It’s easy to see a slew of literary and pop culture references strewn throughout Sanditon.
Everything from Jane Eyre to Beauty and the Beast, The Sound of Music, and Cyrano de Bergerac.
However, there are times when Sanditon elevates beyond simply an elaborate game of “Spot the Plot.” There are clear running themes of love, loss, identity, freedom, power and coercion, all layered on to the lives and struggles of women in Regency England.
Much of the time you sense that they’re reaching to pull these strands together. However, in the final few scenes of this latest episode, the show actually manages to grasp on to some of these concepts in a meaningful way, and it is in those moments that Sanditon really shines.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASON 2 EPISODE 2 FROM HERE IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN IT!
Morning has broken in the finest seaside resort on the south coast, and our newly minted Governess is off for her first day in her new job. As Charlotte (Rose Williams) traverses the beach she encounters the galloping Colonel Lennox (Tom Weston Jones) astride his white charger, who promptly does a U-turn to head in her direction.
Is it worrying that I already find him less a potential romantic hero and more a cold, tiresome and vaguely ominous presence? The man postures and poses to an Olympic standard. He’s like a Regency version of Gaston. Every time you see him, you half expect his men to break into song, extolling his virtues. Charlotte apologises to him for her apparent slight in last week’s episode.
Her grave offence was little more than having expressed an opinion about her future marital status – nothing short of a capital offence for women at the time. That she also exited a room while he was still in it, appeared to Tom (Kris Marshall) to be an unfathomable act of incivility. Much like failing to insure your properties, destroying your family financially and causing untold carnage to your late brother and the woman he loved. Yes, it still stings.
Charlotte then receives the Colonel’s leaden efforts at empty flattery and presumptions about her character, which are based on a casual acquaintance at best. The man is just a series of massive red flags.
Charlotte is then informed by him that she can “expect an invitation.” We subsequently learn that this is to a regimental mess dinner. His statement is delivered less in the mode of an enticing prospect, and more as a command which will permit no refusal.
Meanwhile the lovely Arthur (Turlough Convery, Belfast) is breaking the news to Georgiana (Crystal Clarke) that the late Sidney’s trip to Antigua was on her behalf. As Lady Denham would say, “Quelle surprise!” Needless to say the young heiress is both puzzled and alarmed by the revelation.
If we know anything as viewers, it’s that when someone seeks to offer comfort with the words “I’m certain it’s of no concern”, you just know that the exact opposite will be true. As a result, the whole scene screams “plot point!” with all the subtlety of a Vegas casino. That being said, pretty much any scene with these two characters together is a joy to watch.
Convery and Clarke, which sounds like a firm of accountants, or perhaps a very upscale Tea Room, exude a wonderful, genuine warmth, which they bring in abundance, to their on screen relationship.
Another master stroke is the introduction into this mix of Alexander Vlahos (Versailles) as the artist Charles Lockhart. Not only does he vibe perfectly off Georgiana’s forcefield of hostility, he is magnificent alongside Arthur. There is a particularly enjoyable scene between the two on the beach, in which Lockhart attempts to sketch Arthur, telling him he is a man of “…rare masculine beauty” who would be hailed in Paris.
This prompts what will surely be one of the most memorable quotes of the season when Arthur replies, “I should love to be feted in the Tuileries.” This man is rapidly turning into Sanditon‘s most valuable player, every time.
In contrast, there is anything but warmth to be found for Charlotte at Heyrick Park, aka Chez Colbourne. Discovering quickly that, as a Governess, entering the building via the front door will remain firmly off limits to her, she’s greeted at the servant’s entrance by the Housekeeper, Mrs Wheatley (Flo Wilson), who informs her that she’s late. Never a good look on your first day.
Charlotte also learns that she’s already subject to a wager, as to whether or not she’ll actually stay. A savvy Mrs Wheatley has a shilling on her. Charlotte reassures her that it’s a safe bet as “very little daunts me when my mind is made up.” Given what lies ahead, it’s clear that she’ll need all of her reserves of dauntlessness.
What follows are scenes which are essentially an homage to the aforementioned Sound of Music. Sanditon’s very own Captain Von Trapp, Alexander Colbourne (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) reintroduces the variously petulant and rebellious Augusta Markham (Eloise Webb), his niece and Leonora “Leo” Colbourne (Flora Mitchell), his daughter.
He does so without a naval whistle admittedly, but with an air of exhaustion and exasperation. They are scenes which serve to illustrate the emotional distance between these characters, and to make you feel deeply sorry for all concerned.
It rapidly becomes clear that Colbourne’s plans for the curriculum largely consist of “How To Be a Girl 101” for Leo and “The Advanced Study of Marriageable Qualities” for Augusta. Crazy concepts like “books” and “meaningful education” are well and truly off the table.
When Charlotte later introduces the idea of exploring nature as a way to engage Leo with learning, her efforts prompt an unenthusiastic Colbourne to remind her why she’s there, and it’s not to educate him on her “progressive” notion that women also have brains which require stimulation.
Augusta’s advice to Charlotte that she must “learn to parry if you want to survive this household” is rapidly demonstrated as she torments Charlotte relentlessly, largely about her unmarried state. Remarkably she even manages to insult her via the medium of embroidery.
Based on the principle that hurt people hurt others, we must assume that there’s more to her bratty behaviour than meets the eye. As the episode progresses, we learn that’s true and that this is a household riven with the trauma of secrets, enforced silence and unresolved grief.
Meanwhile, back at Trafalgar House, Charlotte’s sister Alison (Rosie Graham) is serving an intense, high octane blend of Lydia Bennet, mixed with Marianne Dashwood. She’s got her love goggles on, and sadly they’re in need of corrective lenses.
She appears to see zero merit in the handsome, gentle, intelligent and engaging Captain Fraser (Frank Blake) whom she greets with, “Oh, it’s you,” and is instead obsessing over the superficial, empty vessel that is Captain Carter (Maxim Ayes).
Aided and abetted by Georgiana, who’s always up for a spot of romantic mischief, she throws Regency convention and propriety to the wind, to visit the camp for some light flirtation, as the soldiers indulge in a spot of sword fighting.
In fairness to Carter, he’s at least self aware enough to know that he lacks any kind of intellectual heft, and that other than the ability to smile pleasingly while dancing, he can’t hold a decent conversation in a basket. He realises that he requires urgent help, of the poetic kind. If you’re still playing along with “Spot the Plot”, you can now tick off Cyrano de Bergerac.
Yes, Captain Fraser will act as the witless Carter’s romantic proxy, when he should be wooing Alison himself. Hard not to sense where this one’s going.
In a similar vein of ominous portent, Tom is ignoring his brother Arthur’s perfectly reasonable idea for the construction of a Theatre Royal in Sanditon, and is instead obsessing over his plan for a permanent army barracks in the town. He’s desperately trying to restrain himself and exercise financial caution.
However, this is a man without either judgment or impulse control, and this episode begins to expose dangerous flaws in his personality, once again. As he tries to obsequiously flatter and cajole Colonel Lennox during a guided tour of Sanditon, it’s clear that the power imbalance between the two men, is massive.
As Lennox smirks at Tom, it’s very much like watching a cat toy with a mouse. If Tom sees in the Colonel the kind of reassuringly Alpha male, embodied by the late Sidney, Arthur sees something else entirely. That the youngest Parker brother is clearly uncertain about Lennox adds to the sense of discomfort about that character.
As events unfold later in the episode, and we see Tom tempted into a game of chance by the Colonel, you realise that once again, Arthur truly has the razor sharp judgement that his brother so obviously lacks.
The Denhams also provide considerable entertainment in this episode. Sir Edward, now Captain Denham (Jack Fox), is still trying to convince Esther and his Aunt Lady Denham (Anne Reid), that he’s a reformed man. Esther helpfully suggests that one method he could employ would be to “try drowning yourself.”
As always Charlotte Spencer is terrific here. It’s genuinely heartbreaking to hear her tell her Aunt that as a result of recent events, she believes that “God has taken against me.” Her journey through the pain of miscarriage is such an interesting area to explore in this time period. She’s faced with the clumsy and outright insulting judgements of those around her, including the Rev Hankins (Kevin Eldon).
However, there is also a rather touching scene with the reverend’s sister Miss Beatrice Hankins (Sandy McDade, Lark Rise to Candleford), who far from offering simple homilies, suggests a local woman, a Miss Potter, whom she informs Esther can help women who have “struggled.” It’s scenes like this, of the solidarity between women across the class and social divides, which are some of the show’s very best.
In the latter part of the episode, the regimental mess dinner, affords a useful opportunity to bring most of the characters together and allow us to observe some interesting traits which will no doubt blossom and pay off as the series progresses.
It proves to be a lively evening, with Lockhart not exactly endearing himself to anyone, least of all the Colonel, by standing up and toasting Napoleon Bonaparte. Let’s just say he’s lucky this Mess Dinner, doesn’t turn out to be his last meal. Lady Denham calms an incensed Lennox and dismisses Lockhart with the words, “Ignore him. He’s just an artist”.
Meanwhile, Arthur is promoting the budding romantic tension between said artist and Georgiana, by contriving to place them next to each other at dinner, Alison and Fraser are proving an infinitely more promising prospect than her dull fancy for Carter and Lennox tries to employ his skill at military strategy as a means of interesting Charlotte.
She receives his attentions with politeness but remains largely untouched by his efforts. Wise woman. The expression on his face when he learns that she’s working for Colbourne, runs yet another red flag up the flagpole, and certainly doesn’t suggest that the two are old buddies.
The episode wraps up with several powerful scenes. In particular, between Charlotte and Augusta. Far from distancing herself from the abrasive teen, Charlotte leans in.
When the young woman once again suggests that Charlotte has led a loveless life, Rose Williams delivers a truly heartbreaking scene, in which she reveals to Augusta that, on the contrary, she loved, was loved in return and suffered a tremendous loss. She understands grief. Despite this, her charge still has yet another calculated and malicious shot left to fire in her efforts to drive out the new Governess.
Eventually, however, through Charlotte’s determination to meet cruelty with kindness and generosity, Augusta’s true inner pain begins to unfold. You sense that there is at least the potential, for healing and mutual understanding.
The final scene of the episode reintroduces us to another familiar face. The fabulous Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky) is back and that large bump under her Empire Line dress isn’t the result of indulging in an eight bird roast. She’s heavily pregnant and allegedly the Daddy is none other than Sir Edward.
The secrets, lies, scheming and significant relationships are now unfolding nicely, and it’s certainly beginning to get juicy.
There’s no doubt that there are some very well worn tropes here, but they’re sold with some gusto, and I defy anyone not to want to know where this is all heading next.
Reviewed by guest writer Gillian Clifford.
Season 1 is available on DVD on Amazon.