Oh, guys. Know your audience. And finish your stories accordingly.
Sanditon and I have been on something of a journey. I love Jane Austen, and I turned my nose up at this version when it first started on the basis that it very clearly wasn’t Jane Austen: the daft, uninspiring first episode was very much in the ITV period drama house style in that there was no subtlety, no nuance and no trust in the audience to understand anything unless you spoonfed it to them. Every character was drawn in crayon, every plot point battered home with a sledgehammer and every interview or article about it determined to tell us how sexed up the whole thing was going to be. None of that changed as the series progressed, but either something else about the show did or something about me did: as the season strode on, across beaches and cliff tops, with nude scenes and anachronistic hairstyles, angry glowering and knockabout farce, it still wasn’t Jane Austen but it also, somehow, was in that Andrew Davies and co gleefully plundered plot points and character archetypes from every one of her books (and many more books besides) shoved them all in to a big pot, substituted a lot of modern attitudes and sensibilities for the period ones that these books were actually about, and, cackling loudly, turned the volume and the heat all the way up to 11 just to see what would happen. And oh, the sheer, ridiculous joy of the result!
The peak of this glorious nonsense was episode 6, the ITV Regency equivalent of the Fast and the Furious where our very angry hero Sidney Parker (Theo James) and our sparky, plucky heroine Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williamson) bickered their way around seedy London falling in love/ looking for Sidney’s kidnapped ward Georgiana (Crystal Clarke), culminating in a high-speed carriage chase on the road to Gretna Green and a jump from one carriage to another that Vin Diesel would have been proud of. Sidney’s top hat may not have moved an inch but, if I’d been wearing one, I’d have thrown it in the air in delight.
Other sub-plots and characters of varying degrees of silliness and stereotype abounded, as well as a surprisingly poignant Gothic melodrama about the tormented, icy-but-not-really Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer) freeing herself from the manipulative, sleazeball step-brother she fancied herself in love with, and finding happiness with woke king Lord Babbington (Mark Stanley) a nineteenth-century man so patient, kind, feminist and understanding of the dynamics of coercive control in destructive relationships, that he should teach courses to twenty-first century ones. I could go on, but the short(ish) version is that as Sanditon got into its stride, both it and I began to enjoy ourselves immensely because turning one’s nose up isn’t nearly as much fun as shipping one’s brains out, is it? Which makes last night’s ending even worse.
Undeniably dashing though he was, this version of Sidney Parker was something of a problematic fave from the start, with his propensity to berate our heroine loudly and brutally in the early episodes making me wonder, initially anyway, if maybe poor Charlotte might be better off with someone (like that nice Mr Stringer) whose default mode wasn’t to keep giving her a row. Or if, at the very least, said problematic fave should be taking lessons on how to be a feminist ally from good pal Babbers. I mean, I know Sidney’s ex broke his heart and all but a) that was years ago and b) it’s hardly Charlotte’s fault. Or anyone else’s.
Since I’m a sucker for a handsome, brooding face with a tortured past, though, Sidney worked his way out of the “Danger! High Voltage!” zone and into both my heart and Charlotte’s pretty easily, earning our forgiveness with some smouldering looks, some lovely smiles and some very pretty apologies. And lo! I was sold on Sidlotte and settled in for
my Charlotte’s happily ever after, because that is how these stories are supposed to work. Bit of arguing and misunderstanding, some obstacles and shenanigans that get in the way in middle, then a big romantic finish. That’s what I want, that’s what the audience for this type of thing wants and that’s what the format of this show promised. Only that’s not what we got, is it? Nope, instead, we got the drama equivalent of a cold shower followed by a kick in the gut as Sidney sold himself to his mean girl ex to save his idiot brother (played by Britain’s equivalent to Jim Carrey, Kris Marshall) and had the audacity not only to beg Charlotte for absolution, but to stop her carriage in the last few seconds of the series (giving us all a moment of false hope so thanks for that) and do it a second time. FFS, MAN. First of all, Charlotte may not think badly of you but I certainly do, and second of all, what kind of ending is THAT?!
Of course, the answer is it’s the kind of ending you might write if you really want a second season and don’t care how your audience feel about the end of your first. No word yet as to whether there will be another run, though, so instead said audience has been left uncertain, unsatisfied and very upset. I know it’s just tv, but it’s tv we invested in with a very specific goal, and for what? I went to bed on Sunday night so disgruntled I dreamed my own Sanditon epilogue (it wasn’t my best work), and just woke up feeling even more annoyed. Know your audience and finish your stories, guys. I don’t mean that every loose end has to be tied up or every question has to be answered, but every story has an ending that fits the material and this sure as hell wasn’t it. Like last week’s The Capture, and plenty of other series recently, Sanditon’s writers put the prospect of a second outing over a decent, satisfying end for the first one and have spoiled it for me and plenty of other people as a result. If you’re going to adapt Jane Austen at all, maybe ask yourselves what she would do next time, because this ending? This? Jane Austen would never.