I have had some trepidation about the new ITV series of Sanditon. Given what a snippet the book is, it was hard to see what the producers really had to work with. Plus, although I have read it a few times, its brevity never inspired the same regret that I felt when The Watsons stopped so abruptly. Still, hearing that Andrew Davies was attached to the project made me curious. Giving up an entire hour of my evening to television is no light undertaking but Sunday evening found myself and Boy who Reads Not a Lot perched on the sofa and ready to give the series our best shot.
As first impressions go, things are favourable. The titles are beautiful. I always like a television show that has made a noticeable effort in this area. We’re not quite on Game of Thrones territory here but they are still very pretty. From there we are launched straight into one of Jane Austen’s few action sequences, the carriage accident which precipitates the events of the novel. The Parkers are travelling too quickly, their vehicle loses a wheel and Charlotte Heywood comes to their assistance.
On the page, Charlotte Heywood never really interested me – she had the ingenue qualities of Catherine Morland and Fanny Price but not the same interior life. Rose Williams lends her more charm, packing in the dimples and the sweet smiles. Two years ago, ITV promised the world a ‘less bonnety’ version of Pride and Prejudice but while this never materialised instead we have a very bonnety adaptation of Sanditon. I am going to reserve judgment on Charlotte until I see further episodes. At the moment she feels very Austen-by-numbers rather than having any distinguishing qualities of her own but let’s watch this space.
Mr Parker, played by Kris Marshall, is working obsessively to make Sanditon a fashionable tourist destination and he and his wife invite Charlotte on a visit by way of thanks for her help following their accident. Having grown up watching Kris Marshall in My Family, it still surprises me to see him in adult roles. This is a return to comedy for him but his Micawber-esque terror of the potential consequences if the Sanditon venture fails also lends him an edge of tragedy. More Parkers emerge over the course of the episode, most of them hypochondriacs.
It’s at around the twenty minute mark of the episode when we run past the part that Jane Austen had actually written and from there on we are on launched into whatever Andrew Davies can dream up. He has really fashioned himself a niche in period dramas. In the 2008 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, his name was larger than Jane Austen’s in the titles. His style is pretty distinctive – he just adds in more sex. In Pride and Prejudice we got the wet shirt scene. Sense and Sensibility opened to the sound of Willoughby seducing Eliza. Sanditon takes things up to a whole new level however, piling on the nudity, sea-bathing and then two people rutting in the woods.
A particular Andrew Davies addition seems to be how he has imagined Sidney Parker. This one is not a hypochondriac but is instead rather ill-mannered. He is also tall and stand-offish and so I predict that he and Charlotte will be married by the end of the series. His sympathetic sister-in-law assures Charlotte that he has just been treated badly by women so most likely there is a tragic back story to come but … I just was not impressed. When he tears Charlotte to pieces in the final scene, I hoped she would tell him where to go. This was not flirtatious sparring in the style of Elizabeth and Darcy. It was just … nastiness. Since Fifty Shades‘ Christian Grey, there have been entirely too much of the ‘tortured bad boy’ in fictional media. They’re not deep and interesting, they’re certainly not in need of healing – they’re just rude. Charlotte, you can do better. So can Andrew Davies.
Another weird character is Sir Edward Denham. In Austen’s fragment, he is a figure of fun who fancies himself like Samuel Richardson’s villain Lord Lovelace. He plans to seduce Clara Brereton but she seems to just roll her eyes and keep her distance. The whole point is that he does not stand a chance. Here though he is an overt cad and very creepy. His relationship with his sister Esther has shades of the Lannister to it (and seriously – why does every brother-sister duo on television at the moment have to be incestuous?) and his overtures to Charlotte are intimidating. And then there’s the rutting in the woods. Ugh. If even the few Austen-approved plot elements are being ignored and up-ended, I do wonder what on earth is the point of using the source material in the first place. Also, if the writers felt that the story was in need of a ‘cad’, the way they have gone about it is disappointing. Austen’s other cads were far more subtle. Our initial impressions of Wickham and Willoughby are favourable. The audience is fooled so we can understand why our heroines were too. Edward Denham is played with such oozing ickiness you would instinctively just kick him in the crotch before he even finished his sentence and turn on your heel.
The object of his lust, Clara Brereton, is another character for whom I think I will have to suspend judgment. From the book, I had the impression that she was a ‘goodie’ but the fact that she and Charlotte instantly reach first name terms raises alarm bells. When this happens in Northanger Abbey with Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe, it is Bad News and subsequent reading has taught me that you didn’t just throw your first name about in Regency Britain. But it could also just as easily be Andrew Davies and company trying to keep things nice and casual for the millennials in the audience.
The rules of play are very different in Sanditon to the other novels. Unlike the domestic settings of Pride and Prejudice or Emma, these characters are not as familiar with each other, the social rules less sacrosanct. Even within the Bath social scene shown in Northanger and Persuasion, much is made of how the rules of etiquette define one’s place. Sanditon is still finding its way and so the social order is more confused. And it is by the sea and as Charlotte’s father warns her, seaside resorts can be funny places. Regular Austen readers know this too. It was in Brighton that Lydia Bennet was seduced by Wickham, it was in Ramsgate that he nearly got Georgiana Darcy too. Emma and Mr Knightley plan to take their honeymoon by the seaside so it is there that they will consummate their love. And if Louisa Musgrove had not had her head turned by the sea in Lyme, she would have been silly enough to leap down those steps. In Sanditon, Charlotte is assured that sea-bathing will exhilarate her as nothing ever before.
Sea-bathing itself is not so out of place for Austen. We know that Mrs Bennet wanted to do it. Lydia Bennet probably did it in Brighton. One can imagine Emma giving it a try on her honeymoon. But these are all instances that took place ‘offstage’, as did all activities of a remotely sexual nature. And given all the contemporary concern about how arousing young ladies might find the flow of currents against their person, there is no doubt that this was how it was seen. In case we miss the point, Davies has the Sanditon men strip off their clothes and run into the sea. Even Charlotte and Clara get undressed together in a bathing machine, underlining their physical intimacy. While their actual costumes bear a closer resemblance to something out of The Handmaid’s Tale, this is a real step change for an Austen novel.
Even the Grand Lady of the story (played by the ever wonderful Anne Reid, no doubt adding extra production value) feels very different. The adaptation has not gotten into how she was twice-widowed rather than just the once but maybe that is being saved for a subsequent episode. Lady Denham warns Charlotte that Sir Edward’s flirtatious (creepy!) overtures are a sign of oats being sown rather than the beginning courtship. She also rolls her eyes when she hears that Charlotte is the eldest of twelve siblings. She seems to have a pragmatism around male sexual appetites which feels rather out of kilter for Austen. Also, Esther Denham warning Charlotte that she will come to regret ever setting foot in Sanditon feels really … odd. It’s the kind of thing that little Catherine Morland was always looking out for and for which her creator spent the entire of the novel telling her not to be so silly. Then there’s the ball scene where Charlotte tries so hard to be polite while Sir Edward and Clara make awkward excuses for being caught en flagrante. He was ‘comforting her’. She was doing something for him to prevent him doing something far worse to her – #MeToo etc.
I suppose that this adaptation may be simply picking up on the greater tone of cynicism which has always surprised readers of Sanditon. Opinion was always divided as to whether this was due to a change of style within Austen that she never had a chance to develop fully or if it was perhaps simply indicative of how the poor woman was dying and feeling a bit fed up about it. This does present challenges though for the producers who need therefore to fill out material from an incomplete novel which already stands out a lot from the author’s other work while somehow also remaining on-brand. With seven more episodes to go, I am curious to see if they can pull it off.
When you compare Sanditon to Davies’ 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, the difference is striking despite the shared origins. There is little of the earlier production’s vibrancy and none of its flair. The sets look washed out and the cinematography made a heavy use of shallow depth of field, leaving most of the shots feeling rather out of focus. I would imagine that this was to make the viewer focus on the conversations happening on screen but given how much it was over-used, it started to feel really distracting. It does not help that rather than the grand houses of Netherfield and Pemberley, Sanditon’s action takes place in a ramshackle (albeit charming) seaside town. This only emphasises the rather low-budget feel. I think that back in 1995, we all felt that the BBC had pulled out all the stops to serve up the best possible Pride and Prejudice they could. Flash forward and Netflix, Amazon and HBO have upped the standards for what is possible in terms of costume drama. The difference in budgets does rather show. People are not perhaps getting the spectacle that they were expecting.
For all that though, I heartily enjoyed last night’s episode. There is a promising amount of intriguing material for future episodes too. We have the soon to arrive school for young ladies, the mysterious biracial heiress Miss Lamb and the question of whether the friend of the Prince Regent really will grace Sanditon with a visit. I have a serious weakness for a costume drama – I have adored BBC’s Poldark for years despite only ever being so-so about the series’ lead. For all its faults, Sanditon feels like a treat. I can’t wait to see what next week turns out – I hope I can find others to join in!