Plunkett on TV: Why ITV's Sanditon is like no Jane Austen adaptation you've seen before

Neither ITV nor Andrew Davies are strangers to Jane Austen adaptations but Sanditon is unlike anything either has done before.

Because Sanditon is Austen’s last and unfinished novel, with only 11 chapters written before her death.

Its 70 pages yielded enough material for just the first half hour of the opening episode of the 8-part series, a nucleus around which Davies was able to let his imagination take flight.

“I must say, when Belinda [Campbell, executive producer] said we are thinking about doing eight episodes, it was a bit daunting,” says Davies.

“What Jane Austen did was set up a place and establish this wonderful group of characters very clearly but she never really got the story going at all. We sat around talking and thinking and saying ‘Dare we do that? Yeah!’

“Mix in a few quarrels, schemes and misunderstandings, a couple of balls, and a bit of naked sea bathing [for the men] and we have a fascinating set of possibilities.”

It’s not just the limited amount of the source material that makes Sanditon different from previous Austen adaptations - it is also the subject matter.

Starring Rose Williams, Kris Marshall, Anne Reid, Theo James and Tom Parker, Sanditon is the story of a young woman from a respectable country family who is invited to stay at English seaside resort desperately trying to become fashionable.

Davies describes it is a "bold departure from anything [Austen] had done before”.

“Of course she provides us with a spirited young heroine and a fascinatingly complex and moody hero, but what she did was so fresh,” says Davies. "The men in particular are not like Jane Austen’s usual people, they’re kind of business people, entrepreneurs, a sign of what the country was going to become.”

Director Olly Blackburn says it was an “incredibly liberating experience”.

“It’s so exciting to have an entirely new set of characters and a new setting that no-one has come across before,” he says. “She explores a very urban, very driven, entrepreneurial world, where people are obsessed by money. In that way, it’s got a real contemporary connection to all of us.”

The lead character, Charlotte Heywood, played by Rose Williams, is a very 21st century heroine.

“Rose is extra fun because she is so modern, it really is a different slant on Austen heroines we have seen in the past,” says Williams. She’s “headstrong, practical … [and] not focused on marriage. Love finds her rather than her trying to find love.”

The book also features Miss Lambe, often described as Austen’s only black character, an heiress whose father owns a sugar plantation in Antigua.

“You don’t see people of colour in Jane Austen’s novels,” says Crystal Clarke, the actress who plays her. “The way Andrew has fleshed out [the role] is amazing. He had free rein to do anything he liked. In the book, Miss Lambe is quiet, but here she very much has a voice.”

The roots of the drama lie in the bicentenary of Austen’s death two years ago.

“We were looking around for things to do with Jane Austen when we found there was this unfinished book. We read it and there were these extraordinary characters that just jumped off the page,” remembers executive producer Belinda Campbell.

“There really weren’t any reservations, apart from Jane Austen being such a pretty big thing to emulate. It felt like an extraordinary opportunity.”

But despite the limited source material, it still feels very much like an Austen adaptation.

“Andrew worked tirelessly to ensure tonally it really felt on-point,” says Campbell.

“It’s a satire, it has humour, it’s a love story, and for Jane Austen fans it has the elements that we recognise as being Austen across the series. I hope people feel they’ve been gifted a Jane Austen they didn’t know about.”

If viewers are in any doubt it’s a Davies adaptation, then there are a few scenes in the opening episode - a sprinkling of bare bottoms, for instance - which almost feel like a trademark touch.

There’s also an incident in the woods in the opening episode which was described by Austen in the original text as “white and womanly” but is rather more explicit on screen (and probably best not described here).

“I really aim to please myself,” says Davies. “I write something that I’d like to watch and I suppose the ‘sexing it up’ thing comes in fairly naturally. If it’s not there I feel, well, that’s a shame, let’s put some in because I like to write it and I like to watch it.”

There’s something else different about Sanditon. The open-ended text left behind by Austen inevitably offers itself up as a returning series.

And it’s a truth universally acknowledged that TV controllers love a returnable drama.

“We would love it to come back as a second series,” confirms Davies. “There’s lots of story to come.”

Sanditon begins on ITV at 9pm on Sunday 25th August.

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