In 2019, “Sanditon”, Jane Austen’s last unfinished manuscript was given an “Andrew Davies” makeover. Davies is most famous for the 1995 BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. His career has also included such period classics as “Sense and Sensibility” (2008), “Northanger Abbey” (2007), “The Three Musketeers” (2014) and “Les Misérables” (2018). With credentials such as these, period drama fans were expecting great things from Mr Davies and his Sanditon. Indeed, Davies’ adaptation (completion) is full of the beauty and class one has come to expect from his creations, but with a twist of something new, something contemporary.
Purists will be aghast at the sight of naked sea bathing (historically accurate), our heroine with free-flowing hair, an uncomfortably close relationship between stepsiblings and two scenes of a sexual nature (both fully clothed), however, the vast majority of viewers accepted these as integral to the overall plot and intrigue. If viewers are expecting a recreation of Pride and Prejudice, they will be disappointed. When Austen began to write her original manuscript (The Brothers), times were changing. The Napoleonic Wars had left their mark on England, the political landscape was changing, and the old life of Aristocratic elite was making way for industrialists and entrepreneurs. Austen’s prose took on a new energy that represented the changing times, the characters she crafted (The Parker Brother’s) were self-made men, and the setting was a seaside resort. Andrew Davies rose to the challenge and created his homage to Jane Austen fit for a twenty-first-century audience.
The music accompanying the series is sublime and has been composed by the wonderful Ruth Barrett. The music was specifically chosen to reflect the real ‘folky’ style of the time period and used many authentic instruments. (My personal favourite piece of music (Esther takes the Reins) comes in episode 8). Also of note is the beautiful choreography that ensures that each of the three ball scenes are aesthetic delights. Indeed, the cinematography, costumes, set designs and scenery are all visually stunning (filmed on location in and around Bristol and Somerset in South-West England).
The story begins with a carriage accident which sees Tom (Kris Marshall) and Mary Parker (Kate Ashfield) stranded outside the rural village of Willingden whereby a stroke of luck finds them aided by Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams). This sets in motion a chain of events that allows our heroine Charlotte to journey with the Parkers to the seaside resort of Sanditon. Tom Parker is a visionary and entrepreneur and hopes to develop Sanditon into a fashionable locale to rival Brighton or Worthing, and naïve but well-read Charlotte is enthused by Tom’s enthusiasm.
Sidney Parker (Theo James) is Tom’s middle brother, a slightly wild and wayward sibling with a troubled past. In an absolute stroke of casting genius, these two lead characters share the most believable on-screen chemistry in every one of their scenes. Sidney and Charlotte’s relationship, as expected of Austen characters, begins at loggerheads. They both are inexplicably drawn to one another, but assumptions on both sides make for several uncomfortable encounters. They must face many twists and turns along their journey towards admiration, respect and eventually love (but I’ll come back to that later).
The introduction of Jane Austen’s first character of mixed ethnicity, Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) was a significant milestone in English literature at the time of her writing. Miss Lambe was described by Austen as ‘a half mulatto heiress of Antiguan descent’. Through Georgiana and her guardian Sidney Parker, Sanditon touches on matters of slavery and colonialism far more openly than Mansfield Park ever did. Davies embraces this character and Georgiana’s story arc is neatly woven through that of our two lead protagonists, Sidney Parker and Charlotte Heywood.
Unusually for televised drama, there are no ‘surplus’ characters in Sanditon. All actors are entirely convincing in their roles, and the supporting cast is outstanding. The sub-plot of Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer) and Lord Babington (Mark Stanley) is case in point. Esther has arguably the most fascinating story arc, and those who dislike her at first will be amazed by how much they enjoy her character’s journey. Others who deserve recognition for their roles include the kind-hearted Young (James) Stringer (Leo Suter), the indomitable Lady Denham (Anne Reid), the conniving cad Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox), scheming Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky), the calamitous Mr Crowe (Matt Needham) and the perpetually cheerful and surprisingly insightful Arthur Parker (Turlough Convery).
However, the absolute highlight for me was Theo James’ portrayal of Sidney Parker and his journey into self-reflection, understanding and ultimately love. Sidney’s character at first appears cold and arrogant, but as his defences are peeled back, layer after layer, they reveal an injured soul and a man who cares too deeply. Theo James has such a talent for communicating without words that Sidney’s expressions and interactions with Charlotte (Rose Williams) were imbued with such meaning that dialogue was superfluous. Rose Williams has proven herself to be a perfect leading lady and a formidable and talented actress who equalled Theo’s intensity with a freshness and naivety that was breath-taking. Together, their love becomes utterly believable.
As mentioned, the road to love and happiness never runs smoothly for an Austen heroine, and Sanditon is no different. I would be remiss if I did not touch on the controversial conclusion. Episode 8 lulls viewers into believing that the inevitable happy ever after is moments away with romance, another ball and a wedding. The perfect conclusion to a Jane Austen adaptation, yes? No. In fact, Andrew Davies had a few tricks left up his sleeve yet! There was indeed a beautiful clifftop encounter that will have hearts racing at its romance and beauty, followed by the last of the show’s three balls. There is even a wedding … except, the season 1 finale takes a heart-wrenching and totally unexpected turn, and believe me, viewers will be left in a total uproar until audiences realise that they have just been spectacularly played. Andrew Davies is a shrewd and experienced storyteller. He knows how to deliver a cliff-hanger with almost brutal effect. He knows what audiences want, and his objective was to leave us all wanting more.
Sanditon was always intended to be a returning series with this ending as the midpoint in Charlotte and Sidney’s journey. Plenty more obstacles to overcome and a lot more sizzling chemistry. And what of the future of Sanditon town? Although a second season is not yet confirmed, Sanditon has a global following, and both PBS and Red Planet Pictures aim to do everything they can to bring us a happy conclusion to what has become one of the most talked-about period dramas of recent times.
Join Sanditon fans on Facebook and Twitter #SanditonSisterhood to support the campaign for Sanditon Season 2 and to discuss all things Sanditon. A petition (with almost 50k signatures) exists, and your support would be appreciated to help #SaveSanditon. http://chng.it/YsqYHhzZP5