Against all odds and to the delight of many, it’s back!
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASON 2 EPISODE 1 FROM HERE IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN IT!
So does it succeed?
Well, one thing is for sure, the opening episode of Season 2, is packed to capacity with plot, and it comes at you relentlessly. It starts unsurprisingly, with the elephant in the room. Or rather, the much loved character who isn’t.
With the departure of Theo James (Divergent), the series was required to address the fate of his character Sidney Parker and consequently, the love story with heroine Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams, Reign). Like any other unenviable task, swift prosecution is usually advised. So it follows, that the show wastes no time in bringing the curtain down.
Under a blazing sun and against the backdrop of verdant fields and crystal clear Antiguan waters, we see a small number of mourners laying to rest a coffin bearing the name “Sidney J. Parker”. Amidst images of blood stained bedsheets being cleared away, the erstwhile hero is, alas, no more.
We later learn that he died a tragic death from Yellow Fever. The true purpose of his return to the island is initially something of a mystery to everyone, including his own family. That won’t remain so for long.
It comes as no surprise that it involves his Ward Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke, Ordeal by Innocence) and her exceptional fortune. However, while Sidney is irretrievably gone, the profound sadness of his loss, and the remnants of his life remain.
You sense, that as the trunk containing his personal effects, is slammed shut, to be shipped back to Sanditon, it may just turn out to be something of a Pandora’s Box when it finally reaches its destination.
These opening scenes are brief and the production doesn’t dwell. However, the sequence is given poignancy by being juxtaposed against Charlotte at a country dance in her home village of Willingden. She’s the centre of attention and radiant, as she throws herself into the dancing with joyful abandon.
It’s a somewhat heavy handed reference, but she literally embodies life, in the midst of death.
Her world is once again, shaken to it’s core. This time the blow is delivered courtesy of an unexpected visit by Mary Parker (Kate Ashfield, Midsomer Murders), who appears like a spectre at the feast. Shattered though she undoubtedly is, fundamentally, Charlotte remains strong.
This, we are reminded, is a young woman of fortitude and resilience, still committed to the ideal of living a life less ordinary. That means avoiding familial pressure to settle for a marriage of convenience to local Willingden farmer, Ralph Starling (Cai Brigden) and somehow, forging her way to a purpose in life that she has yet to perceive, or define.
Williams has some genuinely moving and nuanced moments throughout this first episode. Particularly so when haunted by Sidney’s dulcet tones, as she portrays her character’s journey through a very private grief. One which she holds deep within her, and yet doesn’t feel entitled to fully express.
Thus in desperate need of an escape hatch from an imminent offer which she may feel unable to refuse, and presented with the opportunity to return to Sanditon, Charlotte wastes no time in grabbing her wide eyed, enthusiastic sister Alison (Rosie Graham, Outlander), herself in pursuit of her own romantic destiny, and hitting the road towards new adventures and blessed escape in the familiar seaside resort.
While the production’s need to propel the story forward is understandable, by getting our female protagonist back to town as rapidly as possible, some of these scenes do take place so quickly that they are somewhat jarring.
The pace of the narrative continues to be something of an issue throughout the episode. Scenes often feel a beat or two, too short. You find yourself wanting to stay in a moment, to learn more, only to be dragged on to the next.
Perhaps it’s simply a case of too many characters, and too little time. I hope this doesn’t become something of a mantra for this series, particularly as the story will be presented over six episodes this time, instead of eight.
Charlotte arrives back to a Sanditon that’s virtually unrecognisable to the Wild West style frontier town of the first season. In nine months it’s gone from a ramshackle collection of buildings, interspersed with sand and sawdust, to a pretty little pastel paradise.
If they can achieve this miracle in such a short time, I can’t help wishing that I had the business card of Tom Parker’s long-suffering builders.
Which brings us neatly to the fate of Charlotte’s other season one suitor, James Stringer (Leo Suter, Vikings Valhalla). The handsome foreman gets a two line exit. We learn that he’s gone to London to pursue his architectural dreams.
However, while some things do change, some stay the same, and there are several familiar faces awaiting her arrival.
Georgiana is now a Sanditon resident, living a life of gently comedic domestic torment, with the Rev Hankins (Kevin Eldon, Shadow and Bone) and his spinster sister, Miss Beatrice Hankins (Sandy McDade, Lark Rise to Candleford).
You may soon find yourself exhausted by frequent references to the inherent evils of spinsterhood in Regency times. Suffice to say, it’s considered a fate worse than Yellow Fever. This point isn’t so much made, as beaten into submission.
In the ubiquitous marriage market, heiress Georgiana is fending off a seemingly endless parade of fortune hunters, like wasps at a picnic. Retaining her delicious rejection of tact and diplomacy, one offer is swiftly dispatched with the statement that she would “sooner be boiled alive.”
There are some delightfully funny moments to be had from all of this, which Clarke plays with zeal. Another real positive here, is that Georgiana has evolved considerably since Season 1, and now feels much more like a fully realised character.
She finally has a voice and is raising it, relishing her power, and leading the town in a sugar boycott, to protest the barbaric realities of slavery, which underpinned that industry.
Since Sidney’s death, she is now the Ward of Tom Parker (Kris Marshall, Love Actually), who displays even less skill for the role than his late brother. He laments that she “is quite indifferent to my council.”
This only serves to prove that she’s more than capable of sound judgment. Tom remains the same myopic, thoughtless, preening buffoon that he always was. He retains all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the business acumen of a baked bean. It’s strangely comforting.
What’s also reassuring is the delightful presence of Turlough Convery (Belfast), elevating every scene he’s in.
He shines here, once again, like a good deed in a weary world, as the wonderful and underestimated Arthur Parker. A keen judge of character, and wiser than he’s ever given credit for. Familial tragedy has finally given him a chance to make his mark.
Another returning delight is Charlotte Spencer as Esther, now Lady Babington. She’s equal parts razor sharp and heartbreaking, as we learn that the purpose of her stay in Sanditon is founded on her need to recuperate, from a deeply personal loss.
There are some genuinely moving scenes between her and Last Tango in Halifax star Anne Reid’s Lady Denham, who beneath her usual abrasive exterior, demonstrates some hints of caring, which are all the more tender, for being so unexpected.
The town also welcomes an almost overwhelming number of new faces and specifically, new men – not least of which is a visiting Army infantry regiment. Or as Esther describes them, “100 drunken, unshaven libertines.”
This influx delights Tom, who sees pound signs and the hope of a permanent barracks, while Arthur sees no reason to idolise these “brutes” just because they “…polished off a lot of Frenchmen”.
There is one face which will be familiar among the throng, that of Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox, Riviera). He’s now a magnificently moustachioed officer. But will he ever manage to be a gentleman? That remains to be seen, and is as questionable as his “charms”.
We also meet a slew of potential new love interests among this intake.
For Charlotte, there’s Colonel Francis Lennox (Tom Weston Jones, Dickensian), a war hero, who literally arrives astride a white charger, exuding a level of brash, self-confidence, which doesn’t so much run the risk of arrogance, as throw caution to the wind and fully embrace it.
From the moment he lays eyes on her, he’s in dogged pursuit of our reluctant heroine. Then there’s Alexander Colbourne (Ben Lloyd-Hughes, War and Peace); a reclusive, socially inept widower and Sanditon resident, with a reputation for being a miserable man.
Tom appears to dislike him intensely, for little more than his reluctance to allow himself to be fleeced by him. He soon employs Charlotte as a Governess to his spirited and adventurous young daughter Leonora, known as “Leo” (Floral Mitchell), and his frustrated and acerbic seventeen year old niece Augusta (Eloise Webb), both of whom are dealing with loss and are pushing hard against the constraints of their young lives.
From the little we see of him in this first episode, Ben brings a gentle air of world weariness and disappointed hopes, tinged with a deep seated anger and grief, to his performance as Colbourne. It intrigues and compels in equal measure.
There’s an unquestionable spark with Charlotte, alongside the very obvious and familiar Jane Eyre/Rochester vibe. You find yourself wanting to see just what they do with the potential afforded by this dynamic. There’s also a very sweet moment involving Colbourne’s dog and Charlotte, which seems to be a very savvy judge of character.
For Charlotte’s sister Alison, there are two young Captains, Carter and Fraser (Maxim Ayes and Frank Blake), to keep her amused. We also meet artist in residence, Charles Lockhart (Alexander Vlahos, Versailles) who certainly makes an impression on first acquaintance, as he casually saunters from the beach clad only in the equivalent of a Regency sarong, a robe and an air of devil may care… but he certainly doesn’t.
He makes an equally forceful, impression on Georgiana when she spots him in the town’s new tea shop and later, when they’re introduced by Arthur. The character is instantly engaging and their chemistry is promising.
If the first season of Sanditon was open to the criticism of being somewhat languid in its narrative pace, this one hits the accelerator and doesn’t stop.
Episode 1 moves at a frenetic pace, with character and plot being thrown at you constantly, along the way.
Sometimes it’s just all feels like a bit too much to take in in one sitting, although I’m certain that for many fans, these episodes will bear considerable repetition. As a result though, there are times when you can feel rather dazed by it all.
There is a sense that some things may have been missed, or glossed over, in the imperative to keep it moving. The first episode also highlights the extent to which the series relies on previous Austen narratives for inspiration.
There are particularly heavy leans here, on Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, right down to Alison having her very own Willoughby “hero” moment with Captain Carter. It’s not surprising given that this is an effort to evoke Austen and her world but, it is undeniably derivative.
There are several of the new characters whom I hope to see develop and evolve, not least of which are Lockhart, Augusta and little Leo. Also, Colbourne’s housekeeper Mrs Wheatley; a lovely performance of strength and dignity from Flo Wilson (Death in Paradise).
It all bounces along nicely and is certainly not dull. The fact that I arrived at the credits eagerly anticipating the next episode bodes well for the rest of the season.
There’s no doubt that the show is a different beast this time, both in look and feel. The locations used are stunning, the costumes beautiful and the colour scheme, which owes much to Bridgerton (which also returns for a second season this month), gives it an appealing softness.
Time has passed though, and you can definitely feel it. I thought that some of the cast, both new and returning, did seem to be struggling initially, to rediscover their performances from three years ago.
Perhaps not surprising, as this feels less like a second season and more like a total reboot. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, few things are, but is it entertaining? In my view, yes it is.
It’s frothy, breezy, escapist seaside fun and is best viewed in that light. After the global events we’ve experienced during its absence, I think we could all do with some of that.
Reviewed by guest writer Gillian Clifford.
Season 1 is available on DVD on Amazon.