‘Sanditon,’ Unfinished No More – The New York Times

“Charlotte, are you not excited to be returning?”

When that question is posed in the opening moments of the trailer for the second season of “Sanditon,” it sounds very much like a humorous nod to the show’s own history.

“Sanditon,” based on Jane Austen’s unfinished final novel, first aired in Britain in 2019, and wasn’t renewed by its main broadcaster, ITV, after disappointing viewing numbers. But the show, which had largely positive reviews, garnered a passionate following, and after a well-focused campaign by fans and a successful American run in early 2020, “Sanditon” is now returning for at least two more seasons. The six-part Season 2 premieres Sunday on PBS’s “Masterpiece.”

The fan movement started in Britain with a barrage of outraged messages on social media after ITV canceled the show in December 2019. This eventually led to the formation of a fan group called the Sanditon Sisterhood, which began a mass Twitter campaign organized around the hashtag #SaveSanditon.

“When I heard it wasn’t coming back, I was appalled,” said Leilani Battiste, an attorney from San Francisco who participated in the effort. “It was so well done, there was a group of incredible women, a great romance, and then, like the book, the story was unfinished at the end of the season. Come on!”

Austen had written 11 chapters of “Sanditon” and begun a 12th when she stopped working on it in early 1817, a few months before she died, at 41.

The incomplete novel, which wasn’t published until 1925, is set in the quiet seaside town of Sanditon, in which the entrepreneur Tom Parker (played by Kris Marshall in the series) is trying to turn into a fashionable resort. Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams), a young woman from a modest farming family, befriends the Parkers after their carriage crashes near her home. Soon she meets Tom’s dashing brother Sidney (Theo James) and learns about Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke), a young heiress from the West Indies and Austen’s first major character of color.

That’s about as far as the Austen plot goes. But by the end of the first season of the series, both women have had their romantic dreams dashed, leaving fans with a cliffhanger regarding the fate of the Charlotte-Sidney romance.

“The exciting thing about having an unfinished Austen novel was that we could keep the story going, and we set out to do an ongoing series,” said Belinda Campbell, the executive producer and managing director of Red Planet Pictures, which produced the show. “We ended on the main love story not resolving because we hoped it would return.”

While ITV was underwhelmed by the ratings in Britain, the show was a hit with US viewers when it debuted on PBS in January 2020. The premiere was the most-watched “Masterpiece” episode of the year and the show’s average audience was more than 20 percent higher than that of the season’s other “Masterpiece Classic” period dramas. None of this came as a surprise to Susanne Simpson, the executive producer of “Masterpiece.”

“We have done a lot of Austen adaptations — I knew our audiences would love ‘Sanditon,’ and they did,” she said in a video call. “We reached 8 million people, had 4.5 million streams of the show, and attracted a much younger audience than we usually do, which is something we are always looking for.”

But by then, ITV had already pulled the plug. However, the show’s popularity on PBS added more voices to the outcry when American viewers like Battiste joined the Twitter campaign. The Sanditon Sisterhood also organized a letter-writing operation aimed at the producers and broadcasters.

“We had tweet goals, like 20,000 tweets a day, we were doing zoom calls, communicating with each other every day,” Battiste said in a video call. “It turned into a really great community thing.” (She added that the sisterhood included “a few Sanditon bros.”)

By the time the pandemic lockdown started in March 2020, Red Planet was getting “lorry-loads” of fan mail, Campbell said. “They were the most extraordinarily thoughtful, funny, creative efforts to demonstrate their passion for the show.”

One of the most inspired displays came in September 2020, when the Sanditon Sisterhood attracted international attention by commissioning a giant sand art drawing of Charlotte and Sidney on one of the beaches used during the filming of the show.

“They were smart tactics,” said Maurice Wheeler, the CEO of We Are Family, a British marketing agency that specializes in fandoms. “They got 88,000 signatures in favor of renewing the show on a change.org petition; the sand art was huge and felt serious; and the Twitter campaign made sure that the right people felt the size and weight of the fandom.”

“They also engaged with the writers and actors and involved them,” he added. “So it didn’t feel like a few fans out there in the wings.”

Simpson, the “Masterpiece” executive producer, said the outpouring of support played a large part in giving their producing partners, ITV and BritBox, the confidence to continue the series.

“We wanted it back; the fans wanted it back,” she said. “It was a matter of closing the gap on the funding.”

As “Masterpiece” was putting the financing together, Justin Young, who took over as lead writer from Andrew Davies, and the rest of the producers began to think about what a second season would look like. (Davies remains a writer and executive producer.)

They also had to figure out which cast members would be able and willing to return — it turned out that James, their romantic hero, didn’t want to come back. (“Although I relished playing Sidney, for me, I’ve always maintained that his journey concluded as I wanted it to,” James said in to statement released last spring.)

“We gave it a good go, but Theo stuck to his guns,” Young said. “At that point, I thought, no, that’s it.” But “Masterpiece” insisted that Young try other story lines.

“They said to me, ‘We have a leading lady, why should she be left hanging on the cliff, miserable forever because Sidney has gone?’” Young recounted.

PBS announced the return of “Sanditon” in early May 2021. Young’s solution to the Sidney dilemma, with Davies’s approval, was a time-honored one: He killed off the character to start the new season.

“We really wanted Charlotte and Georgiana to drive the season now,” Young said. “In the first series, we saw Georgiana through the lens of Charlotte and Sidney; now there was a real opportunity to make a character of color an equal protagonist.”

In a video call, Clarke said that she had initially been unsure about returning to play Georgiana. “I had concerns about the representation of the character and about inclusion behind the camera as well as in front of it,” she said.

But the production added more cast and crew members of color for the new season, she said. And she grew excited to return after “seeing all the love from Twitter” and hearing about new story lines that would delve into the complexities of her character’s background.

“I loved that we explored issues like the sugar boycott,” Clarke said, referring to a late-18th-century campaign by the abolitionist movement that encouraged people to eschew goods produced by slaves in the West Indies. “Georgiana is questioning her identity, and the contradiction that her money, which allows her to have privilege and freedom, comes from the oppression of people who look like her. Those ideas come up in Season 1, but they are really central now.”

Also central is the female independence of mind and spirit that Georgiana and Charlotte embody. Despite the Austen-esque plethora of suitors — a dashing colonel! a brooding widower! a flamboyant artist! handsome solders! — the series takes pains to show that the two central women are forging their own paths.

“I wanted to focus on Charlotte’s defiance and strength against the societal pressure of getting married,” Williams said in a video call. “I always come back to the first time you see Charlotte in the first series: she She is holding a hunting rifle, and to me, that embodies the confidence, capability and independence she has always had.”

“This second series feels like Charlotte finding a true sense of self,” she added.

That will be music to the ears of the show’s most ardent supporters. Battiste, of the Sanditon Sisterhood, said the spirit and independence of the female characters and their close friendships were a big part of what made the fan group respond so passionately.

“The series really focused on this group of incredible women, and how, from very diverse backgrounds, they all get along,” she said. “They take their destiny in their hands more than the other Austen heroines we know. We love that.”

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