As hard as it is to believe, we’ve hit the halfway point of Season 2 already, and the plot threads are now rapidly coming together.
This is a very busy episode, which perfectly encapsulates all that can be wonderful and entertaining about Sanditon, but it also highlights its flaws.
On the one hand there are some terrific individual scenes and performances, yet it’s mixed with an almost frenetic pace. At times it detracts from your ability to simply relax and enjoy the narrative.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASON 2 EPISODE 3 FROM HERE IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN IT!
None of the storylines and few of the characters are being allowed the time and space, to breathe. Instead, we move through a series of moments in rapid succession, when we often just want to take a beat. Or at least dwell long enough, to actually absorb what’s being presented to us. That desire is all too often curtailed. You can’t escape the sense that they’re trying to do too much, with too little time.
There’s a feeling of being dragged along through a series of passing plot points, like a dazed tourist being harried by a guide and urged to “keep up!” There is undoubtedly some real quality here, but we’re afforded scant opportunity to savour it. Consequently, this is yet another episode which has required a second viewing, simply to grasp everything that’s being thrown at us, along the way.
Episode 3 once again offers the audience a chance to play along with “Spot The Plot”. There are a multitude of Austen narratives here, too numerous to mention. Bronte, Rostand and even Disney, also get a look in.
If that’s not to your taste, you can indulge in a spot of Period Drama Bingo. Look out for sleazy, deceptive Red Coats, would be heroes in puffy white shirts, a picnic among the wild flowers, and the obligatory “caught in the rain” scene. So, if you’re sitting comfortably, let the games commence.
We open with the regiment practicing their marksmanship. The sound of their gun fire resonates across the cliff tops. There we find the elusive and reclusive Mr Colbourne, (Ben Lloyd Hughes) astride his horse, whom we later learn, in a touching scene, is called Hannibal. The horse and its rider are startled by the noise. This won’t be the only time that the regiment will disturb and disconcert the residents of the town in this latest instalment.
Meanwhile, at Trafalgar House, Charlotte (Rose Williams) is being rudely awakened by her sister Alison (Rosie Graham), who has now fully embraced her role as Lydia Bennet meets Marianne Dashwood in her very own novel, “Prejudice and Sensibility”, or perhaps, “Youth and Inexperience”. She’s still obsessing over William Carter (Maxim Ays) aka Captain Clueless. A man who mastered the art of smiling and walking upright at a young age and decided that no further improvement was necessary.
In this episode, the Cyrano de Bergerac storyline takes flight. Perhaps the most interesting and exciting new man in the story, Captain Declan Fraser (Frank Blake), finds himself acting as a romantic proxy for a man who thinks that Handel was a poet. Tragically, Alison is unimpressed with a genuinely brave man of character and intellect, who carries a book of poetry on to the battlefield.
She is instead enraptured by a dullard, who even engages in stolen valour. Naturally, she anticipates that her sister must be similarly entranced by one of the contenders lined up for her delectation.
Here, like Charlotte, we’re presented with something of a quandary. One of her potential suitors, Colbourne, is currently the character equivalent of fog. He’s being afforded very limited screen time. While he has presence when he does appear, and you sense that there’s something of depth and quality about him, you just can’t grasp any of it. He remains distanced from us.
It’s impossible to get a decent read on him based on the glimpses we’ve had to date. Whether that’s an intentional narrative choice made by the production, I’m not sure, but at this point in the season, it’s becoming frustrating.
Meanwhile, the other candidate, Colonel Lennox (Tom Weston-Jones), exudes every possible warning sign of toxic masculinity, and consequently repels, rather than attracts. Of some concern, is that neither are currently igniting the kind of chemistry with our heroine, which we’ve come to expect, and which generally fuels this genre.
We can but hope that this situation will somehow improve, and there are some encouraging signs of positive momentum in this episode. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, at this point, Charlotte is still dreaming of the late, great, heartbreaker himself, Sidney Parker. Her sense of loss has yet to ease.
From the devastated to the deluded. It’s the annual Sanditon Mid-Summer Fair and Tom Parker (Kris Marshall) is warning God not to rain on his parade. He has big plans. Quite literally, enormous. He’s booked an elephant. How you book an elephant, then or now, I have no idea. Maybe they have an agent. Anyway, he’s expecting his “Colossus” and he’s convinced it will be a triumph.
Arthur (Turlough Convery) wisely has a back up plan. He reassures his brother that he knows where he can lay his hands on a cow, that moos, “God Save The King!” Now THAT I would pay cold, hard, cash to see. The man knows entertainment.
Meanwhile, Charlotte is prepping for her day’s teaching, and is fretting at the breakfast table over her skill, or lack thereof, with French. Mary (Kate Ashfield) on the other hand is concerned that Charlotte isn’t proving to be the attentive companion for Georgiana, that she anticipated when she invited her back to Sanditon.
Mary is such an odd confection. Her character, much like Colbourne’s, is almost impossible to fully define. On the one hand, she can be a kindly, benevolent presence and on the other she can seem, oddly inert and contained. In many ways she personifies the Regency woman. She’s the keeper of one of the show’s most significant secrets, namely that Charlotte and her late brother in law Sidney, were in love.
She knows the full cost of her husband’s catastrophic decisions, and the weaknesses in his character which led to them. She knows that little has changed there, and as a result, ruination could still lie ahead for her family. She also understands the pain of grief, loss and disappointed hopes. Of having to observe disaster unfolding and being powerless to stop it. Yet she must somehow plough on.
In this season, she’s trying to find Georgiana a husband, in the knowledge that the young heiress neither wants one of these grasping fortune hunters, nor can she even tolerate them. She can see that Charlotte’s choices are limited, and her resources are low, but is shocked and repelled by the notion of a young woman, trying to take her fate into her own hands.
You desperately long for Mary to finally unleash what must be a torrent of frustration, fear and anger that’s building within her. Maybe one day she will.
Speaking of Georgiana (Crystal Clarke), she’s subjected to yet more ridiculousness from the Rev Hankins (Kevin Eldon) and his sister Beatrice (Sandy McDade). After suggesting that she must be familiar with elephants, given her Antiguan childhood, she delivers the perfect riposte, “I kept five as pets.”
I’m thoroughly enjoying Georgiana this season. Clarke endows her with real spirit, anger, intensity and clarity. She feels genuinely alive for the first time. The trio of Clarke, Convery, and Alexander Vlahos as Charles Lockhart is truly turning out to be one of Sanditon‘s greatest joys.
This episode beautifully depicts the inner desire of both Georgiana and Arthur to be seen for who they really are. There is the palpable hope that somehow, Lockhart, as an eccentric artist and free spirit, might just be the man to help them achieve that. These are souls too long, diminished and derided.
Lady Denham (Anne Reid), for example, dismisses Georgiana’s efforts to encourage a sugar boycott as biting the hand that feeds her, given the origins of her fortune. It’s a myopic, reductionist view which serves to highlight the tensions, dichotomies, conflicts and outright cruelties and prejudices which press on this young woman constantly. It’s little wonder that she is guarded.
As Lockhart makes her the offering of a superficially beautiful sketch of herself, she bristles that it looks nothing like her. Largely because he doesn’t know the true woman within. As she tells Arthur the image represents her difference in the eyes of everyone and is their stare “rendered palpable”. It’s a powerful exchange.
In a world in which virtually everyone she meets either wants something or is seeking to control her, she doesn’t understand what Lockhart is seeking. His reply is simple, “Isn’t it obvious? I wish to know you better.” You find yourself desperately hoping that his motives are sincere and that this isn’t heading for yet more heartache.
There is heartache and scheming aplenty at the Denhams’. Esther (Charlotte Spencer) and Clara (Lily Sacofsky), are hissing at each other and spitting venom, as they await the imminent arrival of the newest addition to the clan. Esther is sensing a conspiracy between Clara and Edward. Clara on the other hand protests that she was an innocent party, taken advantage of by the moustache twirlingly devious Sir Edward.
Esther’s wisely having none of it and is warning her, “Don’t get too comfortable. You’re not staying.” She’s also keeping an eye on her Aunt’s silver. Sir Ed is not exactly finding the prospect of fatherhood either enticing or convincing. However, courtesy of Clara’s savvy, he soon figures out that this bun in the oven could be a veritable pot of gold.
Those five months he’s “spent in a stinking tent” pretending to be an officer and a gentleman could soon be at an end. All courtesy of a few minutes on Lady D’s tiled flooring.
As Clara eventually goes into labour – alongside Esther, screaming, “I am not prepared!” – we’re treated to some terrific scenes between the two arch enemies. There’s another classic line from Esther, as she drags the mother to be up the stairs exclaiming, “You cannot bear this child on the stairs, given it was conceived on the floor. That would hardly be an auspicious beginning.”
The whole situation is a melodramatic and murky brew of questionable motives, inner heartache and sinister intent. That Esther is also feeling unwell following her visit to what Lady Denham describes as “that old crone from Melmeade” feels worryingly ominous.
Someone whose motives are also becoming ever more transparently sinister by the minute is Colonel Lennox. Once again, he just “happens” to be on the beach as Charlotte is making her way to work. He continues his habit of both patronising her, and making assertions about her character, based on little to no time spent with her, and no real knowledge of who she actually is.
Poor Fraser is also saddled with picking the daisies for a bouquet presented to Charlotte, whose company the Colonel is seeking at the fair. Will he ever get to do his own wooing?
The disturbing vibes of a potential predator are very real with Lennox. As are the George Wickham overtones, as he makes repeated efforts in this episode to reinforce Charlotte’s initial uncertainty about Colbourne, and to undermine any emerging sense of respect or regard.
That sense of regard is definitely growing. There are some gently sweet scenes between Charlotte and her employer. Once again, to Augusta’s (Eloise Webb) relish, Charlotte finds herself in a bind, having “lost” her other charge, Colbourne’s daughter Leo (Flora Mitchell).
During her search of the thousand acre property, she finds the master of the house, trying to comfort his traumatised horse.
It’s a tense moment, brought to a conclusion when Charlotte demonstrates a remarkable, Disney-like affinity with animals. Her skill as a horse-whisperer calms the poor creature, leaving a sense of bluebirds fluttering around her shoulders, and Colbourne looking at her like she’s made of cake.
This bucolic romanticism continues, as the pair are caught in the rain while locating Leo up a tree. It is further consolidated during a picnic, at which we learn that Augusta’s mother was the twin sister of Colbourne’s late wife, and that she never recovered from her death. He in turn, cannot bring himself to utter his late wife Lucy’s name.
There are layers of unresolved grief, loss and pain here. Slowly but surely, Charlotte is unpicking it and bringing these disparate souls together, into something resembling a family. As Colbourne presents Charlotte with some cornflowers, we get our first real sense of something approximating chemistry between the two.
By the time she leaves for the fair, the cry of “Until tomorrow then!” feels less like a parting pleasantry and more like a desperate plea. At this point we’re also sad to leave them, just as it’s finally getting interesting. None of us really want to be dragged off to Tom’s festival of mid-summer madness.
Needless to say the elephant turns out to be a no show at the Fair and Arthur’s cow obviously didn’t work out either. Instead, he’s offering “Danvers the giant horse. 20 hands high.”
Fear not, Lennox has a solution to their animal dilemma, in the form of a “Military Observation Balloon”. It’s renamed “The Sanditon Flyer” and repurposed as an attraction. Sadly one which no one seems particularly keen to partake in.
Given Charlotte’s propensity to volunteer in a crisis, it comes as no surprise that she’s the first to jump into the basket. Lennox quickly steps up too. He’s like a lion on the Serengeti, eyeing up a young gazelle – delighting in his chance to quite literally, get his hands on her.
Needless to say, an issue with the rope tethering the balloon to the ground as they ascend, affords him the awkward and uncomfortable opportunity. It also gives Arthur a chance to step up, prove his worth and salvage the situation, making him the hero of the hour, much as he’s the emerging hero of this season of Sanditon.
As Charlotte leaves the scene, Lennox makes one final effort to establish his narrative. His version suggests that Colbourne “stole” his love, Lucy from him and subsequently inexplicably “destroyed her”. Hmm…
While we absorb this questionable “revelation,” there’s an angry mob gathering outside Trafalgar House. We discover that the Regiment aren’t paying their bills and the shopkeepers of the town are up in arms. Carter might finally get to prove his mettle it would seem, in the upcoming battle of Sanditon, against the Butcher, baker and Candlestick Maker.
Needless to say Tom remains convinced that all will be well. So much so, that he’s back at the gaming table with Colonel Creepy, and being coerced into losing money that he doesn’t have.
The episode ends with a confused Charlotte contemplating her floral tributes from Colbourne and Lennox. She has no idea who to believe, not aided by the fact that Colbourne is more than ready to condemn himself as a thoroughly unworthy individual.
Truly, Miss Heywood, if you choose to trust the transparently dubious Lennox, then I’ve got a singing cow to sell you.
Reviewed by guest writer Gillian Clifford.
Season 1 is available on DVD on Amazon.