed during the two hours was in one of Branwell’s nightmares, where his family, acquaintances and former lover were laughing at him in a scene of painful humiliation. Amongst the sisters themselves, there was a veritable surfeit of scowling and furrowed brows, a simmering anger unleavened by lighter moments, an atmosphere and mood so unremittingly gloom laden that it was a wonder that the entire family did not lapse into alcoholism and opiate addiction. Their preferred mode of speaking, even whilst out in the wilds of the moors out of earshot of any sheep, let alone any other human being, was whispering, their grumbling and accusatory susurrations at times beyond the range of the viewer’s ear. These observations tempted me to entertain other potential titles for the drama, such as ‘To Speak Inaudible,’ or ‘To Smile Imperceptible.’
Branwell was portrayed as an unruly and disruptive irritant, which I’m sure he was in real life, but the rages that the character in this production displayed seemed to be more appropriate to an adolescent than to a man who was 31 at the time of his death. I had envisioned him as a more subdued depressive, drinking and doping (speaking of which, there appeared to be no reference to his frequent abuse of opiates in this drama) himself to death, whilst his family helplessly looked on. The way in which his manners and conduct, as well as those of his sisters, were portrayed in this programme, did not seem to ring true for the offspring of a nineteenth-century clergyman; the twenty-first century appeared to have rudely intruded into the world of the 1840s.
There must have been some laughter in the lives of Anne, Charlotte and Emily, besides all of the Sturm und Drang which we encountered in this vision of their lives, or at least some brief moments (other than learning of their commercial literary success) during which they experienced at least a little levity. This drama would have benefitted from injecting a little colour into the all-pervading darkness with which it was enveloped; no set of lives is quite so monochrome.