Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 29 2020 01:00PM

The past six months have been no walk on the beach for passionate fans of the TV adaptation of Sanditon, the novel Jane Austen left unfinished at her death.


As you’ll recall, the eight-part ITV-PBS series debuted in the UK last year amid much hype, but by the time it arrived on American screens in January, its death warrant had already been signed: The critical reception was lukewarm, the audiences were small, and a projected second season had been iced, even though the first season ended on an unresolved, discordant note that dismayed many viewers.


But earlier this month, a glimmer of light shown through the darkness for the intrepid band of fans known as #SanditonSisterhood, who have spent months calling on PBS, ITV, and just about anyone else with a production budget to finance that second season.


“#SaveSanditon Squad, we hear you and we’re doing what we can,” the UK branch of Amazon Prime Video tweeted on June 17. “Please could you retweet this to let us know how many of you there are so we can make a case for a new season?” For good measure, the tweet included a GIF of Sanditon’s hero Sidney Parker, played by the dishy Theo James.


Not surprisingly, Amazon’s tweet made the day, if not the entire coronavirus-blighted spring, for Sanditon’s obsessed fandom. “Honestly, so many of us have been down in the dumps for a long time, lack of sanditon renewal, lockdown etc.,” one person tweeted in reply. “this has given us hope!!! thank you!”


Amazon's tweet has drawn twelve and a half thousand retweets. Is that enough for case-making? We'll have to wait and see. It’s a cliffhanger worthy of . . . well, Season 1 of Sanditon.


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, 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.


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