Monday, 30 November -0001

POLDARK v POLDARK

The classic swashbuckling costume drama is back, but which Poldark has the edge? The Lady challenges them to a duel…

Downton Abbey, beware. Rarely since the 1995 adaption of Pride And Prejudice has the British public been so feverishly gripped by a period drama. In no small part, our attention has been seized by the titular hero of the new BBC drama, Ross Poldark, who, while not quite Mr Darcy, has certainly brought about a collective national swoon. But let’s also remember that the original BBC Poldark series was a 1970s television classic. So the question everyone is asking is: Has the magic been recaptured?

Poldark’s tale was originally told in Winston Graham’s novels, and Debbie Horsfield, the writer behind the new series, has returned to them, rather than the first Poldark TV series, for inspiration. The original BBC production first aired in 1975, ran until 1977 and captured the attention of 15 million viewers – quite a feat. It went on to receive global attention, was screened in over 40 countries and became one of the highest-selling costume dramas on video (well, it was the 1970s) to date.

Poldark-Mar20-02-590Demelza is rescued from a violent father by our hero

What, then, can we expect from the latest reworking of this swashbuckling tale? And which Poldark will win the battle for our hearts? Let’s take a look…

Q: When did it all begin?
A: As has become the fashion over the years, this genre has prime residency on the Sunday evening television schedule. The first episode of the original Poldark series was shown on 5 October 1975 and peaked at around 15 million viewers. On 8 March 2015, around seven million Brits tuned in to the first episode of the new series – still strong numbers in the modern climate. Only time will tell whether this figure increases, but the new Poldark certainly is a fine contender for Downton Abbey’s costume drama crown.

Poldark-Mar20-03-590-quote

Q: So what’s it all about?
A: Poldark tells the story of Captain Ross Poldark, an 18th-century British Army officer, returning to his native Cornwall after fighting in the American War of Independence. His homecoming is unhappily hit by a sequence of unwelcome revelations. Discovering his father to be dead, his estate in ruins and his sweetheart engaged to his cousin, Poldark is urged by his uncle to leave for a new life in London. Bereft of all he held dear, it would be a simple choice for most, but Poldark soldiers on, determined to rebuild his fortunes. According to series writer, Debbie Horsfield, he is ‘A man who doesn’t stand on ceremony, who doesn’t play by the rules and often falls foul of authority. He has elements of Darcy, Heathcliff, Rochester, Rhett Butler and Robin Hood – quite a combination!’

Q: Where is the story set?
A: In keeping with Winston Graham’s vision, both of the BBC Poldark series were filmed on location in Cornwall. This does remarkable justice to Poldark’s character; his tempestuous nature appears to be reflected in the rugged clifftops and battering waves. Key locations used for the new series include Church Cove, Gunwalloe; Charlestown, which stands in for 18th-century Truro; Bodmin Moor, used for the outside shots of Poldark’s home, and the tin mines between Botallack and Levant.

Poldark-Mar20-04-590Left: Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees). Right: The new cast, Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) and Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner)

There was a surge in Cornish tourism after the original series – and a similar uplift is expected now. According to the Daily Mail, head of production services at Creative England, Kaye Elliot, said, ‘Over the last year, filming has brought £11m of inward investment… and that’s before you consider the impact of tourists visiting their favourite film locations.’

Of course, filming on location can cause headaches. Some viewers were rather disgruntled after spotting a burglar alarm on one ‘18th-century’ building.

Poldark-Mar20-05-590Left: Then, Francis and Elizabeth Poldark (Clive Francis and Jill Townsend). Right: Now,Elizabeth (Heida Reed)

Q: Who’s playing the brooding hero?

A: The ‘new’ Poldark is played by Dublin-born Aidan Turner, perhaps best known for his role as a dwarf in The Hobbit films. The series satisfies today’s audience by regularly showing our hero shirtless and the series now screens at 9pm, after she watershed. Apparently, Turner spent much time in the gym in preparation.

Robin Ellis, now 73, was the ‘original’ Ross Poldark (and plays a judge, Reverend Halse, in the new series). In an interview with the Radio Times, Ellis stated that he was rather more reserved: ‘Winston Graham hated the term “bodice-ripper” and I think that by modern standards we were quite decorous. I only took my shirt off once, that I remember… I never took it off again.’

Turner’s Poldark is also a little more rugged than Ellis’s original, and sports a scar beside his left eye. The scar has come in for some criticism, however – one viewer tweeted, ‘It looks like his hair dye has run.’

Poldark-Mar20-06-590-quote

But Turner’s Poldark has certainly attracted some unlikely fans. Even Robert Crampton of The Times was left swooning. ‘I know the fashionable received wisdom is that we’re all on a sexual spectrum,’ he wrote, ‘but I’ve never been inclined to fancy another man. Watching the new Poldark on Sunday, however, I began to understand how I might be persuaded.’

Q: Who is Poldark’s love interest?
A: Our hero is most tested in matters of the heart – a thread that remains in both BBC versions. Elizabeth, Poldark’s sworn love before his departure to war, is now to wed his cousin, Francis. As he tries to come to terms with this, he becomes entranced by an urchin, whom he at first mistakes for a boy: Demelza. He offers her refuge from a violent father and she becomes his kitchen maid. Outspoken and lively, Demelza is Poldark’s emotional match. The chemistry between them was certainly captured in the original by Ellis and actress Angharad Rees. Today Demelza is played by the beautiful and charismatic Eleanor Tomlinson. Demelza is in fact an old Welsh name, meaning ‘fort on the hill’. Little wonder that Tomlinson attended the audition dressed in her brother’s clothes. She understood the gall and guts required of such a woman.

Poldark-Mar20-07-590From left: Then, Jud and Prudie Paynter (Paul Curran and Mary Wimbush). Now, Prudie and Jud Paynter (Beatie Edney and Phil Davis)

Q: What about the other characters?

A: As reflected in both series, there was in the 18thcentury a strict divide between the gentry and the working class. Dr Dwight Enys, a friend to Poldark, is progressive in his attitudes and does not charge the poorest of his patients – a precursor of the NHS? George Warleggan, a new class of industrialist, both powerful and ruthless, is Ross Poldark’s big rival. Servant Prudie, played by actress Beatie Edney in today’s production, reminds us only too well of how grimy life was at the bottom of the social heap. Edney’s teeth were so 21st-century perfect that she was ordered to wear a pair of mangled prosthetics for the part. Veteran actor Warren Clarke performs his last role as Ross’s uncle, Charles Poldark. Clarke sadly passed away after filming.

Q: What have the critics had to say?
A: In 1975, the first episode of the original series didn’t win everyone over. Critic Clive James memorably dismissed it, declaring that Poldark was an anagram for Old Krap. Given its widespread success, the public evidently didn’t agree.

The first episode of the new series also had its critics, with some Cornish viewers taking exception to the accents. ‘BBC we are not Wurzels,’ one tweeted.

Pat Stacey, of the Independent, however, was full of praise: ‘Poldark manages to ring the changes on an old favourite…and yet, for all its widescreen flash and dash, stay true to the traditions of BBC period dramas of the past. Only a curmudgeon would begrudge it success.’

Poldark-Mar20-08-590From left: Then, Rev Osborne Whitworth (Christopher Biggins). Now, Reverend Halse (Robin Ellis)

Meanwhile, The Telegraph’s Victoria Lambert, warns that Aidan Turner’s Poldark is ‘so smouldering and so, quite frankly, sexy that I expect to hear reports of spontaneous combustion imminently among the vast numbers of female viewers…’

The debate over which series is better is raging, but who better to judge than the original Poldark himself? In the Daily Mail, Robin Ellis said: ‘The time is right for Poldark to return. The wheel of fashion turns and Poldark, an unashamedly romantic tale, can be told again with a straight face.’

And a bare chest.

Q: So which series of Poldark takes top marks?
A: It’s early days, but, it’s an honourable draw.

Cassandra Steele


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