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Sanditon

Interview with Theo James

What drew you to this project?

I love the complexity of the character. At first, he is very guarded. It is his personality. He lost a love when he was very young, and that defined him. So he decided to become an outlier and not rely on anyone else.

Tell us about his background.

He left home to find and make a man of himself. He went to Antigua, where he became quite wealthy on the back of the sugar trade. But he abhors the slave trade and as a result feels dirty and guilty.

What happens when Sidney returns to Sanditon?

He's the black sheep of the family. He has reluctantly come back to the town he sees as parochial and not reflective of his status. Sanditon is an acquired taste. Not everyone likes it at first. But it's like peanut butter: as soon as you have tasted it, you want more.

Does his attitude to Sanditon soften?

Yes. He begins to be changed by Charlotte, this strange woman that he overlooks at first. But she isn't scared of him and doesn't rely on status. He is interested in her, but also irritated that she is constantly pulling him up on things. She speaks her mind and that annoys him – to put it mildly!

How does the relationship between Sidney and Charlotte develop?

It's rocky to begin with, full of ups and downs. But he soon realises she's very intelligent, beautiful and complex. He comes to see that she has no pretensions. She lives according to her own rules.

How have you found it working with Rose?

It's been great. She has been wonderful to collaborate with. Rose brings a very fresh and open quality to the character which is very important. She has big, wide eyes, which are really expressive. Her approach works very well, especially when juxtaposed with Sidney's closed nature

What has it been like acting with Kris Marshall, who plays Sidney's brother, Tom?

He's a lovely guy. We're playing brothers and it can be hard to conjure that relationship out of thin air but, we get on well which has made it much easier.

What makes Andrew Davies's scripts stand out?

He's a great writer because he is able to interpret text in a way that is dramatic and interesting, but also true to the original material. He never overplays his hand. The dialogue can be sparse. Nothing is over- said or over-done, which is great for an actor. So often dialogue is just exposition, but Andrew is the opposite of that. His dialogue can be played with very few words and looks. What Andrew also does very well is understand the fun of the material. So he combines really solid emotional drama with other characters that are quite heightened. He doesn't lean into satire, but he is able to embrace the joy and extremity that exists in some of Austen's characters.

Why is Andrew the best person to be developing this unfinished novel?

One of the only people capable of doing it legitimately would be Andrew. That was a big draw for me. If it had been a talented up-and-coming writer, I don't think I would have done it. I loved Andrew’s version of Pride and Prejudice. The way he adapted that was so astute. It has never been topped. He was able to capture the mood of that story so well.

Are you concerned what the reaction of Austen aficionados might be to Andrew's adaptation?

No, I'm not worried about the purists. It's impossible to say what the full story of Sanditon would have been. Austen was writing at the end of her life. She was a more experienced and wiser writer, but we don’t know where she would have gone with this.

What do we love about Austen?

She writes very strong female characters, as well as complex male characters. The world at that time was very difficult for women. They were restricted in how they could live, but Austen was able to transgress that with her writing.

What elements of Sanditon will strike a universal chord?

The concept of what love is and how love comes to grow – that’s timeless. Austen writes beautifully about the condition of how someone falls in love. That will always be interesting to us – why humans do that and how powerful it can be.

What has been the biggest challenge for you filming this series?

I'd never done a TV show shot out of sequence before. That was discombobulating for me. My first scene was the last scene of the third episode. You always have to be mindful where you are as a character.

How would you describe the town of Sanditon?

The characters we see have been born into money, but not enough to live on in complete leisure so they are always on the make. Tom represents the growth of capitalism and the idea that you can create something out of nothing. At that time, you were either born into money or into slavery, but there was a burgeoning idea that you could create something out of nothing, like the people who were going to the Americas. That led to capitalism and the dominant system in the world now - the American dream that anyone can make money.

How is this piece different from more conventional period dramas?

Some residents of Sanditon, like Jack Fox's character, Edward, are philandering men on the make. They represent the kind of moral ambiguity that exists in this world. At the high end, we see society balls, but also men frequenting brothels and smoking opium. It's also shot in a very different way from more orthodox period dramas. It's different from the traditional white starched shirts that we’re used to seeing. It's less chocolate boxy and more gritty. We film a cricket match which could have been chocolate boxy, but is actually rough around the edges.

What do you hope that audiences will take away from Sanditon?

It's very much a Jane Austen period drama, but it still has some grit to it. It's a really interesting mix of social classes and backgrounds. That interaction is fascinating. It is Jane Austen mixed with a dusting of Regency Western – that's what I’d like people to see.

By BBC Australia