Sanditon, episode 1, review: Jane Austen with lashings of sun, sand and sex - but will viewers crave something more?

Gerard O'Donovan
Theo James, Rose Williams, Crystal Clarke, Anne Reid and Kris Marshall star in Andrew Davies's adaptation of Jane Austen's unfinished novel - ITV Picture Desk

The new Andrew Davies adaptation of Sanditon on ITV on Sunday evening unveiled one of Jane Austen’s lesser-known works as an entertaining romp set in an England undergoing unprecedented social change – with lashings of sun, sand, sex and bare-bottomed sea bathing.

Britain’s best-known adapter of literary classics for television, Davis is still most fêted for his 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice, in which Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy emerged Adonis-like from a lake in a dripping undershirt. He’s since gone on to adapt most of Austen’s oeuvre, as well as many other classics from Middlemarch to, most recently, Les Misérables, regularly courting controversy for the raunchiness of his adaptations.

On first view, Sanditon aims more for the frivolity of Davies’s 2008 Sense and Sensibility than the sweeping romance of his Pride and Prejudice, although there are signs of more sombre notes being struck. Of all Austen’s works, this one offers a particular challenge to the adapter: to finish it. At the time of her death in 1817, Austen had written just 24,000 words (less than a quarter through), with little indication of how she wished it to continue or conclude. All that exists is a nascent satire on themes of avarice, inheritance, marriage, and Britain’s transition from an agricultural economy to a more thrustingly entrepreneurial one.

Davies solution is to retain Austen’s characters in outline, fleshing out her subtle satire with liberal quantities of broad comedy and sexual frisson, but also sowing the seeds for more modern strands to be explored, including racism, sexual abuse and some decidedly un-Austenish incest.

It began in familiar territory. Following a coaching accident, bright but innocent Charlotte (Rose Williams) was invited by enthusiastic entrepreneur Mr Parker (Kris Marshall) and his wife to Sanditon, the new but not-yet-fashionable south-coast bathing resort he is developing, to sample its modern delights. There, Charlotte became embroiled with the town’s power-broker, wealthy Lady Denham (Anne Reid), and her dysfunctional extended family, all jostling to inherit her fortune. Prime among them her niece Clara (Lily Sacofsky), the caddish Sir Edward (Jack Fox) and his uncomfortably-close sister Esther (Charlotte Spencer), a classic Austen snob.

Lily Sacofsky, Rose Williams and Kate Ashfield in Andrew Davies's adaptation of Austen's unfinished novel Credit: Simon Ridgway

All this played out against a familiar period-drama backdrop of palatial houses, CGI-enhanced exteriors, empire-line dresses, bonnets, bosoms, breezy cliff-walks and lavish balls. So far so Austen, although ramping up the Regency fad for sea-bathing allowed for comedy and sexual charge as men plunged naked into the waves observed by modest young ladies emerging giggling from bathing machines.

Sunday evening’s chief dramatic push involved Charlotte’s encounters with Mr Parker’s younger brother, Sidney (Theo James), a Darcy-esque brooder with a history. Exactly what that history might be is still unclear, other than that it involves one of Austen’s most tantalisingly incomplete heroines – Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke) a “young West Indian heiress of large fortune”, with all the echoes of prejudice and empire that implies.

But the main emphasis, initially, was on fun and drawing in the audience. Kris Marshall’s Parker bordered on the buffoonish although he also brought a naïvety to the role that invited enormous sympathy. Anne Reid was suitably dragon-like as Lady Denham, but it was Rose Williams who stood out, radiating likeability as innocent-abroad Charlotte, a fresh and natural contrast to some in the cast who at times seemed too aware that they were acting in a period drama.

Overall, this was an intriguing rather than a mesmerising start, a drama lacking the essential Austen qualities of interiority and biting wit but compensating with a rompish enthusiasm and a cast of very intriguing characters. Whether there’s enough in it to win audience loyalty for another seven hours remains in the balance.