Deborah Yaffe


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, Nov 25 2019 02:00PM

The new year is shaping up as a happy one for Janeites, at least American ones, since it will usher in two new Austen adaptations – the controversial British mini-series based on Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death; and a new feature film of Emma, with a screenplay by Booker Prize-winning novelist Eleanor Catton.

The past two weeks have brought smidgens of news about both projects:

* By now, any Janeite with an internet connection has probably heard all about Sanditon’s mixed reviews and reviled ending (no spoilers here!) And many of us (though not me) have found ways to watch the show online even before its American debut on Masterpiece on January 12.

Apparently, however, once the show officially airs, much is riding on our reaction: The British celebrity mag Hello! reports that a second season will be commissioned only if the show is “a huge hit in America!”

Such a responsibility! Do we want to encourage a second season? I guess we’ll know in January.

* Meanwhile, Focus Features -- the people who brought us the much-loved-and-in-some-quarters-much-loathed 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen -- just unveiled a trailer for their new Emma, which opens February 21.

In an intriguing and slightly odd minute and a half, we glimpse plenty of bonnets, Empire waists, and stately homes, as well as a few incongruities: a startlingly spry Mr. Woodhouse – he jumps down several stairs, without a bowl of gruel in sight! – and a Mr. Knightley who, with his bee-stung lips and shock of blond hair, looks more like a boy-band hottie than a morally upright landowner.

I’m a tad dubious, but I’m willing to let Johnny Flynn win me over with his performance of our hero. Bill Nighy, who is playing Mr. Woodhouse, need not even try – I love him in everything. Ditto Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, who only gets a few seconds of screen time here but whom I trust we’ll see more of in the full version.

Judging from the trailer, the film is going for an off-kilter vibe, clearly intended to suggest that this is Not Your Mother’s Emma. Bring it on, I say.

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 14 2019 01:00PM

We Janeites may love Austen’s heroes and heroines, but it’s her secondary characters who make us laugh out loud. Fanny Dashwood’s selfishness, Mr. Collins’ sycophancy, Isabella Thorpe’s insincerity, and [insert your favorite here] never fail to divert us.

So it’s encouraging to hear that the gifted character actress Bebe Neuwirth, whom some of us remember fondly as the toxic ex-wife in Frasier, has a part in the upcoming movie Modern Persuasion, which recently completed filming. (It’s – wait for it -- a modern version of Persuasion. Bet you didn’t see that coming.)

Alas, the movie’s IMDB entry, which lists characters with names like “Wren Cosgrove” and “Grayson Keller,” provides no clues to which Austen-inspired part, if any, Neuwirth (“Vanessa Perry”) will be playing. Is she Elizabeth Elliot? Penelope Clay? Lady Russell? Mrs. Croft? Each one offers promising scope for Neuwirth’s genius, assuming the script is any good, so I am all anticipation. With no release date yet announced, I’ll just have to be patient.

Meanwhile, however, another Jane Austen vehicle that does have a release date promises similar pleasures. The new feature film of Emma will arrive on U.S. screens on February 21, and although its star, Anya Taylor-Joy, is an interesting actress, I’m more excited about two of her co-stars. The hilarious Miranda Hart has the potential to be the Miss Bates of our dreams, and the chameleonic Bill Nighy should make a wonderful Mr. Woodhouse.

And of course January will bring us, via PBS, Anne Reid as the imperious Lady Denham in the controversial UK TV version of Sanditon. It should be a great year for Austen sidekicks.

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, Sep 5 2019 01:00PM

Two episodes of the much-hyped TV adaptation of Sanditon, the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death, have aired in Britain over the past eleven days, and reviews so far are. . . mixed. At best. Words like “cringey” and “dull” have been employed (as, to be fair, has “refreshingly loose.”) One scene has been compared to “a school video designed for 10-year-olds.”

We Americans won’t get to decide for ourselves until January 12, when the show launches on PBS’ Masterpiece. But British viewers, at least those of the Janeite persuasion, have already been given an incentive to keep watching: Scavenger hunt!

It seems that production designer Grant Montgomery has sprinkled thirty-five references to Austen and her other novels throughout Sanditon’s eight episodes, perhaps in hopes that the show will become the center of a fan cult dedicated to freezing and parsing every frame of the DVD.

Among the hidden Austen references, apparently, are a copy of Pride and Prejudice stashed on a bookshelf and a Sanditon map featuring streets, gardens and promenades named Bennet, Bertram, Bingley, Brandon, Crawford, Darcy, Dashwood, Elliot, Ferrars, Knightley, Tilney, Wentworth, Wickham, and Willoughby, as well as “Moorland” – presumably, a tribute to the heroine of Northanger Abbey from someone who doesn’t know how to do a text search.

“It’s like Jane Austen’s greatest hits,” Montgomery told the Daily Mail. “The Jane Austen society visited the set and couldn’t help but laugh at all the Austen jokes included on some of the posters in the town.”

It all sounds kind of fun. And judging from those reviews, Sanditon may need all the fun it can get.

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