Getting Inside the Mind of Emily Brontë

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Emily Brontë—of “Wuthering Heights” and Brontë family fame—looms large over English literature and high school lectures alike, yet so little about her is actually known. How did actor Chloe Pirrie bring this almost mythological writer to life? We spoke with Chloe about getting inside the mind of Emily Brontë and all of the wacky things that she discovered along the way.  (Warning: This episode contains “To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters” spoilers.)

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Transcript

Jace Lacob (Jace): MASTERPIECE Studio is brought to you by Viking Cruises. See the world differently by exploring differently. Learn more at vrc.com.

I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

Before watching To Walk Invisible, the feature-length drama written by the über talented Sally Wainwright, you might not have know the Brontë sisters’ story, even though you probably did know their names, or at least the names of the novels they’ve written.

There was Charlotte, the eldest sister, who wrote Jane Eyre…

The youngest, Anne, who wrote about her experiences as a governess in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

And then there was Emily, the bashful yet mighty middle sister who wrote Wuthering Heights.

CLIP:
Emily: He won’t hit you. And if he hits me, I’ll hit him back. Harder.

CLIP:
Chloe Pirrie: I think she has got this volatility to her that is very exciting to play, and it’s very exciting to play a woman in a period drama who does not care what people think.

Jace: It’s true that the Brontës were a force to be reckoned with: three sisters, daughters of a poor curate, each wrote literary masterpieces at a time when women were not even permitted to have any ambitions outside of the home.

They were a phenomenon collectively and individually: all three were extremely gifted, intelligent, and unique.

CLIP:
Chloe Pirrie: These are three sisters who, against all odds, managed to get published.

Jace: Today, actor Chloe Pirrie, who stars as Emily Brontë, joins us to look back as the time she spent playing one of the world’s most well-known and beloved wordsmiths.

And this week we are joined by To Walk Invisible star Chloe Pirrie. Welcome.

Chloe: Thank you.

Jace: Besides the opportunity to do a really amazing Yorkshire accent…

Chloe: (Laughs)

Jace: …what attracted you to the project?

Chloe: Okay. Well, I got sent the script and I just immediately… The subject matter really intrigued me, but I didn’t know a huge amount about the Brontë sisters. I’d read Wuthering Heights, and I’d read Jane Eyre as a kid, but I’d never really thought much about them. And, if I’m totally honest, as a lot of people do, I was like, “Oh, which one wrote which book? I can’t quite think…” But somehow the subject matter was intriguing.

And then when I started to read, Sally’s writing is just so amazing. She just has this ability to write dialogue, and characters, and relationships that just come off the page immediately. I felt instantly like I knew what I wanted to do, which almost never happens (laughs).

Jace: (Laughs)

Chloe: So I… Yeah.

Jace: You went back and re-read Wuthering Heights, you said. It’s one of my favorite all-time books. How did your appreciation of the novel change as an adult?

Chloe: This is so interesting. Completely different. I think, as a child, I loved reading it and I can’t quite remember what my impressions of it were, as a child. I think I just really enjoyed the story. I think I read it when I was about 15, and I remember being mystified by it in places.

And then going back and reading it now, a good 13, 14 years later, I was just so struck by the violence of the language and how unbridled it is. In terms of her use of language, it’s just all over the place. And there was a moment in it where I read this line about Hindley hanging some puppies casually in this hallway, and I just couldn’t… It’s such an example of the way she is unafraid to talk about such grim things. It was very powerful reading it for the second time.

Jace: Finding truthful information about Emily Brontë is made far more difficult by the fact that Charlotte did a lot of mythologizing of her sister after her death. There’s even a story that she was bitten by a rabid dog and that she cauterized the wound herself with a red hot poker. What sort of research did you do for the role of Emily?

Chloe: Well, I tried to do as much as possible. I read- Actually, Sally, the first thing she said to me was, “What you should do is re-read Wuthering Heights. That’s the first thing you should do because no one can tell you how to play Emily except Emily.” So I did that, and I think that actually that was possibly one of the most helpful things that I could have done. She was completely right.

But then I had to educate myself a little bit about the practicalities of her life and what’s known and what’s not known. So, I researched a lot, and I did, actually, read a couple of things that were a bit more “out there” in terms of her interpretations of Emily’s things that she might have been going through. There was one book that talked about the fact- it was based on a theory that she had an extreme eating disorder, which was really interesting. And I did take some…

Jace: Wow.

Chloe: …Yeah, which is crazy. But I ultimately decided that that wasn’t going to be helpful as a literal thing to play, because this is a time when people’s relationship with food was completely different to what we have now, and it’s always a bit problematic to imply- put modern labels (laughs) onto period characters because it’s such a different world.

But I tried to leave aside anything that felt too set in stone or too modern in its sensibility.

Jace: And you rehearsed as a family with Sally at Haworth for a week. Is that right?

Chloe: (Laughs) Yeah, we did. “Brontë Boot Camp” is what it was popularly known as (laughs).

Jace: And what sort of things did you do during that week of rehearsals?

Chloe: Okay. So, we did a lot of going through the script and reading scenes. We actually blocked a few things in the room a little bit like you would if you were doing a play, which is something I’d never done before with TV. And we went through the script, and talked a lot. We were up in the location essentially that we were going to be in, so we went for a lot of walks on the moors and stuff, and got to know each other as a family, to such an extent that we could be convincing as siblings.

We met a bunch of historians throughout that time, had some dinners with them, and talked about some things: some of the more controversial theories around Emily and Branwell, the extent to which Branwell was an alcoholic or whether he was a drug addict, or whether Emily had Asperger’s, and all these kind of things-

Jace: (Laughs)

Chloe: -that you can… (Laughs) But historians are amazing because they have a lot of theories, but backed up by a lot of research that they’ve done. And I think that’s why- what I’m saying earlier about taking everything with a pinch of salt, especially with Emily, because so little is known, and you can’t dive into one specific theory about how to play a person. If I’d decided to play her as someone with an eating disorder who was also on the autistic spectrum that would have been such an extreme choice and it would have been a different thing entirely (laughs). I don’t know it would have worked, so yeah.

Jace: I mean, how do you see her as a character then, and how, how do the sort of possible interpretations of her as a person help inform your own performance?

Chloe: I think, I see Emily as somebody who had such a forceful nature, and a very strong relationship with the place she was from and the land she was in. I guess, maybe a lot of writers would relate to this, but she had no time for social nonsense, I suppose. And she wouldn’t believe that they made a television drama about her (laughs) down the line. She wouldn’t have. And she would think it’s complete nonsense, I imagine. She wouldn’t have any time for any of it. Maybe she’d be quietly pleased. Maybe she’d be quite actually quite proud, but she certainly wouldn’t let anyone know about it, I don’t think.

CLIP:
Emily: You can’t go to London and explain who you are because they will see you.
Charlotte: That’s the whole point.
Emily: Yes, and you promised – you promised me – that we would never reveal ourselves to anyone. Ever.

Chloe: She’s a bit of a contradiction because, on one level, she’s a literary genius, but she spent so much of her time being the housekeeper, and she was really comfortable being a housekeeper, and she was very domestic. I found that really interesting. There’s something so interesting about the way she chose to spend her time and what she didn’t like doing.

I think she hated school, from what I can understand, and yet she has got this brain that you’d think would be really suited to that. So she’s just a bag of contradictions.

And I saw her as somebody who’s incredibly fiery and could be quite violent, in the way that you can see in Heathcliff. She has got this volatility to her that is very exciting to play, and it’s very exciting to play a woman in a period drama who does not care what people think. I found that incredibly liberating and empowering. And yeah, it was very, very cool.

Jace: Did your appreciation of Emily’s genius change or deepen through the act of performing her?

Chloe: Yeah, I think that inevitably, with any part you play, that happens if they’re a real person. I think, particularly exploring the stuff around the relationship with their brother, Branwell, who was addled and, in many ways, a victim of the society that they grew up in where, as a man of the house, he was expected to- so much was expected of him; I think that’s even a line in the film.

So, I was amazed that they grew up with somebody who was an addict before there was a definition for that, and yet they still managed to write what they did. I found that very moving, and that they’re three sisters who kind of helped each other and clashed with each other. But there’s something incredibly moving about that, I think, which I think is what we- part of what Sally tried to bring out in the drama.

Jace: Speaking of Sally, To Walk Invisible was written and directed by the incredibly Sally Wainwright, who many, many people know from Last Tango in Halifax or Happy Valley — or as I like to call it, “Hoppy Volley” (laughs). What was it like working with Sally?

Chloe: It was brilliant. I mean, Sally, in some moments, she makes me think of Emily (laughs). Sally always said to me that Emily was her favorite sister (laughs). She probably wouldn’t even want me to declare that in public, but there were moments where I felt like the real-life Emily was with me (laughs) all the time, because she has got- Sally has got some things in common with Emily in the sense that she doesn’t suffer any fools but she’s also hugely intelligent.

I loved working with her. Working with a writer-director is always brilliant because there’s just a shortcut to a lot of things because you’re not having to go through somebody else. If you want a line changed or you feel like something’s not working you can just ask her and she’d make the decision.

And she’s not precious about her own writing at all, which is incredible. Even saying it now, that I actually even debated changing any of Sally Wainwright’s dialogue is absurd, but she’s not precious about her dialogue (laughs). It makes me sound like such an arrogant human. But she’s so not precious about her dialogue, and if something’s not working she’ll just go, “Oh, yeah, change it. Do this. Do that. Say something else.” She’ll figure out. She trusted us a lot, I think, is what I’m trying to say, which can be rare, so she was wonderful to work with. I loved working with her.

Jace: One of the things I loved most about To Walk Invisible is that it’s not candy-coated. It’s rather grimy and muddy (laughs).

Chloe: Yeah (laughs).

Jace: How did that lack of chocolate-box aesthetics shape the film itself, do you feel?

Chloe: I think massively and massively for the better. The time, the place that these people grew up in, it was a brutal one. I think Sally told me that the average age in Haworth at that time was something ludicrous, like 28 or 30 or something. It really was a place that people didn’t live long. There was a problem with tuberculosis; there were huge sanitary issues.

Actually, they decided to make it slightly more sanitized than it would have been. Sally really wanted it to be horrendous (laughs). And I think the producers were like, “Oh, I think maybe we need this going out at Christmas. I don’t know if we can really have it- the raw sewage flowing through the streets at every opportunity.” (Laughs) So, I think she got pulled back a little bit from that, but the general vibe was, “We’re here to tell the truth. We’re not here to present an idea of what the past was like.” This is what it was like. This is how dirty it was. It was wonderful to have that.

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Jace: Charlotte goes rummaging in Emily’s room and finds her poems. Emily feels so betrayed by Charlotte to the point that she’s actually shoving her by the face saying, “You disgust me.”

Chloe: Yeah (laughs).

Jace: Why is Emily so hurt by Charlotte’s action?

Chloe: Well, I think it goes back to what we were talking about about her being very reclusive. And it’s like her diary. I remember, as a kid, my friend coming around to my house and finding a book by my bedside, and opening it, and reading it, and turning around, and she had her head in it, and she went, “Is this is a diary?” And I remember grabbing it out of her hand and going, “Grr!” like screaming at her, because it’s the privacy. When you’re not prepared for an invasion of your privacy, when you’re not prepared to share something and you didn’t see it coming, it’s such a shock.

And these are sisters; they don’t hold back with each other.

So I think it’s that: it’s a betrayal. And she’s not analyzing it in this way either. She’s not thinking, “Oh, you know, you, I think, feel like you’ve invaded my space and I really feel, don’t feel comfortable with it.”

Jace: (Laughs)

Chloe: She’s kind of just reacting. She doesn’t deal with the kind of explanations and rationalizing things in that way. I think in that moment she’s just pure fire.

CLIP:
Emily: You disgust me. You can’t begin to imagine how much. You stay out of my room and you don’t speak to me: you don’t speak to me generally, and you don’t speak to me specifically about your misguided, tedious, grubby little publishing plans.

Chloe: And the head thing was- that actually came from Finn, because Finn is very small. She’s actually a tiny bit shorter than Charlotte Bronte was, I think. Finn is 4’9”. She has got older brothers and she said that that was something her brothers used to do to her when she was a kid, because she was little, and so they’d put their hand on her head so she couldn’t move. And she said it was awful, and it was… So actually, that idea came from her because when we were rehearsing…

Jace: Oh, wow.

Chloe: Yeah. When we were rehearsing that scene it was getting to this point where I was like, “I really feel like I just punch her. I just don’t know what to do. Obviously I can’t punch her, but I feel like it’s that level.” And Sally wanted something physical, but we wanted something that was really, like, muscular but was also childlike so we decided to do that because it felt really good (laughs). So yeah, it’s pretty funny.

Jace: I love Emily’s excitement when she tells Anne the story of Jack Sharp, and she says, “All that anger, it’s so rich.”

Chloe: (Laughs) Yeah.

Jace: What did you make of this turning point for her?

Chloe: I found it really… That scene was hilarious because it was actually quite a stressful scene to shoot because, obviously, I have so many words. And because of the situation in Haworth, real-life Haworth, a small section of the middle part of the main street had decided that they didn’t want to play ball with the production, so they refused to give themselves over to the re-dressing that was necessary. They just didn’t want to do it. So, we had to shoot that scene in two parts, which- and this meant that I had a very small amount of space to get out all of this stuff. So, there is a reason why I’m talking very fast in this (laughs)…

Jace: (Laughs)

Chloe: …because there was no time, and I kept running out space, and it was just a nightmare. So actually, when I was doing that, I was really just focusing on trying to get the words out, but I think it works.

CLIP:
Emily: So, there’s this family, the Walkers. They own Walterclough Hall, this big house, just above Halifax, it’s been in the family for generations. They’re woollen manufacturers – aren’t they all?

Anyway, John Walker has four children…

Chloe: It’s quite a comedic bit at the end because, obviously, Emily has been so anti- the entire idea, and Anne- because I think Anne’s temperament is one that relaxes Emily, and she feels safe with Anne, and Anne softens her a little bit. It’s just so funny that she has reacted in that way to Charlotte reading her poems, then, given five minutes with Anne, she’s talking in an inspired way about this novel she has scribbled away somewhere (laughs). At the fact that, at the end of it, she turns around and says, “Right. Well, suppose if we’re writing novels, we need more paper then.”

Jace: (Laughs)

Chloe: “Let’s get on with it.” It’s so funny, and it’s a really lovely scene. I like that one.

Jace: You mentioned Anne. Charlotte in many ways seems to be on the outside of the rapport shared between Emily and Anne, who seems to be Emily’s only friend. Why were these two so close, and what did they provide each other?

Chloe: As I say, it’s Anne’s temperament; it’s something in Anne that is so… This sounds a bit actor-y, but I always thought of Anne as water; she moves between them all and she’s such a balancing presence.

And she’s very grounded in the real world, and what she writes about, it’s the real world. She works as a governess, and in one of her books she writes about that experiences in a way that is… She doesn’t hold back, just as Emily doesn’t hold back, but it’s a completely different way of going about telling a story. I think Emily probably found that really, like, a balancing thing.

CLIP:
Emily: I wrote a rhyme for you.
Anne: Did you?
Emily: Well, I wrote it, and I was thinking about you after I’d written it. So… It goes…Do you want to hear it?
Anne: Yes.

Jace: My favorite scene is the one in which Emily recites her poem “No Coward Soul is Mine”-

Chloe: Aw, yeah.

Jace: -to Anne on the moors. What was it like filming this very emotional scene?

Chloe: It was wonderful doing that. I mean, it was such a beautiful day. We were on the edge of a cliff, which… (Laughs) And Charlie, Charlie Murphy has got a fear of… Well, she has got this slight vertigo issue. So, it was really tough for her (laughs), because we didn’t know we were going to be on the edge of a cliff, and she was like, “Oh…” It manifested in this way that she knew that she was safe but she got very anxious about other people falling, kind of like vicarious vertigo. I don’t know what you’d call it. But, yeah, that was quite a hard day for her. But doing that scene was really lovely. That writing is just… That poem is just so beautiful.

I don’t think we’d planned for it to be emotional. I think we’d just planned for it to be a lovely moment with Emily and Anne where they really connect through Emily’s poetry in a way that’s not discussed, it’s not explained, it just is.

CLIP:
Emily: O God within my breast / Almighty ever-present Deity / Life, that in me hast rest, / As I Undying Life, have power in Thee…

Jace: And how did you undercut that pathos of the story on set? Were there any funny behind-the-scenes anecdotes that you can share?

Chloe: Oh, God. Yeah, constant. I mean, constant. I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so much on a job. We had a lot of fun.

I mean, it was hard. We shot most of the interiors in one studio where it was baking hot and we were in five layers of underskirts (laughs). So, we were really sweating.

And then, obviously, we went to do the exteriors in the final three weeks or so, and that was a completely different story where we were on this hill and there’s this wind howling, howling down the street. It was so cold and so windy to the extent that, at times… There was a scene where Charlie had a cape on and we couldn’t get out of the door, like that path that leads up to the house, we just couldn’t…

Jace: (Laughs)

Chloe: …because the wind was catching her cape in this way that she just couldn’t move (laughs) and they had to stop the whole thing. It was just so funny. There was constant stuff like that was going on.

And also because I have these dogs in it as well, one of whom is called Yogi. He plays Keeper. He was just not very experienced, I’d say, as an actor. And so there was a lot of… I had to improvise gruff instructions to this dog constantly (laughs). He just never did anything. They’d be like, “Go that way!”, and then he’d just go the other way (laughs). So there was a lot of stuff like that that was very funny. Yeah, we laughed a lot.

Jace: What did you make of the parhelion, the three-sun scene at the end?

CLIP:
Anne: It’s three suns!
Charlotte: What is it? It’s beautiful.
Ellen: It’s you three.

Jace: What do you think viewers should read into that scene?

Chloe: Oh, yeah, that bit. I love that bit. I think it’s… I don’t actually know what to make of that bit, in a way. It’s beautifully symbolic. I think it’s just an opportunity for the viewer to see them as a unit: they’re three bright shining lights in a world that is tough.

It’s a very reflective image. These short lives that were burning very brightly but were incredibly short. Emily was dead by the time she was my age, so it’s a very reflective image, I think.

Jace: And she does die. She dies at the age of 30, less than three months after Branwell, and she died never knowing how important of a literary masterpiece she had created. Why is her story so important now, especially?

Chloe: I think that it’s always good to be reminded of people that did what they wanted (laughs) despite adversity, especially women. These are three sisters who, against all odds, managed to get published. And it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t an obvious thing to do. It was an absurd thing to do at that time and that place. It is absurd that they went to those lengths. And Charlotte particularly was so ambitious and aggressive in the way she went about it, in this way that is so admirable because it just was not normal. And I think it’s incredibly empowering as a story of what can be achieved when you (laughs), you know, no matter where you’re from. Yeah.

Jace: I mean, Emily says at one point, “When a man writes something, it’s what he has written that’s judged. When a woman writes something, it’s her that’s judged.”

Chloe: Yeah.

Jace: I’m talking to you the day after International Women’s Day.

Chloe: (Laughs) Yeah.

Jace: Do you think that holds true today?

Chloe: I think, yeah, to a major extent it does. Obviously we’re in a much more enlightened time where it’s very discursive; we’re talking a lot about these issues.

It’s great that we’re talking about all this stuff, and it needs to be so. We need to have these conversations, but I’ve had so many conversations recently with other actresses, and directors, and what have you where you wish that you could, if you’re doing a press thing, you could just talk about- you didn’t have to talk about the fact that you’re a woman for the first 20 minutes of the interview (laughs).

Jace: (Laughs)

Chloe: Because that has to qualify everything else. It’s like, “Okay, can we just say that this is significant.” We have to get through all of this stuff before we talk about the work. And I think there’s something in that, because actually, what that boils down to is you do spend the first 20 minutes talking about the fact that you’re women, and then it is, you know, it’s you that’s being judged, not what you’ve written.

But I think it’s definitely getting better. And, you know, certainly, they didn’t have International Women’s Day in Haworth at that time, so, you know, progress has been made (laughs).

Jace: One of your earliest roles was in 2012’s Shell, where you play a young woman living at a remote Scottish petrol station with your grieving father. Did you see it as a breakout role at the time?

Chloe: Yes and no. I mean, I did because I had not really done a lot of work before then at all. I have no idea how Scott Graham managed to convince them to cast me in that film. But it’s all just a key to another corridor. It’s never like, “Ah! And now I have made it.” It’s never like that. And I don’t think I’d want it to be either for me, but yeah. It was a breakout role in many ways because it was a lead in an independent film and that’s such an amazing thing to have at that early point.

Jace: And is it true you once flew to an international film festival for Shell on your day off from working at a pub?

Chloe: Yes! Yes, yes (laughs). It is true (laughs). I think I was working… It wasn’t a pub at that point. I’d worked in tons of pubs, but at that point, it was even better. It was a burger restaurant, chain of burger restaurants. So, yeah. I had to get time off to go to that film festival and I guess that’s just an actor’s life for a long time (laughs).

Jace: I went back this week and re-watched “The Waldo Moment” episode of Black Mirror

Chloe: Yeah.

Jace: …in which you play a politician, which is incredibly timely and terrifying in its prescience. You were still working when that was broadcast, as a waitress. Is it true that customers recognized you as you brought them food?

Chloe: They did, yes. (Laughs) This happened several times where I started to serve people and put their burgers in front of them, and they’d be like, “I’m so sorry. Can I just ask, were you in that…?” And you have to go, “Yes. Yes, I was.”

And it’s awful because you then read on their face the surprise and consternation that you’re not, I don’t know… The image that goes through their head is a mixture of someone strutting down a red carpet and throwing money in the air like some music video. I don’t know. Clearly the reality of being served by somebody they’d seen on television was not matching up what they know (laughs).

So it was always quite awkward, because then I’d have to be like, “Okay, and can I just ask you, would you like any mayonnaise? Would you (laughs) like any other things?”

Jace: (Laughs)

Chloe: “Any other condiments can I get you? Alright. Do you need some olives? Do you need…?” I had to just get through all this stuff. So, it was always quite awkward (laughs), but there’s something quite nice about it as well. You can’t complain too much. It was… Yeah. It was funny more than anything else (laughs).

Jace: You’re playing Eileen Parker, Michael Parker’s ex-wife, in Season 2 of The Crown.

Chloe: Yeah.

Jace: What can you share about that experience?

Chloe: Well, probably not much because I fear the Netflix snipers will immediately kill me if I divulge anything (laughs). I mean, she is a real person, so her story is there in the world to see.

It was really fun to play that part. It’s brilliant writing, and it’s such a great show. I hadn’t actually seen any of it when I filmed it because it wasn’t out yet, but when it came out shortly after I wrapped it was… Yeah. I’m very excited to be part of it. It’s so brilliant.

Jace: And last, what’s next for you?

Chloe: Oh, I’m actually not even sure I’m allowed to say…

Oh, maybe I just should. It’s fine, I think (laughs). Well, I’m going to be involved in something called Troy: Fall of the City that the BBC are doing. But I’m… Yeah. If you hear that I’ve been poisoned, (laughs) you’ll know I wasn’t supposed to say it.

Jace: (Laughs)

Chloe: I won’t say who I’m playing, maybe that’s a good thing to do. Okay, that’s fine (laughs).

Jace: Well, I can’t wait. Chloe Pirrie, thank you so much.

Chloe: Thank you very much. Been lovely to talk to you.

Jace: And you.

Chloe: Thanks.

[Music]

Jace: You can look forward to the final season of Home Fires, airing April 2nd on MASTERPIECE every Sunday at 9 pm. Then, the award-winning Wolf Hall, starring Claire Foy, Damian Lewis, and Mark Rylance will be rebroadcast at 10.    

In the coming weeks, we’re going to be doing something we’ve never done before– taking a break. We’ll be back starting May 14 with brand new episodes covering King Charles III and Dark Angel.

Regardless of whether or not we decide to release a bonus episode sometime in the next few weeks, which… you never know… now would be the perfect time to subscribe to the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast so you don’t forget about us while we’re away.

Get out your phone, tablet, or computer, pull up your favorite podcast listening app — we like iTunes and Stitcher — and hit subscribe. Then any time there’s new episode it’ll be automatically downloaded for easy listening.

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MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Rachel Aronoff.  Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Special thanks to Barrett Brountas and Susanne Simpson. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.

Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking Cruises, Farmers Insurance, and The MASTERPIECE Trust.

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