Crystal Clarke is not the first major character of color to appear in a MASTERPIECE production — but the American-born actor thinks it’s high time more period dramas offered a broader range of history than currently on view. Clarke talks pineapples, codeswitching and the sadness of Miss Lambe in a brand new interview.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
In Jane Austen’s original, unfinished manuscript of Sanditon, Georgiana Lambe is notable for a number of reasons. First, she’s a wealthy heiress, whose arrival in the developing seaside resort causes a stir.
Mrs. Griffiths Between you and me, Lady Denham, I understand there was another reason for removing Miss Lambe from London. An unsuitable romance.
Lady Denham Well doesn’t surprise me in the least. What’s her fortune?
Mrs. Griffiths One hundred thousand pounds.
Jace Second, she’s not yet of age, which makes her an eligible catch for any young man with an eye on his financial future.
Lady Denham Miss Lambe is a prize well worth the winning. You will be seated next to her, and you will present yourself as a serious and eligible suitor.
Jace And, finally, and perhaps most notably for a Regency-era novel, Miss Lambe is a young woman of color.
Mr. Hankins Looking around me this morning, I see many lovely young ladies, as it were lilies of the fields of Sanditon. There are some lovely English roses, pink and white – and I see among us today one or two more exotic blooms – and yes, friends, there is room for them, too in the garden of the Lord.
Jace It’s an unexpected and refreshing departure for Austen, and for period costume drama in general, which all too rarely feature meaningful characters of color. For actor Crystal Clarke, that sense of otherness informed much of her performance as the misunderstood heiress.
Crystal Clarke: Georgiana really enjoys shaking things up and there’s such a rebellion and being able to speak in a way that is more in tune with your identity.
Jace We spoke with Clarke about what it means to be Miss Lambe, how Austen’s Sanditon fragment informs the series, and how her friendship with co-star Rose Williams extends beyond the set and into real life.
And this week, we are joined by Sanditon star Crystal Clarke. Welcome.
Crystal Hello, thank you.
Jace In almost 150 episodes of this podcast, you are only the third American actor we’ve had on. What made you decide to pursue acting in Britain rather than in the States, and how does the musical Les Miserables play into that?
Crystal Yeah, my decision to go to drama school in the UK and subsequently work there was kind of based, was like a socioeconomic thing. It’s like the theater programs in the States, the really good ones are connected to universities and like grades really matter and you’re only going to have the grades to be on top or like the S.A.T. scores be on top if you are coming from a school system that is really well funded. And so you’re getting, you have an advantage in education. And I didn’t have that. And I didn’t really realize it until I was in my last years of high school and I was applying for college programs and I applied for NYU and then I didn’t get in. And it was the only school that I wanted to really go to, like I didn’t want to just go anywhere. I wanted to like want to be in the place that I was gonna be in. And when I got the rejection email, I was on a school trip to Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, watching Les Miserables. So like the first half of the play happened and they were like singing “One Day More,” and as they were singing “One Day More,” I was just like, ‘I could just leave the country. That’s what I’m gonna do. I was like, inspired. It was great. And so I went to Glasgow. That’s it.
Jace And you did it.
Crystal And now I’m here.
Jace Georgiana makes her first appearance in episode one when her arrival causes a stir at the ball. The script reads, “Miss Lambe stands proud. She’s heard this sort of thing before and faced it down. Besides, she’s worth one hundred thousand pounds.”
Tom Parker Mrs Griffiths; Miss Beaufort: Miss Phillida Beaufort; and Miss Lambe.
A Voice Good God! A Negress!
Jace What did you initially make of Georgiana Lambe as a character?
Crystal Initially….I think it is easy to like think that because she has money, everything’s fine. But initially, it was just like really, really sad. So this is somebody who’s young, like around 17, 18, 19, has lost her parents, has been taken from her home. And like any understanding of culture and identity that she can connect to, has been taken from that into a place where she doesn’t know anybody, where she doesn’t look like anybody around her, has like no real connection. And so I was just like, it was sad, she’s isolated. And that’s where you get that first scene in episode two where she is literally pushed to the edge because you can have all the money in the world. And with the money, the money is helpful because it is in a sense like there is still a layer of protection there for her. But it doesn’t completely protect her from the realities of racism. And like, being the only person of color in a room, in her case, in a town. Yeah. And I could really connect to that.
Jace Georgana’s dynamic with Sidney Parker, her guardian is fascinating. They clearly seem to bear each other such animosity.
Miss Lambe What about what I want?
Sidney I am afraid that what you want is neither here nor there.
Miss Lambe You have taken me from the one thing that I love. If you only knew how much I hate this miserable chilly island.
Sidney Now. Georgiana. I can do nothing about the climate. But for the rest: you’ll just have to trust me.
Jace What are they to each other besides just ward and guardian? Is there sort of a hidden history that we’re going to unlock as the season goes on?
Crystal There is a lot more there because they both come from. A place and a culture and like, the other people in Sanditon don’t really understand. So there’s like a whole world that they’ve seen and that they understand exists that no one else in Sanditon exists. And I’m talking about like in Antigua, because this is the time of like sugar and yet like sugar barons and like all of that new money in the West Indies, and people weren’t like it wasn’t the it wasn’t like in England where people were like it was more. How to explain it. It wasn’t like. It was messy, like people were wild out there. I think they kind of share that understanding of the world that I don’t think other people in Sanditon share. But then also there’s the connection with George on his father and Sidney. I think the way we discussed it was kind of like there must have been something where I think he was kind of like Sidney’s mentor. And it could have been something where, like he saved his life and some in some way or something like that, so that when he’s passed away and he’s asked Sidney to watch over his daughter after he’s gone, for some reason, Sidney says yes. So there is like there is something there that we’re not quite yet we haven’t quite seen yet, haven’t yet started to explore.
Jace Georgiana can be childishly petulant, such as when she locks herself in her room or she throws Mrs Griffith’s umbrella to the ground. But she can also be fiercely independent. Such as when she fights with Sidney about going to Lady Denham’s luncheon. How do you view these two sides to her nature? The sort of petulance and the sort of independence and strength?
Crystal I think it’s a mistake to look at it as petulance. And I think what we’ve really tried to do was make sure that it was clear that there were reactions to things weren’t just a surface. I just want to be rebellious and do whatever I want to do. No, this is somebody who is isolated and is feeling. The trauma of daily microaggressions and she’s trying to deal with that and doesn’t really have anybody that she can talk to or go to who understands her experience. So, yes. So there’s more of like a deep base to how she’s reacting. Like, it’s not just like she’s just acting out for no reason. She’s acting out because she’s trying to, like she she there’s something missing that she needs, that everyone needs at that age when you’re trying to sort your stuff out, you know? So we’re not looking at it as petulant but more as like a deep seated reaction to trauma. She’s in a state of trauma. You lose your parents. You’re like the only person that is like you in this town. You’ve been ripped away from everything that you know. Then it makes sense that she is also very independent and outspoken in those moments when with like Lady Denham and stuff like that. Because with that trauma comes the if you’re if you survive through, it comes the strength to stand up for yourself and your soul and what you feel is right.
Jace There’s a deep sadness to the way she asks Sidney, what about what I want? Why has she been brought to Sanditon and why has her sense of agency been stripped from her? Why isn’t she allowed to stay in Antigua?
Crystal Because there’s nobody there to watch over her and she can’t in this time. There’s just so she can’t possibly do that for herself. If she’s a young woman and not a young man, she just doesn’t have, there just wasn’t the freedom for her to do that.
Jace So she’s trapped?
Crystal Yeah. So she’s trapped essentially she is not allowed to make her decisions for herself. A man has to make them for her regardless of what her age is.
Jace But then the thing that I love is that it’s not actually that she’s living with Sidney and that he’s just sort of there. She’s put with the Gorgon.
Jace She’s put with these other girls. And he just sort of drops in every now and then.
Jace To sort of say things to her. But he’s not providing any sort of stability.
Crystal Yeah. And he’s not really like. Providing like any type of support or nurturing. He’s just like in control of her money and kind of just like in control of her, but not really doing anything.
Jace We learn in the same episode that Georgiana’s mother was a slave freed by her father who married her.
Charlotte Should not a good marriage be based on mutual love and affection? Without equality of affection, marriage can become a kind of slavery.
Lady Denham Or an escape from it. Miss Lambe’s mother would be a case in point. A pretty young negress catches the master’s eye, and casts her spell on him – that’s the way the world works! Ain’t it, Miss Lambe?
Jace How have her mother’s origins and her parents marriage shaped her character and her outlook on the world?
Crystal Mm hmm. I mean, how how would it not? Oh, there’s so much there is so much to unpack there. There’s very much a far reach in her outlook on the world. Like, she may be quite protected and is being overprotected by Sidney and stuff like that. But she has, I think, an understanding and a perspective that is more far reaching than that, and that’s why she’s so drawn to Otis, because he’s involved in the abolitionist movement and stuff like that, and in that world. And that is her connection to that and that is her connection to her mother and her father. And like wanting to be a part of that change. Like that is, like er identity is there.
Jace When I think his his own origins, too, as a freed slave who sort of received an education after being freed, there is a commonality there and that this might be the one person in England that actually understands her.
Crystal Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, completely.
Jace This same episode revolves around the central symbol of Lady Denham’s, pineapple, a rare and exotic fruit that’s rotten at its core. Do you see this as representative of the slave trade itself or of Lady Denham’s sort of nonchalant support of this cruel industry?
Crystal I mean, yeah, you can totally see it like that. I wasn’t even thinking about that before. I never really thought, yeah, you could see it like that. The pineapple as. Yeah. Because like sugar, sugar is sweet and ugar is supposed to like when you think of sugar, you think of like great, wonderful bright things, the pineapple is sugary and he cut into it and you see all the horrible, terrible things that are involved in the disease and the rotting, and the rotting that sugar causes, do you know what I mean?.
Jace It’s not the first time that you’ve worked with Anne Reid, who plays the outspoken Lady Denham. You start alongside her in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance at the Vaudeville. What is it like working alongside an onstage? And then here in Sanditon?
Crystal Equally, equally, equally fabulous. Equally amazing. She’s so, she’s so quick and like. She’s so quick and so funny and just does not care, just doesn’t care. She like and it’s beautiful and I have so much respect for it. And I know all of the other, all the other women on this especially really do, too. She’s so much in her power. And I think that’s very much an inspiration to all of us.
Jace Before this next question, let’s take a quick break to hear a word from our sponsors…
Jace We talked about the fact that when Arthur Parker cuts into the pineapple, it’s filled with maggots.
Lady Denham I thought it might remind you of home, Miss Lambe – Antigua, was it not, or some such place.
Miss Lambe That ain’t no Antigua Black. Me tink you been sold a pup, Lady Denham. Someone done took you for a fool.
Jace Does she relish putting lady denim in her place and playing her racial preconceptions against her here?
Crystal Oh, yeah. I do that sometimes. Absolutely. Because Lady Dunham’s trying to to pass it off as, ‘Oh I’m doing a wonderful favor for someone.’ And but then also like really horrible offensive way. So, yeah, of course she’s enjoying it. Absolutely.
Jace There’s an element of code switching at play within that scene, given the way that Georgiana switches between this sort of cut glass accent and the patois of her homeland. What did you make of that moment where she sort of relishes that code switching?
Crystal I love it. I’m really glad it was included because obviously I do a lot of code switching in my own daily life. It is nice for that to, I don’t know, to have like a sort of like pinch of this is something that we’ve historically had to do for like, ever. I think some of that comes in. We were having quite a lot of conversation about that with Otis as well, like what would his accent be and how would he speak and how would he have learned to present himself? And I think she, Georgiana really enjoys shaking things up and there’s such a rebellion in being able to speak in a way that is more in tune with your identity when you know it’s making other people feel uncomfortable, but doing it anyway, do you know what I mean? Cause it’s good for you.
Jace Well, I think she does exert agency in that scene.
Jace And it is her sort of putting her stamp and saying, this is my identity. This is who I am. I’m not going to let you.
Crystal But I know it’s making you uncomfortable, but I don’t care anyway. So.
Jace It was rare until recently to see people of color in period dramas when they weren’t playing servants or slaves. Georgiana Lambe was originally written as a person of color. In Sanditon.
Crystal I’d say it’s still it’s still pretty rare. Pretty rare.
Jace I mean, between this and Tina Argyll, In An Ordeal by Innocence. I mean, how do you feel those two roles helped show that period dramas can embrace representation.
Crystal The interesting to point out that to include those characters in these in like Ordeal and in this I had to have lost my parents. So Tina was also was an orphan.
Jace Orphaned, yeah.
Crystal And my character in this is also an orphan. But I think. It helps it because it’s especially important to note that in both, in Ordeal the book Tina is written mixed race. Of African and Indian descent, I believe? And in this is also in as a mixed race of white and African descent. So I think it’s really important to note that it’s not like these they they were just like pull out of like like somebody was just like, ‘Oh, let’s just do that and let’s just slip it in there.’ No. Agatha Christie wrote that at the time. Jane Austen wrote that at the time because that is a part of history. People of color have been a part of British history for a long time. And colonialism has made sure of that. The connection with the West Indies and with Africa is very much… Black Britons are a part of history. Asian Britons are a part of history. And so it’s important to note that those characters written, and they weren’t just pulled out of thin air. And I think it’’s just really great and awesome that they could be that they’re happening now that we’re finding them. But I think there just needs to be more cause like one character here and one character here is just not enough. I think there’s so much to there’s so much there’s so much that’s interesting there. Like to know what those people what a person of color in Britain at the time, what their experiences were because they were around. And I mean, why not spice up your period drama a bit?
Jace I mean, when Ordeal by Innocence was about to be released, you were quoted as saying, “It’s a chance to show that actors of color aren’t just there to portray the struggling slave. The sad, sad maid, the this, that and the other.” Had that been your experience as an actor, either in the States or Britain, that those were if you were sort of going to be cast in a period drama, that that’s what you would be stuck playing?
Crystal For the States, I don’t really know, but. Yeah, for Britain. Yeah, definitely. That was that was a common way for people to get and still is. I think for people to get what they call BAME actors involved in period dramas more. Yeah, just make them slip in BAMEs a slave. I think one of my first roles was as a lady in waiting to someone who is like a like a Princess in the Court of Versailles. But I mean like lady in waiting is basically a slave. Let’s not let’s sugarcoat it. She was a slave. What’s funny is that was their way of trying to get BAME actors involved, like they legitimately said that it’s like that, that is so counter-productive. You have no idea. So, yes, that is why I said that.
Jace The six-shilling scene where Georgiana attempts to flee to London on a coach but doesn’t have the fare on her, I think captures the routine racism that Georgiana would have had to have faced on a daily basis.
Miss Lambe If you please, is this coach for London?
Coachman It is, Miss.
Miss Lambe Then may I board it now?
Coachman Indeed you may, Miss, for six shillings. No one here got any objections?
Miss Lambe I have no money on my person. not in the habit of carrying it.
Coachman Did you hear that? Not in the habit! Go on, off you trot!
Miss Lambe Please! My banker in London will make sure you are paid!
Coachman Oh! Banker in London is it? Now I’ve heard everything!
Miss Lambe Do you not know who I am?
Coachman No I don’t – who are you?
Miss Lambe I am Miss Lambe – I am an heiress – I have a hundred thousand pounds!
Coachman Six shillings will do, Miss.
Miss Lambe Don’t you understand? I have to get to London! Let me pass!
Coachman Now, now, none of that! Go on! Be off with you!
Miss Lambe No! Get off!
Jace I mean, how conflated is race with her identity, and does her fortune shield her at all from the ugliness of this moment?
Crystal No, absolutely not. It’s so sad because it’s just like, she’s being laughed at like that no amount of money can protect you from. From that. Clearly, in that moment, nothing protects her from that because her, like just them looking at her is like, no, you can’t possibly be any more than me or have any more than me based on your skin color, please see your way out. So.
Jace And it’s a heartbreaking moment, I think, to watch. There’s a joy in Georgiana’s face for the first time when she and Charlotte are splashing in the seawater before they’re interrupted by Mrs. Griffths. Is Charlotte an escape route of sorts from the prison that Georgiana has found herself trapped within? Is this like one possible exit?
Crystal Yeah. Because she’s somebody that she can connect to that is listening to her like someone listening to her for once and is trying to see where she’s coming from. So, yeah, absolutely.
Jace Georgiana enlists Charlotte’s help to her free her from the Gorgon by concocting a scheme, a picnic with the Parkers, that rendezvous, of course, is with Georgiana’s suitor, Otis. I love the beautiful scene of them picnicking among the bluebells with Charlotte as an unwilling third wheel in their romance.
Charlotte How is it that you and Miss Lambe became acquainted?
Miss Lambe We met at a ball. Otis mistook me for a servant. He demanded I fetch him a cup of wine.
Otis I did not ‘demand.’ I was quite polite about it.
Miss Lambe The very request was offensive.
Otis Only because you held yourself in such absurdly high esteem.
Miss Lambe I found him to be rude and sanctimonious.
Otis I found her to be spoilt and petulant.
Miss Lambe I was uprooted. Lost. In despair. Otis restored me to life. Those three months were the happiest I have known.
Jace How does this scene change our understanding of Georgiana?
Crystal Because up to that point. There’s not really no one know what’s driving her. And there’s like, you see the hard parts of her and the parts of her that’s trying to survive. And yet. But you don’t get to see her just in doing herself or being in love. I mean, you get to see her enjoying herself with Charlotte. Sure. But like, there’s a softness that comes with seeing her in those moments of just being in love and being with someone, whereas she doesn’t have to explain who she is. He already knows and she’s already seen. Like, there’s no having to explain in words to get to that that connection. She just is.
Jace Georgiana, we learned, blamed Sidney Parker for ripping her and Otis apart. Is this the source of the acrimony between them? Does it revolve around Otis? Why they’re sort of locked in this battle?
Crystal Yeah. I mean, it revolves around Otis, but I think it also is, he has also taken her from home. I think it’s all of those things combined. And Otis is the most recent thing because she’s been taken from home, he’s taken her from home. Then she’s in London. She gets to London, but then she finds something she finds Otis, which kind of like helps her feel like a connection to something again. And then he takes her away from that as well. He just keeps taking and taking and taking from her.
Jace Of her romance with Otis, Georgiana says, ‘I was uprooted. Lost in despair. Otis restored me to life.’ It’s clear that she loves Otis. And their meet cute is a straight out of a Jane Austen novel. Is there any sense of suspicion on Georgina’s part that Otis might be after more than just her love? So is just totally a pure love.
Crystal Yeah. She really just believes in it.
Jace ‘I wish we could carry on forever. Follow the current into the sea.’ Is there a part of Georgiana that wants to throw off social constraints and just run away with Otis column?
Crystal Every single part of her. Every single part of her. Definitely. Definitely.
Jace What’s holding her back?
Crystal What would she do? What would you do? How would she do it? I mean, there’s always like. Fear as well as in there, and there’s a certain way of life that she’s used to, and I’m sure she’s also seen quite a lot of things when she was in Antigua that wouldn’t make you want to just run away from any like tiny bit of security that you’ve got. And also the two of them running away at that time? You don’t necessarily know where you would end up.
Jace So what can you tell us about what’s coming up for Georgiana in the second half of the season?
Crystal It gets better.
Jace It gets better. OK.
Crystal How’s that?
Jace That’s good. If you could give one word to tease about what’s happening on Sanditon for the rest of season, what would it be? In one word.
Jace Crystal Clarke, thank you so very much.
Crystal Thank you!
Jace If almost nobody understands Miss Lambe in Sanditon, even fewer coastal neighbors understand the tart-tongued Esther Denham.
Esther Denham All in all, I think you’ll come to regret ever setting foot in Sanditon. I know I do. Look at that view. Sea. The sky. Isn’t it all unutterably dreary?
Jace We’ll speak to actor Charlotte Spencer on the podcast next Sunday, February 2.
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 large of MASTERPIECE. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.
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