While an adaptation of a classic Jane Austen novel is usually a solid bet for the Sunday night period drama slot, with Sanditon ITV is treading new ground. Adapted from Austen’s unfinished novel, this premiere episode is the most Austen-like this series will get, with the remaining run of episodes expanding these early chapters into new territory as acclaimed writer Andrew Davies forges forward into the world Austen sketched out in her final novel. Whether all that potential can be channelled into something refreshingly new and exciting or whether the series falls back into old tropes remains to be seen, but from Sanditon’s first episode, it’s clear that the building blocks are in place to create something spectacular – even if it is all a little unpolished right now.
After plowing through the necessary set-up in a matter of minutes, kind-hearted and principled Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) is whisked off to the emerging seaside resort of Sanditon as the guest of Tom and Mary Parker (Kris Marshall and Kate Ashfield), providing Charlotte with the opportunity to experience a world beyond her sheltered and loving upbringing with her 11 brothers and sisters. It’s not long before she’s introduced to the resort’s key players, including the caddish and charming Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox) and his cuttingly cruel sister Esther (Charlotte Spencer), the sweet and beautiful Clara Brereton (Lucy Sacofsky) and their very wealthy aunt Lady Denham (Anne Reid).
And it’s into this world of social climbing, fortune-hunting and dubious intentions that Charlotte finds herself being thrown to the wolves, with her father’s warning that seaside resorts are places where normal rules cease to apply and no one knows who anyone else is still ringing in her ears. Even as she vows to experience everything that Sanditon has to offer – from cliff walks to sea bathing – Charlotte is also left to navigate family tension and illicit liaisons as the resort prepares to hold its first ball of the season. And then there’s also the matter of the hot-headed and smouldering youngest Parker brother Sidney (Theo James) too, as the pair’s initial interest in the other is soon doused by the kind of harsh words that can only be spoken after a typical Austen misunderstanding.Right now, the best thing that Sanditon has going for it is that it’s new, fresh and not bogged down by expectations held by fans of any adaptation that came before it. The intrigue around this story, these characters and their motives is enough to drive audiences through to the end of the first episode and beyond, offering up a new puzzle to be solved in seven episodes and without the benefit of Austen’s pages to help solve it – but there’s also a long way to go if Sanditon wants to reach the heights of some of the author’s most beloved adaptations.
Rose Williams, best known for her role as Princess Claude in Reign, plays Charlotte with the kind of wide-eyed naivety that can both grate and border on unbelievable if let to continue, and yet it’s clear she’s also a dynamic screen presence who can effortlessly hold the audience’s attention whenever she’s onscreen. Theo James is also a commanding actor, but right now he’s burdened by too many comparisons to Darcy and held back by the restraints of a character we’ve seen dozens of times before. Hopefully the best of him is yet to come as the drama steps out to explore new ground.
And thankfully, there is a lot of potential for this series to impress over the next seven episodes as it delves deeper into Sanditon society. From the introduction of Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke), a very wealthy heiress from Antigua with whispers of a chequered past following her out of London and a history with Sidney too, to Clara’s quiet warning that Charlotte should be on her guard around Sir Edward, this drama looks set to explore elements of race, class and gender inequality in more detail than those that came before it – no doubt a byproduct of the 21st century writers working on expanding Austen’s unfinished world, but a very welcome one at that.
This first episode does have its faults, including a lot of clunky exposition and some disarmingly close camera angles, and as a result it lacks the instantly engaging spark of Gwyneth Hughes’ adaptation of Vanity Fair that aired on ITV this time last year. But Sanditon’s premiere also offers a very promising start to what could be a groundbreaking new series. The pieces are all in place, so now the onus is on Andrew Davies to continue to push everything forward into something brilliant.