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Jonathan Pryce: 'Take away the Brontë name and To Walk Invisible is still exciting and relevant'

(Image credit: BBC/Michael Prince)

Happy Valley creator Sally Wainwright has turned her attention to the Brontë sisters in BBC1's To Walk Invisible. And star Jonathan Pryce says the drama is worthy of the great writers

Game of Thrones star Jonathan Pryce plays the Brontë sisters' father, Patrick, in To Walk Invisible – a period drama which tells the story of the novelists' rise to fame. We spoke to Jonathan to find out more...

Tell us about your character… "I play the father of the Brontë family, Patrick Brontë. He’s the minister in Haworth, a small town in the Yorkshire Dales. I knew nothing about him, only of his daughters and their writing, but Patrick is someone that had never figured much in my thoughts..."

What did you make of Sally Wainwright's script? "I took this job because I thought we were making Happy Valley 3! I said 'Why the costumes? Is Sarah Lancashire playing a maid?' ... But no, the scripts were fantastic. The tale is about a family and the family dynamic, which is what Sally is so good at."

What surprised you about Patrick? "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."

What kind of a man was he? "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."

Tell us more about Branwell... "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. Patrick never really bothered with the girls because Branwell was the big hope for the family."

So Patrick never even knew his daughters were published? "They didn't keep it from him, but Patrick just led a very separate life. Then there's a moment when Charlotte comes in and they realise they’re going to have to tell him, because the books are selling and they’re making money. Charlotte asks if he wants to read what she's written and he says he’s busy and her writing is so small he can’t read it anyway. She places the three published volumes down and he does the classic father thing: ‘I’ve always been proud of you!”

What makes this series 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."

To Walk Invisible screens on BBC1 on Thursday, December 29