Can ‘Sanditon’ survive without Theo James as Sidney Parker?

After a lengthy campaign by fans, Sanditon has been renewed by PBS Masterpiece for two more seasons.

However, Theo James’ much loved central character Sidney Parker is gone. As the actor moves on, our guest writer Gillian Clifford asks: can the show and its fans forge a new future?

There can surely be few period dramas, indeed few shows, that have experienced the rollercoaster of fortune which has befallen the adaptation of Jane Austen’s final fragment of a novel, Sanditon.

It all began so promisingly in the UK, as ITV’s flagship, lavish period drama for the autumn schedule of 2019. A co-production with PBS Masterpiece, it featured rising stars Rose Williams (Reign) and Theo James (Downton Abbey). With British acting stalwarts such as the glorious Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax) and Kris Marshall (Death in Paradise) adding additional voltage and some wonderful performances, it seemed like a guaranteed hit.

However, sadly, as has been much documented, including by this writer, the fledgling series found itself falling victim to a combination of circumstances. Not least of which, was some truly dreadful scheduling, against the BBC’s global powerhouse Peaky Blinders. The result was disappointing ratings and swift cancellation by ITV. A fate delivered before their US production partners had so much as dipped their toes into the chilly waters of the regency seaside resort.

It seemed that for the UK fans who had fallen in love with the adventures of Austen’s young, spirited farmers daughter, Charlotte Heywood (Williams), there was to be no hope for a much longed for happy ending, in the vein of the quintessential Austen heroine. The dashing and desperately dutiful Sidney Parker had instead, sacrificed himself in marriage to his ex. A woman he no longer loved but who, as a rich widow, was capable of saving his feckless brother’s fortunes.

Our leading man had left our heroine on the cliff tops, to disappear off into the horizon, in tears. ITV had left the fans doomed to forever imagine what might have been. However, all was not lost.

Miraculously, it seemed that the trip across the Atlantic Ocean served to reinvigorate the series. Not only did US audiences grab hold of the story, they ran with it and so too did a growing army of online warriors. The Sanditon Sisterhood was born. Their mission, to #SaveSanditon. For many fans who supported the campaign, that also included reuniting “Sidlotte”.

While reversing the cancellation of an expensive period drama seemed more in hope than expectation, it soon transpired that this was a determined and relentless group of fans. An online petition grew to almost 90,000 signatures. The much loved protagonists Sidney and Charlotte, were immortalised in sand on Brean Beach by the artist Simon Beck. It was a campaign which proved both inventive and highly effective.

Against massive odds and after experiencing more than their share of false dawns, to widespread euphoria on 6th May 2021, PBS Masterpiece announced that it was teaming up with BritBox UK to produce not one, but two more seasons of Sanditon.

BritBox will have premiere streaming rights in the UK as a BritBox Original series, with ITV airing the show at a later date. Cue the champagne corks popping.

Hearts were full and hopes were high. Sanditon was saved!

Justin Young (Death in Paradise, Ripper Street) will take on lead writing duties and executive produce. An excellent decision and richly deserved, given that Young wrote some of the most memorable and moving moments from Season 1.

Show creator Andrew Davies (Pride & Prejudice, A Suitable Boy) will also be back to pen “several” episodes and will also executive produce. We were promised more romance, adventure and intrigue for Charlotte, with the confirmation that Rose Williams would return to her role.

Fans can also anticipate more “returning faces” and new inhabitants of the town. Charlotte’s story will be part of a wider tapestry of narratives. This was all sounding wonderful. The dream scenario.

It was then, that an uncomfortable thought began to take root. Where was Sidney? Where was the Sid to our Lotte? Why had they not announced the involvement of Theo James?

It was to be just twenty four hours later that we were to find out. Theo James and thus Sidney Parker, will not return to Sanditon.

What accompanied the announcement from PBS Masterpiece, was a rather disingenuous, if succinct statement from James. He reminded us, that he had always maintained that he was happy with the “broken fairytale” ending of the Charlotte/Sidney story. It was “interesting” to him and was very much the outcome that he wanted. So, that’s ok then?

Actually, in many ways it is. Technically, an actor owes their audience nothing more than their performance. They have an absolute right to make their own decisions about the future direction of their careers. They are entitled to move on and never look back, especially if already contractually obligated to filming other projects.

To treat the thwarted emotional investment and time commitment of their audience, as very much their problem to resolve. However, as many of us were taught at a young age, a little humility and civility, costs nothing. The audience for his words, were people who came to adore his dynamic, challenging, complex, hugely charismatic and compelling portrayal of Sidney Parker.

Some have now been introduced to his wider catalogue of work, through their affection for this role. Many would consider themselves his fans. In fifty words, he could surely have found room for two, “Thank you.”

So, where does that leave Sanditon fans now, after such long held hopes and dreams were suddenly realised, only to be so swiftly dashed? There is no question that the absence of Theo James and his portrayal of Sidney Parker will leave behind a chasm which the production may well struggle to fill.

Not only will his physical presence be missed, but there is a very real danger that his character could remain something of a spectre at the feast. Particularly, as components at least, of the Parker family will live on as constant reminders of what might have been.

Much of the town and its surrounding landscape is also synonymous with the much-loved central romance. There is also the undeniable chemistry between Williams and James. Will any future dance be able to equal the golden moment at Mrs Maudsley’s Rout? A dance now etched in period drama lore and generating so much heat that it virtually requires a fire extinguisher.

However, the remarkable fanbase should take heart. Firstly, they have achieved a truly spectacular feat in giving Sanditon not only a second, but a third chance of life.

Reversals of cancellations don’t happen every day. Let alone one which allows for two bites of the cherry. It is an indisputable truth that Sanditon 2 and 3 will, by necessity, be fundamentally different but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be equally entertaining. Perhaps even more so.

While the full cast has yet to be announced and more changes from Season 1 could well be ahead, there is a strong writing team at the helm. Additionally, it’s worth remembering that while it can require adjustment, some change is not always a bad thing.

New characters will bring fresh perspectives, new challenges and an array of narrative possibilities. There is scope for example, for an injection of some much needed humour and a lightness of touch, more in keeping with Austen’s rapier wit.

Crystal Clarke (Ordeal By Innocence), who portrays heiress Georgiana Lambe, also confirmed on Twitter that Season 2 will see the addition of black writers to the writing team. This is an excellent, important and overdue development.

Not only will Georgiana’s character context and progression greatly benefit from this but the production as a whole, will be given a fresh dimension by the talent and contribution of these creatives.

In many ways, Sanditon has now, through circumstance, been forced to hit the reset button. There are now no inevitabilities or constraints. Instead there is a chance to continue to celebrate Austen’s tradition of female friendship and strong women. To allow Charlotte to discover ways in which to grow and move forward from her heartbreak. To rebuild and remake. To learn to live and love again. To take her remarkable spirit and sense of adventure and ultimately discover a deeper and a finer love. One between equals.

Like Theo James, I wish the cast and crew every success. I also hope that James remains fortunate that his future career continues on his own terms.

Will fans forget Sidney Parker? No. Will they get over him? That’s harder to say, but I hope, like Charlotte they will mend and emerge anew. Taking only from the experience that which is useful and leaving the pain in the past, where it belongs.

It’s worth remembering that out there right now, is an actor about to have his shot to become an Austen hero. I look forward to meeting him on screen, soon and I wish him well.

Sanditon is available on DVD on Amazon.