PBS adaptation of Austen’s ‘Sanditon’ a plainer Jane

Theo James and Rose Williams in the "Masterpiece" series "Sanditon."
Theo James and Rose Williams in the "Masterpiece" series "Sanditon."Simon Ridgway/Red Planet Pictures/ITV 2019

Today’s “if only” is: If only Jane Austen had written a few more novels. Readers would have more pleasure, and so would the many devotees of “Masterpiece” costume dramas, of which I am one. I do love “Emma,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” and Austen’s other major classics, but I definitely do not need to see yet another filmed version of any of them any time in the near future.

The new PBS “Masterpiece” series “Sanditon” offers us a bit of a compromise — a tad of Austen together with tons of screenwriter Andrew Davies. Austen was working on the novel “Sanditon” at the time of her death at age 41, having finished 11 chapters plus part of a 12th — about one-fifth of the novel. Davies, who has established himself as a premier adapter of Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Gaskell, and Thackeray, and who wrote what may be the most admired of Austen adaptations, the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries, takes that fifth and runs with it.


Davies runs so hard that it’s probably best to see “Sanditon,” which has its two-hour premiere on Sunday at 9 p.m. on WGBH-2, as fully his baby, as a Davies series that is merely Austenesque. It doesn’t click entirely with Austen’s vision — comic ironic wit and misunderstanding that inevitably lead to lessons learned, love found, and marriage vows spoken — and it may well trigger Austen loyalists. But without the Austen connection — the connection that, obviously, got it made in the first place; the Austen franchise is PBS’s “Star Wars” — it’s a reasonably absorbing and pretty story that will ring all the pleasure bells for “Masterpiece” diehards. It’s not another “Downton Abbey” or “Victoria”; the characters don’t have enough complexity or distinction. But it’s a pleasing eight-episode diversion.

Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) is our young heroine, who forms a new friendship with entrepreneur Tom Parker (Kris Marshall) and his wife, Mary (Kate Ashfield), and joins them at their home in the fishing village of Sanditon. Tom has big ideas about the town; he wants to turn it into a vacation spot for wealthy tourists, and he pulls his handsome brother Sidney (Theo James) into helping him. Sidney is a cool cucumber, and he and Charlotte clash — but, of course, we understand that that clash may be the start of something big.


Williams is a little too young, bland, and sweet as the heroine, but she’s surrounded by more colorful secondary characters, most notably Tom and Sidney’s wealthy aunt, Lady Denham, played by the wonderful Anne Reid. She is an outspoken lady — take Violet from “Downton” and amp her up a few notches — and she’s well-aware that her family members are after her money. Reid brings the fun, and you root for her despite her insulting tactlessness. There are two step-siblings circling her like sharks, and watching her put them in their place is satisfying.

Issues of class and race are also here, as a poor manual laborer named James Stringer (Leo Sutter) who works for Tom seems to be enamored of Charlotte, and as Charlotte befriends Sidney’s ward, a black woman named Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke), whose mother was a slave but who inherited a fortune from her father. When Georgiana walks into a ball, you can hear all those pancake-makeup-ed jaws hit the dance floor.



Starring: Rose Williams, Theo James, Crystal Clarke, Leo Sutter, Kate Ashfield, Jack Fox, Anne Reid, Kris Marshall. On: WGBH-2, Jan. 12 at 9 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.