Seaside towns: what dens of iniquity! In the first part of Andrew Davies’s interpretation of Sanditon (25 August, 9pm) Jane Austen’s unfinished novel of 1817, Mr Heywood (Adrian Rawlins) saw fit to explain to his departing and innocent daughter, Charlotte (Rose Williams), that life on the south coast would be rather more racy than at home. “Just be careful,” he said, taking her to one side for a chat. “Of what, Papa?” she replied. “Of everything!” he said, eyes widening. Crikey, but some things never change. It was like listening to my grandmother, warning me off the slot machines of Bridlington, Withernsea, and all the other bucket-and-spade places she used to take us on holiday as children.
In Sanditon, of course, there are no slots. Nor is there candy-floss, a pier or a sprawling branch of Wetherspoons. But there is a growing number of visitors – poor ones and rich ones – and a couple of bathing machines, inside which young women can change into their ridiculous swimming costumes without being seen (emerging in their cerise pantaloons and caps, they look like a cross between one of Margaret Atwood’s handmaids and a giant sea anemone). These machines are the pride and joy of Charlotte’s summer host Mr Parker (Kris Marshall) who, together with his business partner, the rich widow Lady Denham (Anne Reid), is hoping to turn the small town of Sanditon into one of England’s most fashionable resorts. Will he succeed? Since Austen completed only 11 chapters of her novel, I’ve no way of knowing at this point: it’s all in the hands of naughty old Davies, who appears to have squeezed the entirety of what exists of the book into his first episode. The only thing of which we can be certain is that… well, you know the drill with Davies. Part one also included, in no particular order, various bare male bottoms, oral sex performed in the open air, and what appeared to be a semi-incestuous relationship (between Lady Denham’s dashing nephew, Edward, and his bitchy sister, Esther).
I’m no purist. Make Austen into what you will; those who love her will always have the novels. But I do find this stuff tiresomely puerile: there for its own silly sake, rather than because it adds anything at all to the texture of the drama. With its constant winks, nudges and sniggers, Sanditon comes over like some ropey end-of-the-pier show, albeit one with breeches and bonnets. Every line is a double entendre – and sometimes not even that. As the young people rushed towards the waves, Edward (Jack Fox), who is a money-grubbing bad lot and not to be trusted, extolled the pleasures of sea bathing, of “the gentle play of the currents on one’s naked limbs”. His voice was silvery, practically pre-orgasmic. Later, when Mr Parker’s podgy younger brother, Arthur (Turlough Convery), wildly waved a toasting fork around, it was pretty obvious, metaphorically speaking, what he was really waggling. How much hot, buttered toast can a man like Arthur devour in one go? The answer is: lots – so watch out, girls.
All this said, it’s not hard to see why Davies was drawn to Sanditon. It isn’t only that every other novel of Austen’s has already been adapted half to death. One of the characters in her draft is a young woman called Miss Lambe, a West Indian heiress. Drop this incomer – an immigrant by any other name – into a remote and inward-looking seaside town, and the piece may develop overtones rather pertinent to our present situation. Lady Denham’s face when Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke) appeared at Mr Parker’s weird ball – weird largely because an Irish folk band appeared to provide the music to which the guests danced their quadrilles: honestly, what is it with TV producers and their fetish for fiddles? – had to be seen to be believed, sourness shading into piercing interest when she was informed of the sheer scale of the woman’s fortune. We can only hope, then, that the whole thing will now settle down: that the cracks in society will soon supersede the other kind of (sandy) crack. Money and manners are Austen’s true engine. Sex is just a velvet ribbon on a sprig muslin gown.