TV blog: Sanditon and Great British Bake Off

Benjie Goodhart / 22 August 2019

Sanditon, a new period drama based on an unfinished Jane Austen manuscript, takes the Downton Abbey Sunday night spot, and Great British Bake Off returns.

Sanditon, Sunday 25th August, 9pm, ITV

It’s Sunday night. It’s 9pm. That can mean only one thing: ITV’s search for another Downton Abbey continues. Ever since execs at ITV realised they’d stumbled across a goldmine in the form of Julian Fellowes’ deliciously soapy period drama, they’ve been frantically commissioning anything containing a crinoline skirt and people referring to each other as “Miss Windlesham” and “Mr Tavistock” in an effort to repeat the process. To get a drama on ITV these days, literally all you have to do is put someone in a top hat and get them to ask “A penny for your thoughts, Lady Cecelia” and you’ll get a three-series commission. We’ve had Mr Selfridge, Victoria, Vanity Fair and Beecham House, and that’s just off the top of my head. And now we have Sanditon to add to the list.

That said, Sanditon boasts a pretty impressive pedigree. It’s been adapted by Andrew Davies, who is the undisputed king of literary adaptations. The book is by some 19th Century two-a-penny scribe called Jane Austen, who didn’t even get around to finishing it, so she can’t have been up to much. Although, to be fair to her, she did have the not unreasonable excuse of her untimely death to explain it.

She only wrote 11 chapters of the book, so the rest has been left to the imagination of Davies. I wonder if viewers will be able to pick up on the moment where Austen’s book finishes and a new writer comes in. Myself, I suspect it might be the bit where Miss Heywood and Mr Parker have an argument at the ball. Or where Lady Denham receives visitors to Sanditon House. Or the bit where the cyborgs burst into the dinner party and blow everyone away with Uzi sub-machine guns.

I confess, I’m quite a fan of a good costume drama, particularly one with both Davies and Austen involved, and this opening episode (of an eight-part series) does not disappoint. The story revolves around Charlotte Heywood, a slightly naïve but spirited young lady, who is invited to the seaside resort of Sanditon by a kindly entrepreneur called Tom Parker (Kris Marshall) and his wife Mary (Kate Ashfield). Tom Parker, it should be pointed out, is not the one who went on to manage Elvis – unless things take a pretty weird turn in later episodes.

Before she goes, Miss Heywood’s father takes her to one side and warns her to be careful. “These seaside resorts can be odd places… the normal rules of conduct tend to be relaxed, and sometimes altogether flouted.” He’s not wrong. We live in Brighton, and last night my wife didn’t even change into black tie for dinner.

Anyway, it turns out Sanditon is peopled by quite the cast of characters. There’s a deeply curmudgeonly, rich and snobbish old battle axe called Lady Denham (played with delicious malice by Anne Reid). Equally repellent are her louche and materialistic niece and nephew, who are scheming to make sure they’re remembered in their aunt’s will. Meanwhile, Mr Parker has a brother, Sidney, a high-handed, dark and brooding character who proceeds to either ignore or offend Miss Heywood. If they’re not betrothed in the final episode I’ll eat my own ears.

The episode is a reminder of how resoundingly tedious it must have been to be young in the 19th century. The prospect of actually going swimming in the sea is a subject of huge discussion, and is considered frightfully daring. When the moment finally arrives, the men and women are separated. The men all plunge in in the buff, while the women are essentially allowed to have their nostrils on display and almost nothing else.

Proceedings finish up at a ball. Those things must have been a drag. They all listen to dreadful music, sip sherry and dance like utter loons. I’ve been to (and thrown) some fairly terrible parties in my time, but none that looks quite as hellish as a Regency ball. Happily, the programme is anything but hellish. Rose Williams is utterly luminous as Charlotte Heywood, and the nauseatingly handsome Theo James is equally compelling as the seemingly-uptight Sidney Parker. It might not prove to be the next Downton, but that doesn’t mean we’re not in for a delightful Sunday evening treat.

The Great British Bake Off, Tuesday 27th August, 8pm, Channel 4

I’ll admit it: Sometimes I get things wrong. There was a time when I thought wearing a trilby and a bandana was cool. And a time when I thought having hair down to my nipples was cool. And a time when I thought cowboy boots were cool. Basically, I should stop trying to be cool. (Besides, if you’re still trying to be cool at 46, you are the textbook definition of uncool). But I also made a mistake back in 2010. (Rest assured, there have been none since). I thought The Great British Bake Off would be the most insufferably dull programme on TV.

It sounded to me like a rather tedious version of MasterChef, without the culinary flair or intense challenges. Where MasterChef might feature a vast array of ingredients, cooking styles and influences, Bake Off merely watched an ever-dwindling cast making biscuits. Where MasterChef took viewers on a gastronomic world tour, with challenges taking place in some of the finest restaurants on the planet, Bake Off watched people ice a Victoria Sponge in a tent.

It wasn’t until series four that I realised the error of my ways. By then, so many of my colleagues at work were banging on about the ruddy show that I decided to watch it, just so that I didn’t end up a social pariah. I sat down to view it with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp, all the eager anticipation of someone about to have a colonoscopy. I expected to hate it. Hell, I was determined to hate it.

Of course, I loved it. How could you not? With the twin titans of baking, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, at the helm, and the cheerfully cheeky pairing of Mel and Sue jollying everything along, the show struck the perfect balance between giggling and gravitas. And the baking was little short of spectacular, the bakers a hugely talented and almost universally likeable cross-section of society.

By the following year, my interest was well and truly piqued by the fact that a dear friend of mine, Kate Henry, was taking part. She even tested her magnificent pork pies out on me and my wife, and sought our advice. Mine was, basically, make that all over again. The pies were massive. We were eating them for about two weeks. Best fortnight of my life. And Kate won star baker for her pork pies. So, basically, I shared in that triumph.

Since then, the show has moved from the BBC to Channel 4, in a controversy that became so heated it made Brexit look like a polite discussion over crumpets in the vicarage. But the show survived the departure of Mary Berry, and of Mel and Sue, reinventing itself brilliantly with the introduction of Prue Leith (a sort of rock’n’roll Berry) and the unlikely but inspired pairing of Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig.

There have been plenty of other controversies over the years. Bingate, and the mystery of who caused Iain Watters’ Baked Alaska to melt, briefly threatened to cause the greatest schism in the UK since the Battle of Naseby. Some people have complained that the show is too full of innuendo (though frankly, if you can’t cope with the level of smut in Bake Off, you’d probably best get rid of your telly altogether). Every year one of the young female contestants is accused of having an affair with Paul Hollywood. And at the end of season 8, Prue accidentally revealed the winner on Twitter 12 hours before the final was transmitted.

But the show endures. And it does so thanks, in large part, to the continuing excellence of the bakers, whose creativity, knowledge, passion and skill are an absolute joy to behold. This year’s collection of bakers will doubtless be no different. It’s the youngest ever group (only one of them is over 40, and he’s only 56) which seems a shame. I understand Channel 4’s desire to chase a young audience (advertisers love youth) but surely a couple more laughter lines wouldn’t put the young things off tuning in?

At present, Channel 4 and Love Productions are playing their cards close to their chest, and episode one is not yet available for preview. Hence the waffle. But I can tell you with utter certainty it will feature laughter, a lot of heart, and some spectacular bakes. How could anyone argue with that – and what kind of a moron wouldn’t have realised what a treat this show is in the first place?

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The best… and the rest:

Saturday 24th August

Prince Albert: A Victorian Hero Revealed, 8pm, Channel 4: Professor Saul David presents this documentary suggesting that Queen Victoria’s husband had a profound and positive effect on this country’s culture, politics and international relations.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? 1/5, 9:10pm, ITV: Jeremy Clarkson returns in the hot seat, for an hour of questions, answers and (mostly) really long, annoying pauses designed to ratchet up tension.

Sunday 25th August

Peaky Blinders, 9pm, BBC One: This critically-acclaimed story of criminal gangs in yesteryear’s Birmingham is about as far removed as a period drama can get from Jane Austen. Don’t expect many ballroom scenes.

Peter Taylor: My Journey Through the Troubles, 10pm, BBC Two: Marking the 50th anniversary of the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland, journalist Peter Taylor reflects on 50 years of conflict, and his experiences covering it.

Monday 26th August

Nadiya’s Summer Feasts, 8pm, BBC Two: The marvellous Nadiya Hussain is back with a one-off special showing viewers how to prepare some tasty treats for summer. Which is all well and good, but why wait until August 26th to show it? The leaves are already starting to brown…

Celebs on the Farm, 10pm, Channel 5: Stephen Bailey presents the second series of the show wherein a load of people you’ve never heard of mess about on a farm. Or something. Life is more than a little too short, frankly.

Tuesday 27th August

Love Your Garden, 8pm, ITV: That nice Mr Titchmarsh and his enthusiastic team of gardening elves return to make beautiful gardens for deserving people. An extremely pleasant hour.

Sink or Swim for Stand Up to Cancer, 9:30pm, Channel 4: A group of celebrities, each of whom has an issue with swimming or being in open water, are trained for a cross-Channel relay in aid of Stand Up to Cancer. Those taking part include athletes Linford Christie, Tessa Sanderson and Greg Rutherford, as well as (presumably) someone from Made in Chelsea or Towie, and someone who used to be in EastEnders or Corrie.

Wednesday 28th August

Grand Designs: Kevin’s Grandest Design, 9pm, Channel 4: To commemorate 20 years of divine design, the sagacious Mr McCloud picks his five favourite builds. All of which, presumably, went £200k over-budget thanks to delays involving curved glass being imported from Antwerp.

Thursday 29th August

China: A New World Order 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: A look at the rule of Xi Jinping, the little-known party loyalist who went on to become President of China, and what his rule means for the country and the rest of the world.

Friday 30th August

The Worlds Most Luxurious… Trains, 8pm, Channel 5: A look at some of the world’s most opulent and luxurious trains marks the first in a new series showing us how the other 0.1% live.

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