Social Media vs. Sanditon - an analysis

Jo Taylor and Sam Norton explore the musical history and choices behind ITV's adaption of Sanditon and the reaction on social media.

(c) Sanditon Production

Jane Austen’s Sanditon premiered on ITV last Sunday to much fanfare. As an unfinished work, it was always going to be a difficult task to deliver performances as memorable as THAT Mr Darcy lake scene. With Andrew Davies, the screenwriter responsible for the acclaimed Pride and Prejudice adaption, as the pen behind the Sanditon screenplay, expectations were high.

The debut was met with mixed reviews and the music in-particular was a point of debate. Following episode one, Twitter was awash with people commenting that the score, which heavily featured folk music, did not capture the Regency era. The emotional backlash seemed to suggest that people thought that artistic liberties had overtaken historical fact. But is the criticism fair? Do we have an accurate idea of what life and trends were like in the historical periods we read about and watch?

Now, call us sceptics, but it seems unlikely that all the Twitter critics are historical music experts. Many of their views might be based on previous Austen adaptions such as Sense and Sensibility, Emma and of course Pride and Prejudice, as well as other films set in that time period. Dr Hannah Greig, the expert historical advisor on Sanditon, wrote: “it is interesting how we associate music with particular historical moments and yet when we dig a bit deeper, things are not as clear cut as that. We bring our own memories and individual histories to an engagement with the past.” Greig is clear that the music is actually historically correct with “folk music, raucous assembly room country dances, sung ballads, catches and glees [being] all the rage in Georgian Britain.”

(c) Sanditon Production

The advent of social media and everyone having the ability to express opinions, whether based on fact or not is now rife. In times gone by if we didn’t like a TV programme, our only avenue for expression of distaste was via a strongly worded letter to the broadcaster. Now, we can all fire off a tweet in a few seconds including hashtags to make sure our fury is noted by the masses. Like it or not, anything put in the public domain is subject to intense scrutiny and public approval or disapproval at the click of a button without the need for critical analysis or factual accuracy. As Ed Conway notes in his Times article published in June, we are ‘increasingly being swayed by deep-seated belief rather than hard evidence.’

The furore around the music used in Sanditon is a perfect example of this in action. People have been lead to believe certain things about the music from the Regency era. So when confronted with a soundscape that differs from expectation and takes them out of their comfort zone, it drives confusion and a feeling that too many artistic liberties have been taken.

Director's cut episode one

We had the opportunity to ask Olly Blackburn, Director of the first three episodes of Sanditon his take on the production. He explained that the music was chosen because of historical accuracy. Indeed he noted, Austen herself was a huge folk-fan with a large personal collection of folk music including amongst others One half o’ the world (James Hook) 1746-1827) and Robin Adir (George Kiallmark, 1781-1835). There was in-fact a large folk revival at the time with Beethoven himself writing 179 arrangements of traditional Irish, Scottish and Welsh folk songs which is more than any other composition type in his repertoire. In fact look at any Hogarth painting and you’ll see that fiddles were rife in Georgian Britain.

This was a big factor and driving force for the production team who felt that the Ballroom scene in episode one was a pivotal moment to illustrate the variety of musical influences at play in that era. For example by contrasting a classic waltz into folk music.

Ruth Barrett

We also gained exclusive access to Ruth Barrett, the Emmy nominated composer behind the music from Sanditon who has given us some good insight into the process behind the musical research, development and composition and why it was essential that folk music was included so significantly:

“I wanted to create a unique musical identify for Sanditon, this seaside town where people might swim naked in the sea and dance with abandon. It needed a fresh and intoxicating sound. As Charlotte says, it is a place where strangers mingle freely, different classes mix and anything could happen. Folk music was rife in Regency Britain, and things could get wild on the dance-floor. Musicians were known to travel around at the time so people were exposed to music from all around the British Isles and the Americas. I went to Celtic Connections Festival to source the best traditional music players on the scene. We got an incredible band together lead by Ewen Henderson who helped source the music...

...The band recorded the music for the ball and performed in the ballroom in episode one, along with Julie Fowlis who sang Puirt à beul, a traditional Gaelic style pre-dating Regency times. I used the same band to record the sound track as there was an amazing energy when they played together, they put a lot of their own personality into it.”

Ruth goes on to add that “music from the Appalachians [Americas) was of interest in Austen’s time and was another source of inspiration. It captures the entrepreneurial spirit of the characters and their sense of daring and adventure. I wanted to get the sound of salt and sea air and a bit of a hint of the Western in there, as this seemed to suit the characters and their quest for adventure and money.”

Ruth Barrett, Julie Fowlis and Nick Holland on the cello and band leader Ewen Henderson

Whilst the concept of musical development of characters is not new, Sanditon has taken the risk to push audiences out of their musical comfort zone to highlight the diverse, spirited and rapidly evolving musical tones of the time.

We won’t all have the same tastes in music however this doesn’t mean that what Hollywood has previously told us is accurate. Our understanding of the era and music of the time is unlikely to include the nuances at play given the brevity of the Regency period (1811-1820). However in this post-fact era it is more important than ever to understand why a production may have deviated from the expected norm to showcase how Austen’s view of the world had changed.

She lived and died in an innovative yet chaotic time and thus why her final work was so different to those written in her formative years.

Sanditon and the underpinning score is a brave attempt at capturing the juxtaposition apparent at the time with conflicting influences moving together. Olly Blackburn has taken the energy and darkly comic essence of the original work to heart and along with Andrew Davies, Ruth Barrett and the rest of the team have channelled this into a new style of costume drama which, whilst founded in historical accuracy, is also intended to propel the audience to a whole new world filled with possibility, escape and a Wild West feel.

It is up to the audience to debate whether this has been achieved, and people are within their rights to articulate that on social media. However, like it or not folk music is very Austen-esq and in our view a welcome addition to our understanding of the musical repertoire of the time.

Sanditon currently airs in the UK at 9pm on Sunday on ITV and is available on ITV Hub.

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