History & Film: The Poldark Saga
by Bethany Latham
Winston Graham was the definition of a prolific author; beginning in 1934, he published at least one book a year until he died in 2003. Despite this massive oeuvre, Graham is probably most famous for a single series of a dozen novels: his Poldark saga. The first novel, Ross Poldark, was published in 1945, and three other books would quickly follow. Graham then took a hiatus from the saga for twenty years before starting up again, with the last novel, Bella Poldark, appearing in 2002, shortly before his death. Set during the Georgian period (the saga begins circa 1783), the first novels revolve around the titular character, Ross Poldark, just returned home to Cornwall after fighting in the American war (aka the Revolution). Much has changed during Ross’s absence. His love, Elizabeth, has demonstrated her faithfulness by becoming engaged to his cousin, Francis. In other good news, Ross’s father has also died, leaving nothing but a crumbling estate, dilapidated mines, debt, and a couple of feckless house servants. Welsh mining success and the cut-throat banking practices of the upstart, nouveau riche Warleggan family have taken their toll on the local Cornish economy. Many of the aristocracy and gentry are in straitened circumstances, and the poverty-stricken tenants who rely on them for their livelihoods are on the verge of starvation. Things seem bleak, but the war has been a crucible for Ross’s iron-clad character, he looks upon the care of his tenants as one of his primary responsibilities, and he is anything but idle. Still deeply in love with Elizabeth, who now, despite her “true love’s” return, marries his wealthier cousin anyway, Ross throws himself into his work, garnering investors and reopening his mine to search for copper. Demelza, a dirt-poor but spirited young woman Ross rescues and employs as a kitchen maid, may be able to help him get his house, amongst other things, in order.
In 1975, the BBC launched what would become a phenomenally popular adaptation of the Poldark saga starring Robin Ellis, which would encompass two series and run until 1977, drawing an estimated fifteen million viewers. Not having seen this adaptation in its entirety (admittedly, its 1500 minute run-time is a factor; I’m not good with arithmetic, but I believe that’s somewhere more than half a work-week), I cannot comment on it. It does bear noting that, despite its popularity, the liberties taken with the original source material have been decried in more than one circle, and Graham himself initially loathed it. He was particularly put out — “livid” is the word his daughter used — with the portrayal of Demelza, a character based upon his own wife, who had been converted from the vivacious tomboy of Graham’s books into a sexually loose floozy in the television adaptation. Graham wished to stop the series from airing, worried that his novels would be devolved into bad romance, but as he had no editorial control, this was not possible. He was allowed input, however, when the saga went into the second series, and eventually “came to embrace the show.”1
Forty years later, the BBC is having another go at the Poldark saga. This adaptation I have seen (well, the first three episodes so far), so have been granted license (by myself) to hold forth about it. The production value is good, as one has come to expect from Masterpiece Theatre costume dramas. The dirt and hardscrabble are not particularly glossed: the teeth of Poldark’s manservant, Jud, make one want to vault headlong into the dentist’s chair for a good scraping, and Demelza’s clothes were enough to provoke a sonnet penned in praise of my high efficiency washing machine. The gap between the haves and have-nots is adeptly portrayed, and the class struggle in Georgian Cornwall feels like a character in and of itself. Ross Poldark bridges these two worlds — we see him dancing gavottes with his fellow gentry and working side-by-side in the mines with his tenants. Aidan Turner and his amazing abs star as Ross, and he seems to strike the right balance between brooding/quick-tempered and kind/infallible moral compass. He appears to have an easier time doing right by those not of his station than observing the niceties requisite for acceptance by his society peers. His noblesse oblige is boundless, and while he’s certainly not without his faults and flaws, there’s no doubt that here is hero material — his charity towards those less fortunate, sometimes at great cost to himself, is a defining feature. His lost lady-love, Elizabeth (Heida Reed) seems a less auspicious casting choice. The Elizabeth of the books is fair-haired and perfectly beautiful, a porcelain doll representation in three dimensions of aristocratic womanhood. The brunette Reed does have beautiful skin, but she doesn’t manage much more than distressed looks in Ross’s direction and hushed conversations, with the occasional haughty mean-girl sucker-punch, leaving the viewer wondering, more than once, what Ross sees in her. Francis Poldark (Kyle Soller) is suitably weak in character, while Jack Farthing as George Warleggan is just as suitably viperous. Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), as was her predecessor in the 1970s adaptation (Angharad Rees), has been converted into a redhead, since what more is needed to convey a feisty, impulsive nature? Luckily, Tomlinson has more than her red locks to recommend her, and she manages with aplomb Demelza’s transformation from filthy urchin replete with “crawlers” (lice and fleas) to vibrant love interest. Jud (Philip Davis) and his wife, Prudie (Beatie Edney), round things out by providing short bursts of comic relief which, it must be admitted, really aren’t that funny. (Constant loutishness and drunken domestic violence — what a knee-slapper!) It might also bear mentioning that there isn’t much fodder here for those of a feminist stripe. The female characters are believable products of their time: the course of their lives depends entirely upon the men who take them under their care (or abuse them, as the case may be). The resulting characterization arcs for the Poldark women are unsurprising.
Cornwall as setting has been portrayed as a brooding place with dark ambiance (think the novels of Daphne du Maurier and their film adaptations), but the Poldark series doesn’t fit this mold. While the Cornish coastal cliffs can look intimidating, there are plenty of sunlit scenes and fields of wildflowers. A Guardian article noted that “with corsets, horses and green fields sweeping to the edge of sun-speckled sea, Poldark offers much of what mainstream viewers now seem to want.”2 There is, in short, more than enough going on visually to hold the viewer’s attention. Especially, it must be noted, if that viewer is (like your humble author) a woman. As a New York Times reviewer put it, “the main thrust of the story, even more than in the original series, is simply the presentation of Ross Poldark as the noblest, hottest, most down-to-earth hero who ever rallied the troops or scythed a field shirtless and in slow motion.”3 I can attest to at least the last statement; I was running on the treadmill when first I viewed this scene (described by one female reviewer as “the most brilliant scene ever written, produced, or directed for television”4) and I almost shot off the back and left my imprint in the wall behind me. There is an obvious, conscious choice to put a little something for the ladies in this series (other scenes include Turner naked sea-bathing). I was only slightly deterred when I finally placed where I had seen Turner before — as a ridiculously lovelorn dwarf in The Hobbit. Drooling aside, these cinematographic choices are notable for the fact that they’re blatant enough to spawn opinion pieces on the evils of objectifying male actors…for once.5
Moving on from eye candy and voyeurism, one thing that struck me as perhaps a bit incongruous about this adaptation is that it seems almost to have a split personality. On the one hand, there’s plenty of romantic melodrama, Ross smoldering, themes of love and loss and longing and monstrous jealousy. It has much that will appeal to fans of the bodice-ripper. On the other hand, the series seems to take a minute interest in business dealings and economics, the ins and outs of mines and wages and speculation, the Poldark and Warleggan empire-building. It’s not that the two can’t go hand in hand, it’s simply that this adaptation doesn’t seem to be able to meld them with fluidity —at least, not so far. This may be where the television adaptation struggles the most with Graham’s original material.
The series has already aired in Britain, garnering an estimated eight million viewers for its season finale episode alone. Thus, it will come as no surprise that it’s been picked up for a second series. I’ll certainly be finishing out the first, as soon as ever PBS will stream them to me. I understand in future episodes, more scything goes on.
- Johnson, Angela. (7 March 2015) “Why Poldark Writer Hated ‘Slutty’ Demelza’.” The Daily Mail. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2984357/Why-Poldark-writer-hated-BBC-s-slutty-Demelza-Creator-furious-promiscuous-portrayal-servant-based-wife.html
- Lawson, Mark. (6 March 2015) “Poldark, A 40-Year-Old Series Set in 18th-Century Cornwall, Was Ripe for a Remake.” The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/mar/06/poldark-a-40-year-old-series-set-in-18th-century-cornwall-was-ripe-for-a-remake
- Hale, Mike. (19 June 2015) “Review: ‘Poldark’ on PBS’s ‘Masterpiece’.” The New York Times. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/20/arts/television/review-poldark-on-pbss-masterpiece.html?_r=0
- O’Keefe, Meghan. (6 July 2015) “‘Poldark’ Recap: Poldark Took His Shirt Off.” The Decider. Available from: http://decider.com/2015/07/06/poldark-s1-ep3-recap/
- Jones, Alice. (3 April 2015) “Poldark May Be Hunky, But He Shouldn’t Be Objectified.” The Independent. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/it-doesnt-matter-if-a-mans-hunky-like-poldark–no-one-should-be-objectified-10154739.html
About the contributor: BETHANY LATHAM is a professor, librarian, and Managing Editor of HNR. She publishes in various scholarly and popular journals, as well as writing for EBSCO’s NoveList database. She serves as Internet Editor and a regular reviewer for Reference Reviews.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 73, August 2015