Something Neat XXXVI: “Drawing on Life for a ‘Topper’ Role” as Rev. Patrick Brontë

Definitely a formidable cleric. Patrick Malahide as Patrick Brontë in "In Search of the Brontës"

Rev. Patrick Brontë:
Definitely a formidable cleric

Here’s a little blast from the past I found a while ago.  In 2003, Patrick Malahide was interviewed by The Journal about his role as Rev. Patrick Brontë in “In Search of the Brontës” (I’ve previously recapped part 1 and part 2), in an article titled “Drawing on Life for a ‘Topper’ Role“.  The article is no longer available on The Journal’s online site, but I found it archived on The FreeLibrary site.

The entire article is well worth a look, but I found the snippets about filming the miniseries particularly interesting.  Author Jane Hall mentions that Mr. Malahide “harbour[s] several formidable clerics within his portfolio” (Admin and I would have to agree), but that he took the role because he felt he had something in common with Rev. Brontë:

“I’m a father, I’m Irish, I was a teacher and I had a very strict education that was informed by religion,” explains Patrick. “All these things help. They don’t determine what you do with a role, but they are ways of understanding it. I read the part and I thought, `If I’d been born 200 years ago, I could perhaps have had a life like his’.”

You play one Nazi...

You play one Nazi…

It’s fascinating to find out some of the thinking that goes into how Mr. Malahide approaches a role like that of Rev. Brontë, especially the way he relates to him as a real person.  Hall also notes that Mr. Malahide has played a number of authority figures (hmm, we’ve noticed that, too), of which Rev. Brontë is no exception:

“Why do I play these authority figures? I don’t think it’s anything hard-wired in who I am!” Patrick exclaims. “I play them because I’ve played them effectively before and the casting director is in a hurry and wants to know you’ll deliver and wants a name that producers have heard of.

“That’s just the way the world works. I suppose I’ve always been quite reserved and I’m also quite cautious. But, basically, if you’ve played one Nazi, you’ll be asked to play them all””

And in recent years, Mr. Malahide has kept up with the trend of playing authority figures, though there haven’t been any Nazis among them: Lords Willingdon, Glendenning, and Balon Greyjoy are some of our favourites, and I suppose you could include mobsters Jack Turner and George Cornelius in that group as well.  They’re pretty authoritative in their own right… or at least, no one (still alive) is willing to disagree with them.

At Haworth Parsonage

At Haworth Parsonage

Mr. Malahide then discusses researching the Brontës in preparation for the role, which included the cast and crew visiting Haworth and the parsonage itself:

“I think of the Bronte children as a little lost tribe,” says Patrick. “You find them in this barren landscape, surrounded by people from whom they had to be protected because everyone was dying of cholera. In the early 19th Century, Haworth was a filthy little mill town with sewage running down the streets and a colossal child mortality rate.

“You cannot help but feel moved when you visit the parsonage itself, especially when you realise that it’s right next to the cemetery.”

Haworth did seem like a world unto itself; the children mostly had each other and their fictional characters for company, so the sense of isolation was very real.

Educating his children using current events. There will be a quiz later.

Educating his children using current events.
There will be a quiz later.

Unfortunately, Rev. Brontë was to encounter a lot of heartbreak of his own at the new parsonage.  His wife Maria’s death was soon followed by the deaths of daughters Maria and Elizabeth, leaving Rev. Brontë with four remaining children.  His attempts at finding another wife were unsuccessful (it seems few women were interested in a penniless parson with young children, even if he was incredibly charming), so he set about raising his children as a single father, including giving them an unusually thorough, albeit unconventional, education:

“It’s an extraordinary story and Bronte is a fascinating character,” says Patrick. “He educated his daughters thoroughly at a time when many people didn’t necessarily educate them at all.

In fact, he gave his daughters an education that was equal to that of his son. If you want to put it in modern, touchy-feely terms, he was a single parent. And, clearly, he was a man of iron determination. Life in that parsonage was like one long seminar from a university tutor.

Bronte was a Cambridge-educated man and he taught all his children to think, speak and argue for themselves.”

Branwell, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne thrived under their father’s unusual educational methods but didn’t do so well when subjected to the more common rote and repetition in traditional schools.  Nevertheless, their father gave them a solid grounding in critical thinking and being able to express themselves effectively, which emerged in their writing.

Aging Patrick Brontë from his forties to his eighties

Aging Patrick Brontë from his forties to his eighties

Mr. Malahide also touches on some of the practical considerations of the role:

“It was technically quite difficult because I was playing Bronte between the ages of 40 and 80. And, frankly, 40 is a bit of a stretch these days!” laughs Patrick. “We really had to get the wigs and make-up right. I had to spend an awful lot of time in the make-up chair but I think we managed it in the end. In fact, the whole project was a wonderfully collaborative and exciting experience.”

The make-up helps, but I’d have to say that Mr. Malahide’s characterization of Rev. Brontë is the final deciding factor.  He uses his demeanour, posture, voice, and movements to suggest Brontë’s various stages of life in ways that are entirely convincing and engrossing.   He also conveys Brontë’s great love for his children; he may have been a prickly father at times, but it was only because he wanted the best for them.  If you can track it down on video, “In Search of the Brontës” is well worth watching.  There are also some personal details in the article I haven’t touched on, but they’re very interesting as well.  I’d love to know if Mr. Malahide still writes, and if so, still considers it his “luxury add-on”.  🙂

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