Let’s credit Andrew Davies for consummate patience.
He’s the master adapter, an expert on turning British classics – especially ones by Jane Austen – into TV scripts. But he waited 80-plus years for the ultimate challenge.
That’s “Sanditon” (shown here with Rose Williams and Theo James), which Austen had barely started before her death in 1817. “She didn’t really get any further than introducing the characters and the premise. (All of) Jane Austen’s material, I used up in the first half of the first episode,” Davies, 83, told the Television Critics Association in July.
The rest, seven-and-a-half of the eight hours, is Davies. He’d done four previous Austen adaptations, including the much-praised “Pride and Prejudice” in 1995. This one is mostly masterful, intricately weaving complex characters who give viewers (and each other) mixed emotions.
That’s especially true of Sidney Parker. “He’s not particularly likable in the first couple of episodes,” said James, who plays him.
James upset viewers in “Downton Abbey,” as the Turkish ambassador who had the audacity to die in Lady Mary’s bed. Afterward, the actor found he was getting foul looks in public.
This time, his character stays alive, getting time to redeem himself. “It takes a long time for the audience to understand who he is,” James said.
When Austen died (at 41) in 1817, four of her novels had been published and three others were finished. Two were published the next year; “Lady Susan” would wait another 53 years.
But it wasn’t until 1928 – more than a century after her death – that the start of “Sanditon” was published. Ever since, at least seven published books have had other authors finish the story.
At the core is a tale that Rebecca Eaton (the head of PBS’ “Masterpiece” when this was produced) called “very, very Jane.”
As usual, it has a heroine who is short on money, but long on intelligence. Charlotte, Eaton said, is “the young, beautiful ingenue who leaves her small village and goes to the town of Sanditon, which will become the first seaside resort in England.”
This is a new world for her, said Rose Williams, who plays her. She “has been weaned, much like Jane Austen herself was, from a country town. She’s practical and capable.” And she meets her opposites:
There are the Parkers. Sidney is “a gorgeous man with a mysterious past,” Eaton said. One brother, Tom, is the optimist trying to develop a resort; their brother and sister, Arthur and Diana, are comic characters whose occasional efforts at physical exertion are doomed.
And there are the Denhams. Lady Denham is rich and cruel; her nephew (Sir Edward) and niece (Esther, his step-sister) need her money; so does Clara, the penniless young woman staying there.
Others include a young foreman and his bricklayer father … a visiting doctor … a nobleman with an unrequited love … and more.
Davies juggles them into triangles (and beyond) that are sometimes un-Austenlike. In England, the mini-series drew both praise and grumbles about its implied sex and nudity and about its ending.
Austen also introduced Georgiana Lambe, an heiress from West Indies. “In Jane Austen’s fragment, we don’t know what she’s like,” Davies said. “But we do know she’s got a great fortune. She’s entering a country which has no knowledge of black people, and lots of prejudice.”
That role goes to Crystal Clarke, who has worldly roots. She grew up in New Jersey (with parents from
Trinidad and Guyana), went to Scotland to study at the Royal Conservatoire, then went to England for theater and small movie and TV roles.
“I’m just a really curious person,” Clarke said. “I always wanted to see what’s out there.”
She and Georgiana share that trait … and a view of British weather. Clarke quotes Georgiana: “‘You have no idea how much I hate this cold, miserable weather.’ …. That’s not acting. That’s me.”
– “Masterpiece: Sanditon,” 9 and 10 p.m. Jan. 12, PBS, then 9 p.m. for six more Sundays