Period drama purists please excuse me, but ITV’s forthcoming adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon is a little — dare I say it — like watching a panto. When I meet the show’s lead, Rose Williams who plays our innocent and inquisitive heroine Charlotte, she can’t help but agree, “that’s a really good way of putting it”. That’s not to say Sanditon is set in a creaky school hall that smells faintly of mashed potatoes and disinfectant, but it does come with a knowing wink and a nudge in the script, thanks to Austen aficionado, Andrew Davies (screenwriter of 1995’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation). “He’s really cheeky and saucy and naughty,” Williams confirms, “like today, he was saying he watches Love Island… That kind of sums him up to be honest.”
Written in part before her death in 1817, Austen left 11 chapters of Sanditon that form the first half of our contemporary episode one. The titular town is being developed into a seaside resort by Tom Parker (Kris Marshall) and his business partner, the eccentric and ageing Lady Denham (Anne Reid). After Mr Parker’s carriage is damaged close to Charlotte’s family home, he and his wife take respite long enough to invite the eldest daughter of the Heywoods to stay with them in Sanditon in return.
Williams’ own Sanditon story is almost as fateful. After a request for an audition tape came through one Friday, she’d been offered the part by the following Monday. “It was across the Super Wolf Blood Moon in January,” she grins, “and I’m an Aquarius and the moon was in Aquarius, and I wanted to step into a challenge… So I think it had something to do with the moon. It was a witchy moment.”
Even acting itself is something that seemed to find its own way to Williams. Studying fashion and costume design while working in London’s Dover Street Market, her costume designer mum drafted her in to help on set. It was a stint working on E4’s sci-fi drama Misfits that made Williams decide she might want to step in front of the lens. “I felt a very kiddish feeling,” she tells me, “like, ‘I want to have a go!’ And that was what inspired me to shift gear a bit. And it was just my complete ignorance and naivety and boldness, I didn’t know how to do it… but I wanted to do it.”
After “a lot of very low paid, mad, awful jobs” (including a Tesco advert filmed in Hackney that never made it to screen and paid £50) and acting courses, Williams got an agent who “took a chance” on her and began to book series (Reign, Medici and Curfew most notably). None have quite had the pull of Austen and Davies attached to them, though; Sanditon being abandoned before Austen’s death meant the choice of writer for its imagined extension was pivotal and Davies, as Williams puts it, is “such a master of adaptation”. “It was like, ‘We’re all safe because Andrew is doing it’,” she says. “He writes just enough dialogue to say who the character is, but gives space for the actor to say it in looks too, it’s not overwritten… The first script – I remember I felt really emotional reading it, and with the audition there was a breakdown of all of the episodes and it made me cry. It gave me that same feeling, that you feel at the end of Pride and Prejudice, I felt my heart, and my heart connected to his words.”