Sanditon star Rose Williams: ‘It’s the fans who saved the show’

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Sanditon star Rose Williams: ‘It’s the fans who saved the show’
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When ITV’s racy Jane Austen adaptation Sanditon was cancelled in 2019 after the first series, fans were not happy. The six-part series based on the writer’s unfinished final novel may not have hit the ratings the channel had hoped for, but it created a passionate following around the world, and they mobilised.

“There was an amazing response from the self-titled Sanditon Sisterhood of women across the world, which I think is really sweet,” says Rose Williams, who stars in the leading role of the headstrong, independent-minded Charlotte Heywood in the show. There was particular support from bonnet-fanciers in America, and, closer to home, a group who called themselves the “Sanditalians”.

Outrage engulfed social media – one member of the Sisterhood told the New York Times the group had goals of sending “20,000 tweets a day” – and they started a letter writing campaign to the producers at ITV as well as at PBS’ Masterpiece, which broadcast the show in the US. A petition to save the show amassed more than 88,000 signatures.

For Williams, one of the more striking responses was a 120-metre image of her face raked into the sand of Brean Beach in Somerset, alongside the hashtag #SaveSanditon. The drone footage caused a stir when it was posted online, making various news outlets.

“The characters resonated so much and people wanted more,” she says when we speak on Zoom. “It’s very much thanks to all of that support in the online community that they brought the show back.”

 (Red Planet (Sanditon 2) Ltd/Jame)
(Red Planet (Sanditon 2) Ltd/Jame)

The corsets, dashing military men and tea dances return to ITV next Friday, with Sanditon’s second series launching nine months after the conclusion of the first.

Returning to the character was welcome for Williams but also quite strange following the cancellation. “All of my imaginations of where Charlotte may have gone, I’d said goodbye to,” she says. “So it was quite amazing.”

A return to Austen’s world may well have been helped by another show around the same time, which might have given commissioners second thoughts? “I would say yes,” Williams replies. “It’s a hugely commercially successful Regency show. They’re very different in tone and budget but yes, huge thanks to Bridgerton.”

And like the Netflix behemoth, the first season of Sanditon - which also stars Theo James, Kris Marshall, Anne Reid and Jack Fox - raised eyebrows for being steamier than seasoned Austen followers were perhaps used to. One newspaper referred to Sanditon’s first series as “Love Island in breeches… and out of them too!”

“That was Andrew,” Williams laughs, of Andrew Davies, who adapted the show, and the man once referred to as the “grandfather of the sexed-up period drama”. He also adapted Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and, most famously, Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth.

“We were doing a press junket and he is so cheeky. He said, ‘It’s a bit like Love Island’ and the press ran with it.”

That meant there was increased focus on some of the less Austen-like scenes including one couple “romping”, as the Daily Mail put it, on a marble floor, and a group of men swimming naked.

“That was Andrew’s influence,” Williams says. “He has such a gift for infusing heart and wit and sauce. He’s behind Colin Firth’s wet shirt, let’s put it that way. The sexually charged theme that everyone buckles for is Andrew’s genius.”

For outraged of Tunbridge Wells, however, there will be little cause for complaint in series two. “It has been dialled down,” Williams says sounding a little disappointed, before adding, “But that stuff did go on. Maybe it’s just shocking to see it on television set in a time more associated with tea parties and all that stuff.”

Williams as Charlotte Heywood with Ben Lloyd-Hughes as Alexander Colbourne in season 2 (Red Planet (Sanditon 2) Ltd/Joss)
Williams as Charlotte Heywood with Ben Lloyd-Hughes as Alexander Colbourne in season 2 (Red Planet (Sanditon 2) Ltd/Joss)

Austen had only written 11 chapters of Sanditon before her death in 1817, and that material was covered in the first half hour of the very first episode – so there was scope for the writers to take its characters into unchartered waters. “Across the second season Justin Young, the head writer, was very clear on wanting to stay true to Austen’s themes and message,” Williams says.

The actor was 25 when she landed the part of Charlotte Heywood. She had initially gone up for the smaller role of Clara but couldn’t do it because of a conflict. That film was delayed, by which stage the bigger role had become available. “I will always be very grateful for the magic of how I got this part,” Williams says.

For the first series, the cast was sent to the National Gallery to take inspiration from Regency-era paintings – and she was drawn to a particularly bucolic Thomas Gainsborough landscape, an image of which she printed out and kept with her. For the second series, ahead of Charlotte becoming more independent, she prepared by reading Mary Wollstonecraft. “Wollstonecraft felt like an obvious reference, she’s just quite punk. I had quotes of hers swimming around my head during filming.”

Williams was not someone who felt the call to be an actor from childhood. In fact, she “had not been interested in television until my late teens”. She wanted to work in fashion, and while doing a BTEC in fine art worked at Dover Street Market in Mayfair. Her introduction to the world of TV was through her mother, who worked in costume, when she helped out on an episode of ITV entertainment show Born to Shine.

That led to work on the fourth series of E4 show Misfits starring Joe Gilgun – “we have the same agent now,” Williams laughs – and she points to the actor doing a scene with co-star Karla Crome as a seminal moment. “I remember exactly where I was standing behind the monitor, watching checks. I just felt: ‘I think I can do that.’ It was a real urge to have a go at that. I never had an urge to act at school. I didn’t do drama, I was an art kid. It was thanks to watching them, and my mum bringing me along to work.”

So Williams simply decided to act. “I remember my dad saying, ‘You can’t just be an actress, that’s mad.’ I’m very grateful for that because without it I wouldn’t have had anything to push back on. I must have been 18 and – I don’t know how healthy this is – but being told that you can’t do that, my response is, ‘Well I can.’”

 (Red Planet (Sanditon 2) Ltd/Joss)
(Red Planet (Sanditon 2) Ltd/Joss)

She landed a short film called Sunroof and then came the role of Princess Claude in Reign, a series about the rise of Mary, Queen of Scots. What started as just three episodes expanded to three years, shooting nine months a year. “It was run like a well-oiled ship. Massive sets, a huge crew. To work on an American show at 20 was amazing. We had three-hour make up calls. I learned the ropes on that show.”

Other series followed including Curfew, Medici, That Dirty Black Bag, and, of course, Sanditon. She has been in several films, and one that stands out is Changeland, directed by Seth Green, set in Thailand.

Home Alone star Macauley Culkin was also in the film, and she lights up at the mention of his name. “Mac! He’s incredible. He is so talented.” She continues. “He’s the dearest, most intelligent, creative special artist. Everyone is special, we’re all unique in our own way, but I do think some people are special. And he really is… All of that charisma that he had as a child that people loved so much… he is magic, he’s just magic.” She laughs at the sudden outpouring.

Next she will appear in the film Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, opposite Lesley Manville, while Sanditon series three has already been shot. And now that Sanditon is no longer ‘Love Island meets Austen’, is she watching the real thing?

“I shouldn’t watch Love Island, but I’m addicted to it. I’m trying to wean myself off it,” she mock sighs before brightening. “Ekin-Su and Davide to win… that’s all I’m going to say.”

Sanditon launches on ITV on Friday July 22 at 9pm with all episodes available on ITV Hub that day

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