The second series of Jane Austen adaptation Sanditon debuts on PBS Masterpiece Sunday and BritBox Monday but, were it not for a fan-led campaign that the original author would have been proud of, the show could easily have slipped off TV altogether.
A Sanditon Sisterhood campaign kicked into gear when the show was axed by original broadcaster ITV after just one season and, more than a year after the cancellation, Sanditon, which is based on an unfinished Austen manuscript, was revived for a second and third run by co-producer PBS Masterpiece and ITV-owned streamer BritBox.
The Austen-obsessed Sisterhood were energizing, launching a website, Instagram page and even bombarding execs and commissioners with Sanditon gifts including a Saving Sanditon egg box (an oft-quoted line from the show goes “Sanditon will rise from the ashes as sure as eggs are eggs”) and a clutch of Saving Sanditon facemasks.
“The Sisterhood were being endlessly inventive and put in a great deal of effort and care,” said Belinda Campbell, Sanditon exec producer and Joint MD of the show’s indie Red Planet Pictures, which also produces BBC drama Death in Paradise and ITV’s Our House.
“It was humbling to know people were going to the effort of trying to save something they really loved.”
Sanditon was helped by solid ratings on PBS, always a haven for British period drama, along with international sales to networks in Australia and Scandinavia.
When ITV initially cancelled the show due to poor UK ratings, Campbell accepted the decision, which came at a time when ITV period drama was struggling (Beecham House and Vanity Fair were both axed after one series), while the BBC was airing a resurgent Peaky Blinders.
“The bottom line was they had a run of period dramas that didn’t rate terribly well and ITV is a commercial channel,” added Campbell. “They need to make shows that audiences really want to watch.”
Writer Andrew Davies, an esteemed Brit well into his 80s whose past credits include War and Peace and A Suitable Boy, was less diplomatic, chastizing ITV for “going off” period drama at a BBC Writersroom event in 2019.
The Sanditon Sisterhood will have to do without lead actor Theo James in series two, whose schedule didn’t allow for him to return as Sidney Parker when cameras rolled last year.
He will be swiftly killed off at the beginning of the first episode, making way for a slew of new characters as lead Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) settles down to single life.
“Sanditon is about a female protagonist and the show really is the star so there will still be huge appetite without Theo,” added Campbell.
Also refreshed is the writing team, with Death in Paradise scribe Justin Young taking the lead writer reins from Davies, who has still written some season-two episodes.
Looking beyond series three, Campbell said there is a “never say never” feel to more Sanditon but the story, which is based on a “fragment of a novel,” will likely end.
“In truth we have finished the story of Charlotte in terms of her love story,” she added. “The three seasons are all different in tone so never say never but it is wonderful to have finished her story.”
The tireless fans behind the Saving Sanditon campaign may well be called back into action in the coming years.
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