Television and film producers the world over have been finding creative inspiration in Jane Austen novels for decades, helping to keep her legacy alive more than 100 years after her death. There is perhaps no television writer in the U.K.—or anywhere in the world, for that matter—with more experience in adapting the beloved author’s works than Andrew Davies. He gave us the classic 1995 take on Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth, Northanger Abbey for ITV’s Jane Austen season in 2007 and Sense and Sensibility in 2008 (among numerous other classic book adaptations.) When Red Planet Pictures decided they wanted to take on Austen’s unfinished manuscript Sanditon as the basis for a new period drama, they knew exactly who to go to. For ITV in the U.K. and Masterpiece in the U.S., with BBC Studios handling global distribution, Sanditon follows Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) as she moves to a coastal resort and encounters the mysterious businessman Sidney Parker (Theo James), among a slew of other characters. Davies tells TV Drama about the experience of finishing Austen’s last work, which she started writing in the final year of her life.
TV DRAMA: How did you approach taking an 11-chapter fragment and continuing the characters’ story arcs?
DAVIES: I’d read it before and never really considered it, thinking it was a shame she didn’t finish because I’d have enjoyed adapting it. Then, looking at it afresh with the idea that maybe I could be the one to finish it, it seemed like a very exciting opportunity. Largely because it seemed like Jane Austen was treating it as a new departure, with different kinds of people in it. Entrepreneurs and businessmen rather than sedate country gentlemen, an energetic heroine and her first black character in Miss Lambe, the West Indian heiress. [Austen] gave us the premise, the set-up for the story, and never really got the plot started. So it was just a big opportunity.
TV DRAMA: Tell us about the journey viewers will take over the course of the eight episodes.
DAVIES: We go into the story through Charlotte, who is in some ways a bit of an innocent. She’s lived on the family farm for all her years. She’s never been more than five or ten miles from home. On the other hand, she is the oldest of 12 children, so she’s had a lot of opportunity to look after other people. She’s had a lot of responsibility. She’s got her own opinions about life. And she is a nice character through whose eyes we can look at Sanditon and all the people in it. So it starts off as one of those “young girl goes into a strange place and has adventures” stories, which, in Jane Austen’s canon, links it up with something like Northanger Abbey. And then we get to know the other characters bit by bit. Tom Parker is a key character because he’s the one who is making all the action happen. He’s trying to turn a tiny fishing village into a grand seaside resort with all the bells and whistles, something like a 19th-century Boardwalk Empire. And then there’s the rest of his family. Very significant is his younger brother Sidney, who is a bit of a mystery man, a wheeler and dealer, an adventurer with a dark past, who is nevertheless very loyal to Tom and very much invested in helping him bring his project to fruition. And, of course, we’re looking out for possible love matches for Charlotte. Sidney is one, Sir Edward is possibly another and, as the story develops, another one comes on the scene. So it’s about love, it’s about business, it’s about race, it’s about female emancipation, it has all those things.
TV DRAMA: Based on your research, do you have a sense of Jane Austen’s state of mind when she was writing Sanditon?
DAVIES: We all think she wrote it when she was dying, but she didn’t know she was dying. She just thought she was feeling not quite [in good health]. In fact, the spirit of the book goes completely counter to any idea of failing strength or spirit. It’s full of lightness and joy. There’s a key scene when Charlotte arrives at Sanditon and she looks out the window at the sunlight glittering and dancing on the waves, and I thought, what a lovely sensation. Let’s try and capture that sensation of brightness and lightness all the way through this story. And I don’t think that’s being false to Jane Austen at all. It’s one of her funniest books. She just has great fun mocking all the hypochondria and fancies of the people who come to the seaside. That’s part of it. Also, I wanted to make it into a romantic story as well.
TV DRAMA: Why do you think her work has been so incredibly well suited to TV and film adaptations, sometimes more than once for a single story?
DAVIES: Her typical story, at the heart of it, was a sort of fairy tale in which a lovely but disadvantaged heroine gets a happy ending. And within that, she always has interesting characters. She sharply satirizes a lot of them, and she writes wonderful scenes, wonderful dialogue. She gives you a kind of romantic story without ever insulting your intelligence. You always feel she’s a little bit brighter than you are when you’re reading her. She keeps you up to the mark and you can always find new things in her stories. At the heart of it, it’s the romantic story plus the intelligence and the deep insight into characters.
TV DRAMA: BBC Studios will be looking to roll this out globally this MIPCOM. Is there anything else you’d like broadcasters and platforms to know about Sanditon and how it might resonate with their audiences?
DAVIES: I want them to enjoy it. Have a good time with it. I want it to be a show that you look forward to switching on because it’s full of vibrant young characters. It’s like Love Island, I guess, only Jane Austen’s version!