Jane Austen’s final work comes to life on PBS’ ‘Masterpiece: Sanditon’

‘Sanditon’ – Avarice, libidony run amok in a sleepy seaside town

Rose Williams and Theo James star in “Sanditon,” premiering on “Masterpiece” Sunday on PBS (check local listings)

In 1817, when Jane Austen was dying of what would become known as Addison’s disease, the novelist decided to turn her attentions to lighter subjects, such as lampooning the health crazes of the day.

The work that resulted, “Sanditon,” went unfinished after her death that year, though a number of writers would later put their codas on it using what they felt was her vision and style. One, screenwriter Andrew Davies, brings his interpretation to the small screen this week on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”

Premiering Sunday, Jan. 12 (check local listings), Davies’ lavish adaptation of Austen’s final work follows the story of enterprising young promoter Tom Parker (Kris Marshall, “Love Actually”), who is determined to make the sleepy seaside village of Sanditon into a fashionable health resort with the help of local bigwig Lady Denham (Anne Reid, “Years and Years”). Through a mistake, he meets the Heywoods and invites their eldest daughter, Charlotte (Rose Williams, “Curfew”), for a stay there.

Rose Williams star in “Sanditon,” premiering on “Masterpiece” Sunday on PBS (check local listings)

And it is at the spa where Charlotte observes the avarice, seduction and hypochondria running rampant, as Lady Denham tries to play Cupid for her destitute nephew Sir Edward (Jack Fox, “Riviera”), who himself has designs on Lady Denham’s ward Clara (Lily Sacofsky, “Bancroft”). Meanwhile, the arrival of mixed-race heiress Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke, “Ordeal by Innocence”) has gotten the attention of the eligible male clientele, and the wild Sidney Parker (Theo James, “Divergent”) has caught the eye of Charlotte.

With sharply drawn characters but little else in the way of story, Davies – best known for his adaptations of everything from “House of Cards” and “Brideshead Revisited” to the Austen works “Pride and Prejudice” and “Vanity Fair” – had his work cut out for him, as he told a recent gathering of journalists in Beverly Hills, Calif.

“What did daunt me was thinking up so much story,” he says. “And the reason I do such a lot of adaptations is that the aspect of writing that I’m not awfully good at is generating, you know, lots and lots of plot. But I did have help with this. I found that once we got the characters going, the story did come out of the characters, and it was enormous fun to do. And especially once we got these wonderful actors, we fed off their energy and their intelligence and their wonderful performances.”

For her part, Williams appreciated her character Charlotte’s going against female stereotypes of the day in striking up friendships with men involved in the spa’s creation and taking interest in the construction.

“She’s interested in the logistics of the building site,” Williams says. “She’s interested in how Tom has pulled it all together as opposed to her wanting to leave her village to find a husband. So that fresh, modern perspective to me is really, really interesting. And she has relationships with males in the show that become fine friends. … There’s a nice set of gender flip in ‘Sanditon.’ It’s great.”

George Dickie

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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