Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 6 2020 01:00PM

I was not enthusiastic about Sanditon, the ITV/PBS series based on the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death.


Although the show, which aired in Britain last year and in the US this winter, was created by Andrew Davies, the legendary screenwriter who brought us the iconic Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice, I found the storytelling slack, the characters generally unconvincing, and the dialogue devoid of humor and wit.


And I wasn’t alone: the series got decidedly mixed reviews from critics, drew underwhelming audience numbers, and has officially been canceled after a single season, despite a cliffhanger not-happily-ever-after ending that was clearly intended to set up a sequel.


The one thing Sanditon has going for it, it seems, is a passionate fan base -- maybe not a big one, but an organized and committed one.


On Twitter, they congregate under the hashtags #SanditonSisterhood (yes, we’re talking mostly female fans here), #SaveSanditon, and #SanditonSeason2. They coordinate their tweeting schedules and themes, via the SanditonSisterhood account (977 followers). They have a private Facebook group with nearly nine thousand members and a pineapple as its symbol, in reference to a spiny fruit that played an important role in a (wholly implausible, but never mind) scene in Episode 2. They have promoted a Change.org petition calling for a second season (“The finale of Sanditon. . . was unfair, unjust, and unsatisfying”) that has been signed by almost 50,000 people.


These women are serious. And if they’re anything like the rest of us, they have a lot more tweeting time on their hands these days.


Still, I fear the odds are low that the Sanditon Sisterhood will achieve its objective. Period drama is expensive, and ITV is a commercial network: It needs to offer advertisers juicy viewer numbers before it can afford all those Regency ballgowns and updos. PBS, though nominally non-profit, has its own advertisers-in-all-but-name to keep afloat – and one of them is a cruise line. Need I say more?


But I wish the Sisterhood well, even though I could live happily without another eight episodes of Sanditon. Far be it from a Janeite to criticize minority tastes.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 26 2020 01:00PM

For Austen fans everywhere, it’s a burning question: WWJD (What Would Jane Do) in the time of coronavirus quarantine?


Luckily, we now have our answer, reported via Twitter just yesterday: “Over breakfast, Jane announced she'll be finishing Sanditon in order to give that Andrew Davies more to work with. ‘Poor man’s been playing without a net.’ ”


This welcome insight into Austen’s productive response to global pandemic comes to us via Pride & Plague, a delightful new Twitter account that purports to chronicle how Our Jane and her pal William Shakespeare are holding up amid social isolation.


Apparently, the two great writers – or at least their action-figure avatars – have remained friends ever since jointly starring in “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity,” the wonderful exhibition mounted at Washington D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library in 2016.


Equipped with tiny surgical masks bearing a marked resemblance to repurposed Band-Aids, Jane and Will have spent the past five days much like the rest of us: shopping for emergency groceries, perfecting their handwashing technique, and bingeing on TV – the newly-available-for-streaming 2020 adaptation of Emma, natch.


The Pride & Plague account is unsigned, but judging from the identity of its Facebook publicist, it seems to be the brainchild of Austen scholar Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who was co-curator of the Folger exhibit.


Luckily, Barchas appears to have grasped an important truth about our current woeful reality. Toilet paper, canned goods, and Tylenol may be the staple necessities of the quarantined, but another item will surely prove equally important in getting us through all this: a sense of humor.


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 16 2019 02:00PM

Jane Austen experienced her share of literary rejection. One publisher declined even to look at the manuscript that eventually became Pride and Prejudice; another agreed to publish the forerunner of Northanger Abbey, only to sit on his acquisition for years.


So Austen’s ghost is probably coping with the lowering news that the much-hyped TV adaptation of Sanditon won’t be renewed for a second season.


And the early signs seemed so promising! Here was the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death! In its first full-scale screen adaptation! With a story by Andrew Davies, the man behind the BBC’s iconic 1995 P&P! Who is famed for his ability to squeeze sex scenes into period adaptations of classic fiction! Dreams of a Downton Abbey-style cash cow must have been dancing in the heads of the broadcast partners, ITV in the UK and PBS in the US.


But the reviews in the UK, where Sanditon’s eight episodes aired over the summer and fall, were mostly lukewarm or worse. Then some viewers objected to the ending, which, perhaps in a bid to keep the franchise going, was not – spoiler alert! – a classic Austenian happily-ever-after. And now comes word that the ratings were also pretty underwhelming – below three million, according to Davies himself.


"We would have loved it to return, but unfortunately we just didn’t get the audience that would make that possible for us,” an ITV spokeswoman told the entertainment website TVWise.


But all hope is not dead: British fans, eager for that happy ending, have launched an online petition calling for a Season 2. Meanwhile, Sanditon begins its US run on January 12, and if we Americans take to this beachy tale of Regency life, it seems possible that PBS might finance another season. Why we should like it when the Brits did not remains unclear, but hey – tastes differ! Once upon a time, some idiot decided to pass on Pride and Prejudice.


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 19 2019 01:00PM

A few weeks ago, as ITV began airing a much-hyped miniseries based on Sanditon, the seaside novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death, a painter commissioned by the broadcaster started work on a giant billboard promoting the series (see under: much-hyped).


Artist David Downes finished the job earlier this month, and from the photo I’ve seen, the completed painting, on a twelve-meter-wide billboard in the British seaside town of Bournemouth, looks rather lovely: a green and rocky coastal seascape dotted with sails, under a sky full of wispy, streaming clouds. Even the rather prominent “ITV” logo in the lower left-hand corner doesn’t detract from the scene’s intriguing combination of tranquility (those peaceful boats) and edgy energy (those scudding clouds).


Sanditon won’t officially make it to US screens until January, although YouTube appears to be replete with opportunities to view the four episodes that have screened so far in the UK. (I will not be availing myself of these opportunities, given their dubious safety and legality; as a producer of intellectual property, I try not to collude in the likely theft of other people’s.)


Judging from the reviews in the British press, however, the show seems long on titillation – male nudity! Outdoor sex! Hints of brother-sister incest! – and short on the wit and subtlety that notably characterize the works of Jane Austen. (No big surprise, since screenwriter Andrew Davies has said he ran out of Austen material halfway through episode 1.) I’m withholding judgment until January, but it’s entirely possible that this billboard may turn out to be the best thing to come out of ITV’s Sanditon.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 22 2019 01:00PM

For the past week or so, barely a day has passed without a story in the British press about the forthcoming eight-part television mini-series Sanditon, based on the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death.


Just in case anyone has missed the news, however, broadcaster ITV has commissioned a twelve-meter-wide billboard in the southern English coastal town of Bournemouth, which will be painted publicly over five days beginning Sunday, the day the show begins airing in Britain. (U.S. viewers will see the show sometime next year.) The acrylic-and-ink painting by artist David Downes “will recreate an illustrated version of the poster artwork for Sanditon,” according to press accounts of the project.


It’s not clear to me if this means that Downes’ painting will mirror actual publicity for the television show or be designed to look like publicity for the fictional seaside resort where the story takes place. Either seems possible. In any case, the billboard will stay up for three weeks once it’s finished, providing plenty of opportunities for further panting press coverage.


Downes, who has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism and is a vice president of the UK’s National Autistic Society, describes himself as “a landscape painter who amplifies the sense of place and time through the lens of autism.”


Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer, one of the people I profiled in Among the Janeites, argues that many of the characters in Pride and Prejudice can be understood as on the autistic spectrum, but as far as I know she’s never diagnosed any of the people in Sanditon. Still, you never know what we’re going to get in the ITV version: Screenwriter Andrew Davies has said he used up Austen’s material halfway through Episode 1.


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