Well, this is an odd one. Andrew Davies has adapted Jane Austen’s final work for television. I was confused too as I thought Northanger Abbey was her final book, but it turns out that was published and done, and Sanditon was only just started when she died. Davies says he had about 60 pages to work with. So how will Austen purists feel about this? How can you complain about inaccuracies if no one really knows what Austen had in mind? I’m sure they’ll find something to complain about – how would they enjoy themselves otherwise – but all anyone can do is speculate about Austen’s intentions.
Sanditon looks like it was always meant to be a bit unusual in Austen world. Our heroine Charlotte Heywood is a pure, kind, clever little country mouse picked up after her family helps the Parkers after a carriage accident. So far, so Austen. But she’s whisked off on an adventure to an up-and-coming coastal resort (the sets are fine; the CGI town less-so). Think Las Vegas (or at least Blackpool) of the 1810s. She’s warned by her Dad to be careful as the rules of social conduct are relaxed on the coast. It seems like Austen knew things were going to get a bit wild in this book.
The Parkers are Tom (an energetic performance from Kris Death in Paradise Marshall) and his long-suffering wife Mary (Kate Ashfield who plays long-suffering in Shaun of the Dead too). He is the town planner desperate for rich nobility to come to their stretch of the coast; the social influencers of their day. So far the only big name they have is Lady Denham (Anne Reid checking off crotchety old Austen crone on her acting to-do list). She’s sitting on a pile of cash fending off interest from a log list of relatives who want to be in her good books, and in her will. There’s the seemingly good and quiet ward Clara, dashing Sir Edward and his sister Esther. That pair are signposted immediately as the bad guys, both dressed in elegant black outfits like a gothic Team Rocket. I think these are the only direct relatives introduced so far out of a daunting list. Austen was very much the Scandi noir or fantasy novel of her day; introducing a cast of thousands at breakneck speed.
Friskiness ensues at some speed. First, there are bare bottoms and swimsuits as the Sanditon visitors get stuck into sea bathing, the big craze that everyone comes to the English coast for. Lady D drinks seawater every day for her health which sounds delicious and not at all dangerous. The gents get stark naked and frolic in the water, while the women use the bathing machines (wooden changing rooms on wheels) and end up in matching red outfits that look like drowned Handmaids.
Sir Edward and sister Esther are rather too close for siblings with shades of Cruel Intentions and the family Lannister, hopefully with slightly less murder. Esther is a stone-cold bitch, delighting in slagging off all and sundry to a shocked Charlotte. She was thoroughly unlikeable until the inaugural ball when some posh boys introduce themselves and ask if they might “find good sport here” – nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Without missing a beat, she answers in a sarcastic drawl “I don’t think there’s any shooting in the area”. If this isn’t a direct quote from Austen’s first few pages then I’ll eat my lace bonnet. Esther can stick around.
But brother Eddie is in our bad books already, as Clara tells Charlotte that he’s getting handsy with her and she’s having to put up with it so as not to annoy Lady D and end up cut off from her wealthy benefactor. Is he a filthy cad? He certainly looks the type.
Tom’s brother Sidney the useless influencer finally turns up to help Tom out, bringing another set of poshos to town. He’s hot on the heels of Miss Lamb, an heiress who is absolutely loaded. She’ll be interesting to get to know as she’s Austen’s first-ever black character, and it’s great she’s in town under her own agency (warned off an unsuitable romantic entanglement in London, so about as much agency as any Regency woman). She’s not some lowly servant along for the ride and she’s got beef with Sidney, as we know from them cursing each other as the pass on the dance floor.
So far there’s been no time for brooding as every character loves the sound of their own voice. The only thing dark and mysterious in the whole episode is Sidney’s enormous eyebrows. By the end of episode one Sidney has asked for Charlotte’s opinion, then lashed out at her when he didn’t like it, belittled her in public and made her cry. In Austen world this is usually shorthand for wedding bells by the end of the book. Frankly her heroines deserve better. I wonder if Andrew Davies feels the same way. What a task he and his team have taken on. They have just enough guidance from the source material, but need that confidence to develop characters and situations entirely off book. They’re modern creations but we the viewers will demand they feel authentic. To me that’s pretty daunting. The first episode was enjoyable Sunday night stuff. I can’t wait to see what they’ve accomplished.
The first episode is on in ITV Hub to watch now. I’ve a feeling it was probably only me watching it last night, as everyone else would have been tuned in to flat caps and not very Brummie accents on BBC1. But a shout out to ITV, who broadcast a Downton Abbey: The Movie advert in the first break. When ITV knows their audience, they really know their audience.
Contributed by Sarah Kennedy
Sanditon continues Sunday at 9.00pm on ITV.