When Dabney recently asked for ideas for new TV shows to watch, shows with well-developed relationships and strong female characters, I chimed in immediately to suggest she might like to watch the BBC’s new adaptation of Poldark, an eight part costume drama set in late 18th Century Cornwall. It’s due to air in the US in June on PBS, and has just reached the end of its run here in the UK, with the promise of a second series to come next year.
Based on the novels by Winston Graham, this series centres on the first two books in the series – Ross Poldark and Demelza – and tells the story of Ross Poldark, the son of a well-to-do Cornish family who returns from fighting in America to discover that his father is dead, his home is falling down, the family mining concerns are in a bad way and, to add insult to injury, the woman he loves is about to marry his cousin. Fortunately, Ross is not a man to be easily put down, and, hiding the hurt he feels, he instead rolls up his sleeves (literally) and sets about repairing his home and trying to find a way to make a living and regenerate his business interests. There is love, heartbreak, self-discovery, politics and intrigue a-plenty along the way, and it makes for a thoroughly interesting and gripping tale.
If you’re of a certain age – like me! – then you may think that all this sounds rather familiar. And you’d be right, because the BBC actually produced an incredibly successful version of the same stories back in the 1970s, which was, in its day, just as massive a hit as the new one has proved to be. According to its original star, Sunday evening church services in Cornwall were re-scheduled so as to avoid too many empty pews as people stayed in for their weekly fix of Ross, Demelza and their trials and tribulations in the Cornish mining community. Robin Ellis made a handsome, dashing Ross and the lovely, late Angharad Rees simply lit up the screen as Demelza. The two had fantastic chemistry, but their love story – not always a garden of roses – was just one of many facets of the story which kept something like 15 million viewers (that’s a lot for over here!) tuning in week after week. It was just as successful overseas, and this new version looks set to emulate that success. The first four books were dramatized; the author then went on to write a further eight books, ending the saga with Bella Poldark, published in 2008, three years before his death.
Now, forty years later, the BBC has dusted off the books and given it makeover and I freely admit to being one of those who thought “but will it be as good as the original?” when the project was announced. But I have faith in Auntie (the BBC) and settled down to watch the first episode with my eldest daughter who is around the same age as I was when I watched the original version.
It didn’t take me long to be completely won over. The locations are beautiful – incredibly that really IS Cornwall and not the South of France – the scripts are following the books fairly closely and the writing and acting are very good. Obviously, there are going to be things that don’t quite work for everyone – the eternal hazard of the adaptation – but the changes I’ve noticed are a mixture both good and … not so good. For example, the character of Elizabeth, Ross’ former love is much more rounded and likeable than in the books (or the 70s adaptation) while I think that his cousin, Francis, has suffered somewhat in translation. Not that any man doesn’t pale in comparison to Ross (or it’s gorgeous star, Aidan Turner!), but the Francis of the books – and as played by Clive Francis in the 70s – had much more charm and intelligence, despite the fact that the character makes some horrible choices and often finds himself on the back foot. There were also times I felt things were moving a little TOO quickly, and some characters had been somewhat marginalised and their motivations not fully explored, but sacrifices always have to be made in dramatisations, so I’m happy with the way things have played out so far.
Much of the current series’ success is undoubtedly due to the pulling-power of the actor chosen to play Ross. Aidan Turner will be familiar to many as the vampire Mitchell in the BBC’s Being Human or the dwarf Kili in The Hobbit, and his casting is the perfect example of what happens when the right actor is cast in the right part at the right time. Not only is he a very fine actor – someone said recently that his performance goes beyond acting because he completely inhabits the character of Ross, which I think is spot on – but his dark good looks and honed physique have inspired the female population of Britain to heights of lust not seen since the appearance of Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy in a wet shirt. He’s completely nailed the character of the rebellious, slightly dangerous Ross, whose knack for finding and starting trouble caused his father to send him off into the army in an attempt to keep him on the straight and narrow. Ross is very intelligent, a man of principle and a born leader, but he’s also arrogant and impulsive, apt to let his hot tempter get the better of him, and his propensity for flouting authority gets him into hot water many times. But unlike most of the local gentry, he actually gives a damn about his tenants and workers and wants to improve their lot if he can. This is one of the things that sets him apart from his family and his class – he’s a man who is prepared to go out on a limb for what he believes in. He’s not perhaps a hero in the truest sense of the word – he’s hugely flawed and some of his actions are questionable at best – but there’s no denying he’s utterly compelling.
Viewers have been captivated by the romance between the initially broken-hearted Ross and the young woman he rescues from a beating and eventually marries, Demelza Carne (played by Eleanor Tomlinson). She’s just as captivating a character as Ross, a young woman of the lower classes who falls in love with her employer with no desire for anything other than to stay by his side, and who is just as amazed as everyone else when she ends up as his wife. There’s undoubtedly an element of rebellion in Ross’s sudden decision to marry her after she effectively seduces him – he knows those of his class will be shocked and outraged, and almost relishes the prospect – but he reckons without Demelza’s dignity and determination. She wants to be a credit to her husband, and it’s wonderful to see her growth throughout the books, as she blossoms from a gawky, socially inept young woman into a woman who can hold her own – and rise above – the highest in society. She’s kind and generous of spirit, possessed of an innate wisdom as well as a fiery temper – and even Ross knows she’s a far better match for him, a than a society lady would have been:
If one overlooked her beginnings she was a not unsuitable match for an impoverished farmer squire. She had already proved her worth about the house and farm, none better, and she had grown into his life in a way he had hardly realized.
But sometimes her naivéte causes her to make poor decisions, (as we see at the end of this series) and unfortunately these are going to have far-reaching consequences.
But that’s for the future. Right now, Ross and Demelza have faced down the scandal of their marriage, confronted the enmity of Ross’s cousin Francis, and the ruthless business dealings of Ross’ nemesis, George Warleggan; they’ve experienced a terrible tragedy and are facing ruin, as well as contending with the problems faced by their workers and tenants. Ross and Demelza’s marriage is already under strain and will be tested even further as the story continues. It’s hard to read and I’m sure will be hard to watch, but on the other hand, it’s one of the strengths of the books. This is a marriage that, while it has a fairytale element to it at the beginning –the master marrying his serving maid – has to be worked at if it’s to survive. Because of that, and all of the things Ross and Demelza go through – and it’s not all bad; they have some great times, too – it has a realism to it that makes it all the more enthralling.
I’m writing this just as the series has come to an end, and, in common with the majority of the female population of Britain, am wondering what I’m going to do with my Sunday evenings. I don’t watch much TV these days, but I will certainly miss my weekly dose of Poldark and the lovely Mr Turner. It’s been a while since I’ve read the books, so perhaps a re-read is in order to tide me over.