Grant Montgomery remembers the first time he and his production team headed up to the flat cap of Penistone Hill, the windswept hilltop heavily cratered by abandoned quarries overlooking Haworth.
“We went up there to have a look and it rained. We were standing there and we all looked at each other thinking the same thing, ‘we’re going to build it here? OK, but can we get out of the rain,’” he says.
Although exposed to everything the weather gods could throw at them it was the perfect location from which to recreate the Brontë parsonage for Sally Wainwright’s much-anticipated new drama about the lives of one of the world’s most famous literary families.
For it was from the parsonage on the edge of Haworth Moor, in the Pennine hills, that sisters, Anne, Emily and Charlotte wrote the novels and poems that changed the literary world forever.
Wainwright’s dramatisation of their lives, To Walk Invisible, is being shown on BBC 1 on Thursday night and is tipped to be one of the big festive TV highlights, and Grant is the production designer who, along with his team, was tasked with recreating the parsonage.
“It was close to Haworth so you’re in the landscape they knew, where they once walked. But more than that it gave us a great vista, so you see the windswept moors... it was perfect,” he says.
“There’s descriptions of the sisters writing and the wind’s howling outside the house and when you start building the set you appreciate just how remote it actually was because they were perched at the top of this hill.”
They did look at other potential locations but because the parsonage is so instantly recognisable to Brontë fans the only way of replicating it accurately was to build a new one.
“In the first paragraph you see the parsonage so we needed to recreate it as it originally was rather than how it is now,” he says.
“There were no trees, it had blackened because of the industrial chimneys so I knew we had to build it. There was no way we were going to find a location. It had to be a parsonage high on a hill with no trees, a graveyard, a barn, a school room and a church next to it – there’s not many of those around.”
So much has been written about the Brontës over the years and the three sisters have such a global following that almost every morsel of their lives has been pored over by historians, critics and fans.
It meant that any error would be picked up on, not only by eagle-eyed viewers but Wainwright, too. “It was pretty challenging because from the get go it was all about authenticity. That’s what Sally wanted and it was there in the script.”
Penistone Hill had the advantage of being close to the original site, although the replica parsonage wasn’t the only thing they built.
“We built the hill and we built the barn, which has now gone, and the church lane, and John Brown’s, the church school and some of the houses that have now been demolished and the whole churchyard.”
Grant and his team only had a couple of photos to go on as well as an early ground plan of the area. “It took a lot of research with the Parsonage Museum and their team and a couple of local historians, but we were able to piece it all together.”
It took 10 weeks to build the exterior set which was put up during winter and stayed in place until July. “We’d be filming there and you would see the snow coming in from across the other side of the valley. It only took a matter of minutes, it was extraordinary. So that bit isn’t fake - you can always rely on the Yorkshire weather.”
News that the set was being built not only piqued the curiosity of locals but also Brontë fans who travelled from far and wide just to catch a glimpse of it going up. “You have to understand where they lived and wrote because it’s such a big part of their story. Whenever you think of the Brontës you think of the parsonage. There are landscapes that other writers inhabit like Thomas Hardy and Wessex and with William Wordsworth it’s the Lakes, but the parsonage is this iconic symbol of the Brontës.”
As well as building the exterior up on Penistone Hill they also built an interior set. “What you see of the interior of the parsonage in the film, all the bedrooms, the parlour and the kitchen and all that, it was all built as a composite set in a studio.”
Again authenticity was crucial. “The parsonage today is a museum, and a brilliant one, but we were trying to create something that was alive that captured a sense of their lives in that house,” explains Grant.
“You’re not just building a house you’re building a literary icon. Sally knew, and I knew, that a lot of people would be watching this so we had to get all the detail right.
“All the manuscripts, the first editions of Jane Eyre were reproduced. We created the piano in Patrick’s room that Emily played, Patrick’s bed and all the paintings and drawings. We got facsimiles from the museum and recreated them. We got the famous gun portrait, only part of which exists, and repainted that, so it was this level of detail.”
This even went down to the dogs. “We wanted to get Flossy and Keeper right so we had to have a mastiff and a spaniel. We also took photos of the gravestones and reproduced them. It went down to making sure the chinaware was right.”
Grant says without that level of accuracy the story wouldn’t have had the same credibility. “After Anne’s death Charlotte came into money and she made her bedroom and the parlour bigger so that made the hallway narrower as it is now. But in the film it’s wider because that’s what it was like at the time.
“We recreated the world in which they inhabited and from where they wrote these incredible stories and that’s important because it’s a big part of the story. Everything we do is in the service of telling the story because that’s what it all boils down to,” he says.
“I’m a big Brontë fan so for me this was a bit of a love letter. To actually be asked to recreate all this was such a thrill. They were incredible creative artists and they became such literary giants at a time when there weren’t many around, especially women.”
Grant, who lives near Skipton, in North Yorkshire, has been in the business for 30-odd years and working on this project meant a great deal. “I know the area and I know Haworth so to actually be asked to come and do this was like a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to do a Brontë story but to actually do their lives was just incredible.”
He’s pleased with how it turned out but was Sally Wainwright happy, too? “You’ll have to ask her... but I think she would have let me know if she wasn’t,” he says, with a chuckle.
Sally Wainwright says she wants viewers to feel as if they have been transported back in time when they watch the drama.
“It’s not a chocolate box world and I hope it does reflect the real world that they lived in,” she said.
“The primary aim of To Walk Invisible is to entertain people, for people to engage with it as drama and to enjoy it. I hope people will want to go away and know more about the Brontës, read their novels and read Emily’s poetry.
“What’s interesting about the story to a contemporary audience is the domestic situation of the three Brontë sisters. The family are living with the alcoholic Branwell, who was very ill. It started in 1845 and goes through to 1848. The story is really about these three women living with an alcoholic brother and how they start trying to publish.”
To Walk Invisible, is being shown on BBC 1, on December 29, at 9pm.
It’s not a chocolate box world and I hope it does reflect the real world that they lived in.