Sunday, 24 December 2017

Q&A - On the subect of my film about Branwell Bronte

A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years available now:

All images below are stills from the film and are copyright Alan Wrigley.


Why did you decide to write a film about Branwell Bronte?

I'd been living in the Calder Valley for just a few days when I read Juliet Barker's book The Brontes, which I found at my local market in Sowerby Bridge. I discovered Branwell had lived here and, knowing absolutely nothing about him at this point other than vague rumours of his reputation for drunkenness, wanted to find more.  I was surprised that nobody in the Valley had done much work on him - books, articles, films - and it gradually began to dawn on me that perhaps I ought to do so.

Did making the film change any of your thoughts on Branwell?

Absolutely.  I expected to find out that he was a drunkard and a bit of a hopeless case, but I discovered he had been a very ambitious artist and poet, with a genuinely original turn of phrase in his writing, a skill for translating Classical poetry, and a proclivity for themes we would consider modern or subversive today: Atheism, psychology, unrequited love, not in the abstract, Universal manner of the great poets of antiquity, but in the sense of actually naming the person he was writing about, placing himself and his own predicaments firmly at the centre of his poems.  And I also found I actually rather liked Branwell.  I think most of us who worked on the film felt that we could empathize and associate with him in various ways - in my case, his habits of drifting off from the job in hand to go wandering around the hills, or to sit scribbling poems and pictures when he was meant to be doing his day job!  Most importantly, we learned that the charges against Branwell from many biographers are simply not true or that there is no evidence for them - as the film makes clear. Branwell seems to have been very popular, and was said by a contemporary to possess "the genius of personality" - especially after a few drinks! He seems to have been basically a victim of circumstances.

How did you go about making the film?

I had done some research and posted some material on my blog, and was contacted by Alan Wrigley, whom I knew through the local arts scene here in Sowerby Bridge.  Alan and I had both been clients of a local arts and crafts shop which sold, among many other things, his greetings cards and some of my books, and we both frequented various poetry and music events in the town.  I'd made it common knowledge that I wanted to make a film on Branwell's time in the Valley, and Alan suggested that we make it together.

What did you most enjoy about making A Humble Station?

Working with Alan and so many other talented people who appear in the film - from Bronte biographer Juliet Barker, and Ann Dinsdale from the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, to local historian David Cant and Calder Valley poets such as Genevieve L Walsh and Steve Nash.

L.R: Director Alan Wrigley, SZ, Sam Redway (voice of Branwell), Genevieve L Walsh

Then there were the artists that we met - Julia Ogden at Hebden Bridge, and Stella Hill and Mike Acton from Legacy Art Gallery in Todmorden.  It was fascinating to meet the owners and locals of the Lord Nelson public house at Luddenden, where Brawnell used to drink, and where the current landlady Jessica Grunewald told us about how he used to go there to take advantage of its lending library - the first of its kind in the whole Ridings area.
 With Julia Ogden at Brighouse Library and Smith Art Gallery.

Closer to home, I interview Chris Wright, landlord of the Jubilee Tea Rooms, on the site of today's Sowerby Bridge Railway Station, and over in Hebden Bridge I enjoyed chatting with Diana Monaghan from St James Church, whose vicar in the 1840's was a friend of Branwell's - and who met a not dissimilar end to him, as you will see in the film.  It was also fabulous to work with Caroline Lamb, my colleague from the multi-disciplinary performance project Exploring the Brontes, and author of a play about Branwell - The Dissolution of Percy.  Caroline is interviewed in the film and, like Genevieve Walsh, delivers her own poem written about Branwell.  She also came with Alan and I to meet Juliet Barker, which was a very enjoyable day for all of us because we like Juliet's work so much and to get the chance of meeting such a world renowned Bronte authority was a real delight.  There was quite a funny moment at The Old White Lion, an 18th Century inn at Haworth where we filmed the interview with Juliet, and before Caroline and I had gone to meet her, when we were setting up the room for filming, I was waxing lyrical about some aspect of the Brontes' legacy and, in sweeping my hand mid-statement, accidentally swiped an ornament from the fireplace, only catching it in the nick of time before it fell to the floor and smashed. I often wonder if maybe it was a priceless object of some kind, and how the whole story of the film might have turned out rather differently if I'd failed to intercept it in time!
 Caroline Lamb.

At the end of the film, you also hear the vocals of Amy-Rose Atkinson, a folksinger and musician from Sowerby Bridge who performs in the folk duo Didikai, and is one of the co-ordinators of the Sowerby Bridge Morris Dancers.  Alan and I had both seen Amy-Rose sing live, and were thrilled when she agreed to deliver the vocal to his song Legacy, which he wrote specifically about Branwell.  Its a beautiful song and she captures it marvelously, and hearing the results of that at the end of a film I'd first envisaged years earlier on a winsdwept, icy moor, new to the area and with no concept of how things would turn out, was a very moving moment.

What do you like most about the film?

It was thrilling to see how Alan developed as a filmmaker, having had no experience of filming, to gradually build up his self-taught skills to the point of being able to produce a thing of at times quite stunning visual beauty. Everyone who has seen the film has complimented both his use of Calder Valley scenery, and his atmospheric music, but also for his seamless editing of the scenes.  We have had industry professionals comment on how well it flows together, and he has woven the film together in such a way that every time I watch it I see new things, notice different deft touches with colours and light, and hear new quirks and motifs in the music.  Of course, the other thing that I enjoy equally is the wealth of knowledge and talent brought to the film by our contributors.  Everyone was chosen for both their local connections and involvement with the Brontes, and we've had many positive comments from those who have seen the film at our screenings about the local authenticity of the guests, and the balance between those who are obviously from Yorkshire and those who are not!  I like how we have not fallen into the trap of cliche, while also staying true to the Calder Valley setting, and frankly to share a screen with people like the artists and writers I have mentioned, hearing their thoughts on Branwell, was a real privilege.  But one of my absolute favourite moments is where we actually see a version of the "young Branwell," in the form of the son of a friend of mine, who happens to have ginger hair, and who we took along to film a scene dressed in quite traditional looking clothes and enacting an imagined scene from Branwell's life, or more accurately from his imagination. It involves balloons and a very historic building.  I don't want to give away any spoilers so I'll not say any more!

Why should we watch A Humble Station?

Firstly to get a grasp of another element of the Brontes' story - we're not trying to steal the fire from his famous sisters, but rather to shine a light on one of the lesser known aspects of the Bronte story - that of Branwell, and why he wasn't all bad! But also because in doing so, you will get to see the nature and history of the Calder Valley depicted in glorious colour and seasonal splendour, hear tremendous music, and enjoy poetry and paintings work by some highly talented contemporary artists, as well, of course, as by Branwell himself.  The film is not all serious - we found much humour in Branwell's work, and in the many anecdotes and scenarios that his life seemed to engender - and you will encounter scenes of beauty that will remain with you for the rest of your life.


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