Screenwriter Andrew Davies has already adapted Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Emma for television — but his new iteration of the author’s tragically unfinished final novel, Sanditon is a creation distinctly his own. Davies reveals how he found the plot in Austen’s 24,000-word fragment, and what he embellished on his own in creating the new series.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
Andrew Davies is known for his sumptuous adaptations of classic literary works. Here on MASTERPIECE, he’s brought George Elliot’s Middlemarch, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and, most recently, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to our screens.
Javert: Here is your passport. You are required to show this to the authorities in every town and village you pass through. You have your name back, monsieur two four six oh one. I wonder if you can remember what it is.
Valjean: Jean Valjean.
Javert: You sure about that?
Valjean: JEAN VALJEAN!
Jace But Davies is perhaps best known for his adaptations of Jane Austen’s iconic novels. His versions of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Emma are among the most iconic representations of Austen’s unique sensibilities on screen, which makes his newest completion of the author’s unfinished Sanditon a logical step forward.
Young Stringer So…how are you enjoying your stay in Sanditon, miss?
Charlotte A great deal on the whole. I love all this work going on. It seems almost a kind of miracle, doesn’t it?
Young Stringer I agree with you, miss.
Jace In Davies’ hands, the booming coastal resort of Sanditon takes on a playful edge, with sharp modern undertones and a definite air of mischief.
Lady Worcester Goodbye, Charlotte. You must not lose heart. The race is not yet run.
Charlotte Thank you, but I am more or less resigned to its outcome.
Lady Worcester My dear girl. When it comes to love, there is no such thing as a foregone conclusion.
Jace Davies doesn’t see it quite that simply, but he does view his Sanditon as a clever kind of update featuring the broad menu of characters provided in the 24,000-word Austen fragment. We spoke with him about bringing Austen to life, again.
Jace And this week, we are joined by Sanditon creator Andrew Davies. Welcome.
Jace Sanditon was Jane Austen’s last work, left unfinished at her death in 1817. What about the fragments spoke to you as the ideal basis for a new television series?
Andrew What I thought was extraordinary about it was that it was in some ways a completely new departure. It was a different setting, a seaside village in the process of being developed into a full blown, all bells-and-whistles seaside resort. And some of the principal characters are not country gentlemen, but entrepreneurs, go getters, you know, men trying to change the world, put their mark on it. So it was a bit like Pride and Prejudice meets Boardwalk Empire. And I thought, ‘This is exciting!’ And I thought, too, one of the extraordinary things is an heiress from the West Indies is coming into it. So it’s Jane Austen’s first black character, and I thought that would be fun to do because Jane Austen didn’t really get any further than establishing the setup, introducing us to the principal characters and she hardly gets the story started.
Jace She left you a pilot? That was it.
Andrew Yeah, absolutely.
Jace There is, as you say, an inherent modernity to Sanditon that’s not present in many of her other works. There’s an emphasis on capital and enterprise, a preoccupation with making money.
Jace Rather than inheriting, though that is also in there as well. Are its themes incredibly applicable to today’s society?
Andrew Well I felt they were I felt they could send a message. And there’s another one that I didn’t mention, too, which was celebrity. That part of the knack of establishing a fashionable seaside resort is to get the right sort of people to come there. Influencers. People who have followed the fashion, people whose clothes are copied and and. Yeah, all that kind of thing.
Jace I mean, if Beau Brummel were alive today, he would be an Instagram influencer, no doubt.
Andrew He would. He would. And he would be exactly the sort of person who you’d want to attract.
Jace In this week’s episode, Esther confesses everything to the ailing Lady Denham.
Esther You should know there is not a person alive who holds you in the least affection. Not Edward. Not Clara. Not Edward. Not me. To my eternal shame, we only cared for your fortune. I have realized too late what a foul corrupting cancer your money is. It never brought you the least happiness. It turned you into a cruel, miserly old woman who will die unloved and unmourned.
Jace Is Sanditon an indictment against the pursuit of wealth, or merely of scheming fortune hunters?
Andrew I think more scheming fortune hunters. I think one of the differences in this is that these guys are entrepreneurs and they are amongst the heroes of the story. So the pursuit of wealth in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.
Jace There’s a nobility to it.
Andrew There can be. Yes.
Jace What would Jane Austen have made of our own obsessions with health and wellness, our love of spas and new age treatments?
Andrew Well, I think this list chimes in completely. I think certainly from the fragment that she wrote, it sounded as if one of her main objects was to was to satirize hypochondria and general obsession with health and the body, which was very much of a fad then. More seen really in spas than in seaside watering places. But sea bathing became as much a fad as taking the waters in a spa was.
Jace Now, the Sanditon fragment is about 100 pages. Where did that leave off in terms of your plotting of this series? Is that just the end of the first episode?
Andrew It’s it’s half the first episode. Really she was, I mean, in comparison with our later novels course, what one has no idea, you know, how many more drafts she was she was going to do. But it seemed that compared with a novel like Pride and Prejudice, she didn’t get through nearly as much plot as she usually does in a hundred pages. And I thought for a TV series, we’re going to have to crack on much more briskly than that.
Jace Your name has become synonymous with literary adaptations. But it’s a rarity for a screenwriter to finish an unfinished work by an author. Were you concerned at all in the writing with authorial intent, what Austen may have intended?
Andrew I was taking it on board, certainly, and as I said, interested in that as a new development. But I was much more concerned with using a Jane Austen opening to tell a story that would engage a contemporary audience. But also, I know that the people who are coming to watch it, a large proportion of those will be people who’ve loved Pride and Prejudice. They’ve loved Emma, they’ve loved other Austen adaptations. And I want to give them the same kind of pleasure in this one.
Jace Do you view Sanditon as a condition of England novel, much in the way that Dickens, his novels capture the spirit of social or industrial change underway in Britain?
Andrew Yes, I think it is a condition of England novel. It’s very much from the later period of Jane Austen’s short life, the Regency Era was in far more of a flux and well, the Prince Regent was was ruling for his mentally incapacitated father. The Prince Regent himself was not a model of moral behavior at all. And that influenced society. And it’s a piquant thing that Jane Austen, who was so correct and fastidious and told stories about people trying to behave very well, was writing by the Regency Period, in one of the most kind of dissolute and immoral periods,
Andrew You know, in British history.
Jace When we spoke in January, you described Charlotte Haywood as, quote, “A rather more clued up version of Catherine Moreland out of Northanger Abbey.”
Eliza Miss Heywood is hardly likely to find a kindred spirit in this company.
Lady Worcester And why not?
Eliza I just imagine she must find all our London talk unspeakably tedious. Wouldn’t you agree, Sidney?
Sidney I have no doubt that Charlotte would rather be sat somewhere quietly reading Heraclitus.
Eliza Sidney you are wicked. That will sadly not help her find a husband.
Charlotte You’re quite right, Mrs. Campion. I’m a farmer’s daughter who reads books. What could I possibly have in common with anyone here? Excuse me.
Jace What did you mean by that? And how does Charlotte’s more erudite bookishness, rather than a predilection for the gothic. define and isolate her?
Andrew Well, I think in terms of the construction you could call the book, “Young Girl Goes In Strange Place.” It doesn’t take place on her own ground. She’s she’s hanging an adventure far from home. So it’s thus for far, far in common. And Charlotte is quite innocent. But she is more sensible than Catherine and her ideas are more firmly grounded and rational. But she does have her own faults. She’s a bit too sure of her own opinions and observations, some for her own good. And so she can she can get into difficult situations, as she does with Lady Denham. And she does with Sidney Parker.
Jace When we spoke last time, you said that Sanditon and would not be as discreet as Jane Austen when it came to the looseness of society that you mentioned of the Regency period. Do you feel you’ve captured that looseness by sexing things up a bit in the trademark Andrew Davies style?
Andrew Oh, a little bit. I. Jane Austen’s novels, if you read them carefully, always show that she she acknowledges the kind of thing that goes on in Sense and Sensibility. For example, there’s the seduction of a young girl of 15. We just don’t see it made into a scene. It’s not dramatized as a scene. It’s just referred to. And not only the seduction. She becomes pregnant. She has the child. And and so you learn all the ramifications. And my principle has always been, if there’s something interesting going on, let’s dramatize let’s make a scene out of it. And I’ve continued to follow that with Sanditon.
Esther Edward would never conspire with you. He regards you with absolute contempt…
Clara And yet. There is no way to feign the kind of fondness he showed me.
Esther You are lying.
Clara I was lying. We both were. On the drawing room floor, if you must know. It was a fleeting encounter, but he was touchingly eager. Like a little boy. Has that been your experience too? Oh. Could it be that you have never given yourself to him? Small wonder he was so keen to take his pleasure elsewhere.
Jace Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…
Episode seven begins with Charlotte Heywood holding vigil over the ailing Lady Denham, who’s hovering between life and death.
Dr. Fuchs It is my solemn duty to inform you that Lady Denham’s condition is now vary precarious indeed. I fear she will not see out the night.
Clara Oh poor, dear Aunt!
Jace Is this representative of the old ways holding on in spite of the new? Does Lady Denham in this series represent this sort of outmoded, aristocratic model?
Andrew She doesn’t altogether, because she’s the principal investor into Sanditon. So she’s into the modern times and so far as she sees, there’s the possibility of making a killing out of it. I suppose the thing at the time that they always said, ‘Put your money in the five percents,’ which is actually just these days would be a bloody good investment. But to invest in a new town, it would be hoping to get at least 10, 15 percent back on your investment. So to that extent, Lady Denham is modern. And also she hasn’t come from the aristocracy herself. She brought some money to her first marriage, but that was a careful move that she made. She married an elderly and extremely rich man, and he died on cue, as expected. And then after her first marriage, when she was immensely wealthy, she decided she wanted a title. And so she married an elderly peer, and so became Lady Denham. And had a title as well as a great fortune. And she doesn’t intend to give her money away, and she doesn’t intend to die. And she confounds, as everybody expects her to die in episode seven, but she recovers.
Jace I thought for sure she was dead.
Andrew Did you?
Jace I did.
Andrew Oh, that’s good. That’s good.
Jace I didn’t expect that she would make a miraculous recovery.
Andrew She certainly doesn’t look as if she’s going to. She lies very still.
Jace ‘Men like you cannot change,’ Georgiana tells her guardian Sidney Parker, is this one of the underlying themes of the series, The notion of change?
Andrew I think so. Well, one of the things about writing dramas is that characters do have arcs, don’t they? And they do develop and they do change, much more than people do in real life. I find that people in real life tend to stay the same, only get more so whatever it is that they are. But Sidney, over the course of the action does change. He has been changed before. I mean, he’s got a back story, which is that he was very much in love as a young man and got jilted by the girl who he was in love with, who she married, for money. And she we’ve brought her back into the story when her wealthy husband dies so that she’s back in the picture. But this this early jilting, this early rejection has made Sidney very cynical about the opposite sex. And he’s inclined to treat women with suspicion and contempt apart from those who are very close to him, like like his sister in law. And so Charlotte really comes in for this at the beginning. And…
Jace I mean, he is he quite cruel to her.
Andrew He is. He is. Yeah. Yeah. In the first scene. I mean, she deserves a telling off, but not such a savage one as she gets. And especially when she’d been thinking, you know, this is the most attractive man I’ve ever met. And suddenly he gives her this contemptuous telling off. Makes a lovely ending, of course, for the first episode.
Sidney Upon my word, Miss Heywood you are very free with your opinions.
Charlotte I beg your pardon, I didn’t…
Sidney And upon what experience of the world do you form your judgements?
Sidney Where have you been? Nowhere. What have you learnt? Nothing, it would seem. And yet you take it upon yourself to criticise – let me put it to you, Miss Heywood. Which is the better way to live? To sit in your father’s house with your piano and your embroidery, waiting for someone to come along and take you off your parents’ hands – or to expend your energy in trying to make a difference – to leave your mark – to leave the world in a better state than you found it? That is what my brother Tom is trying to do, at the expense of a great deal of effort and anxiety, in a good cause in which I do my best to support and help him, and you see fit to criticize him, to amuse yourself at his expense?
Charlotte Beg your pardon – I have offended you. Please forgive me.
Sidney No, you haven’t offended me. It is I who am at fault. I shouldn’t have expected so much from a girl with so little experience and understanding. Excuse me.
Andrew And, you know, things are going to change. And, yes, he gradually comes to have respect for her, particularly capacity. Her practical capacities and that she’s not only a warm and sympathetic and helpful, but she can do things. She’s learned a lot through being the oldest child on the farm. And, you know, she doesn’t faint at the sight of blood. She rips up her petticoats and makes a tourniquet. She’s that kind of girl.
Jace I mean, I thought it was interesting with the introduction of Charlotte as a character in episode one. Now she’s seen on a hill with a rifle hunting rabbits. And this is not your normal Jane Austen heroine introduction. She’s not, you know, doing needlepoint by the fire. She’s not practicing French.
Andrew No, absolutely.
Jace I mean, it is a very different introduction. And what was behind that decision to introduce her in that way?
Andrew I said I think it was to get away from what the viewer was expecting of a Jane Austen adaptation. And the hunting rabbits was actually, Olly Blackburn, the director’s idea, which I eagerly accepted and have been happy to take credit for.
Jace, There’s a Cersei-Jamie Lannister quality to the Denham siblings in their sort of relationship. I mean, how much fun are Esther and Edward to write as characters and how close to that line did you want to go to sort of insinuate that there might be something sexual going on between them?
Andrew They were the most fun to write. Absolutely, and it was. It wasn’t something that was sought out and discussed in advance in the Jane Austen fragment Esther seems a bit disagreeable. And I thought, ‘Well, let’s just let her start talking and see where it leads us.’ And so. The the first scene where I’m just writing free of what Jane wrote was, was that scene where Esther gets Charlotte on her own and starts discussing all the characters.
Jace With the most monstrous opinions.
Andrew Yes, that’s right. And coming out with all these opinions that are completely bewildering and shocking for Charlotte. And also, you know, look at that view and where we are in. Were invited to look at a rather beautiful view. And she just says, ‘Sea. Sky. Isn’t it all unutterably dreary?’ And so she’s cooped up with her half brother, in this damp, decaying Gothic building, it’s splendid, but they haven’t got any income. They’ve got titles, but but no income and. And so it’s all crumbling around them. And also they’ve only got each other. So. I find myself writing things like, you know, he’s combing her hair for her.
Jace Lacing up her corset.
Andrew They’re both loving it and lacing her corsets, yes. They would have had the odd servant or two, but he’s always there. So he’s the one who laces the corsets.
Jace It’s I mean, is that another example of sort of playing with the audience’s expectations, that we assume there is something sexual between them, only to find out that their relationship, while maybe erotic, is actually physically chaste?
Andrew It says, I wanted to leave it, leave that one ambiguous so that know the. The viewers can use their own imagination to read into it because these things are always especially at their best. They’re a kind of collaboration with what we do and what the viewers can imagine. And, you know, if you if you lay out everything completely, explicitly, it’s in some ways a bit disappointing.
Jace I like that the boat rowing scene between Charlotte and Sydney is, I think, the sexiest rowing scene ever filmed. Maybe there hasn’t ever been another sexy rowing scene ever filmed. I don’t know, but this show has it.
Sidney Well, I need a second person to balance the boat, would you mind?
Charlotte I’m not sure if I…
Sidney Come on. Careful. Sit down behind you. May I ask you something Miss Heywood? Why is it that when I finally find a chance at happiness, can I not accept the fact?
Charlotte What is that you cannot accept?
Sidney I had convinced myself that I was destined to remain alone. That I was ill-suited to matrimony.
Charlotte I don’t believe that anybody is truly unsuited for marriage. Not even you. I suppose it’s just a question of compatibility.
Sidney Yes I suppose you’re right. Now, it’s your turn. Give me your hands. Right. That’s it. Roll your hands. Good. That’s it. Yes. Keep your back straight.
Jace Why do you feel that that that scene is so effective in allowing them to finally touch?
Andrew I didn’t know t was going to be so good as it was. I find myself getting quite turned on by it because they’re facing each other in the boat. It’s all so Sidney teaching Charlotte how to row and it’s a bit like he’s teaching her how to make love. And she’s responding. I think rowing scenes, I’ve always loved them and I used to in my courting days, as you would call it that. Well, you could I used to take my then girlfriend, who is still my wife after, God, this is 60 years ago, Regent’s Park Lake. And I would I would generally row her, but sometimes she would row me. And there’s something extraordinarily nice to, you know, like, reverse the polarities of that. And so the man becomes absolutely passive while the woman does all the work. So, yeah, as a metaphor or for love or sex, it’s some it’s quite powerful. And of course, in this scene, in episode seven of her, it starts off as something very intimate and it’s just two people. But then Charlotte’s love rival appears on the bank and instantly is alerted to, you know, something very disturbing to her going on.
Jace Sidney makes a rather surprising confession to Charlotte by the end of the episode.
Charlotte I thought you and Mrs Campion were heading back to London.
Sidney She’s already left. I decided against joining her. On reflection, I realised I would rather be here. I am a great deal less than perfect. You have made me all too aware of that. But for whatever it is worth, I believe I am my best self, my truest self, when I am with you. That is all.
Jace Is this tantamount to a declaration of love or is it just a moment of honesty about her influence upon him? Or do we need to wait until next week to find out?
Andrew I think it’s pretty close to a declaration of love. It’s some. Yeah, it’s just. Probably as close as Sidney will get. It’s a bit like Love Island, where everybody says, you know, ‘I like you, I like you a lot.’ No, you know, it’s a big thing. You know, hardly anybody gets as far as saying, ‘I love you.’
Jace So this is Jane Austen: Love Island.
Andrew Yeah. I mean, the thing is, I’ve been seduced into watching quite a lot of Love Island at the same time as writing and developing this series. I do tend to think about it in terms it is a bit like Love Island.
Jace There’s one episode left of Sanditon in this season. In the broadest of possible terms, what can you tell us about what happens?
Andrew I don’t want to obviously give away what the ending is, but it’s not a kind of winding up of stories. I mean, Jane Austen herself usually spends the last eighth of her novels wrapping up stories, but a modern television serial has to have, you know, new content going on right up until the very end.
Jace Andrew Davies, thank you so very much.
Andrew It’s a pleasure.
Jace With one final episode left in this first season of Sanditon, there’s but one question left to answer — who will inherit Lady Denham’s money if she dies?
Esther Do you take pleasure in this?
Edward What, you heard her, we won. The money is ours.
Esther How? My inheritance is far from assured. And you’re disowned.
Jace We speak to the indomitable Anne Reid herself, and get the final answer, next Sunday, February 23, here on the podcast.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Rebecca Eaton is the executive producer at larger for MASTERPIECE. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.
Sign up to get the latest news on your favorite dramas and mysteries, as well as exclusive content, video, sweepstakes and more.