“POLDARK” Series One (1975): Episodes Thirteen to Sixteen

“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (1975): EPISODES THIRTEEN TO SIXTEEN

The fourth novel in Winston Graham’s “POLDARK” literary series, “Warleggan: A Novel of Cornwall, 1792-1793” (1953)proved to be a big game changer in the saga. The novel featured the death of a major character, which in turn, led to some surprising schisms within the family of the saga’s protagonist, Revolutionary War veteran and Cornish landowner Ross Poldark. More importantly, “Warleggan” also featured a major controversy that proved to be quite a challenge for the BBC’s adaptation of the novel. 

Producers Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn adapted “Warleggan” in Episodes Thirteen to Sixteen, the last four episodes of the series that aired in 1975. Ironically, this adaptation began where Episode Twelve left off – with Demelza Carne Poldark going into labor, as she reached the beach after interrupting a fishing trip. In the following scene, Ross, Demelza and their servants toasted the birth of the family’s newest member, Jeremy Poldark. At that point, the series’ adaptation of “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791” ended and its adaptation of “Warleggan”. Confused? I was after viewing the first five minutes of Episode Thirteen.

Not much really occurred in Episode Thirteen . . . at first. The romance between Dr. Dwight Enys and heiress Caroline Penvenen continued, despite her engagement to aspiring politician Unwin Trevaunance. Francis Poldark, Ross’ younger cousin, seemed to have a new lease on life now that the two cousins have reconciled and invested in an old Poldark copper mine, Wheal Grace. The only black spot in Francis’ life was his failed marriage with Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark. Despite his renewed relationship with Francis, a new son and the investment in Wheal Grace; Ross’ problems have not ended. He remained in debt. He continued to allow a local smuggling ring to use the cove on his land to hide goods. And his feelings toward Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark remained strong as ever. Elizabeth seemed to share his feelings. However, the episode ended on a tragic note when Francis fell and drowned, while investigating Wheal Grace for copper. Although grief-stricken over Francis’ death, Ross sold his Wheal Leisure shares and handed over 600 pounds (the same amount that Francis had invested in Wheal Grace) to financially help Elizabeth and her son, Geoffrey Charles. This act not only angered Demelza, but also increased her hostility toward her cousin-in-law.

The Poldark family drama took a back seat in Episode Fourteen. Instead, this episode focused on Wheal Grace and Ross’ involvement with the local smuggling ring. In the wake of Francis’ death, Ross traveled to France to question fugitive Mark Daniels about the copper ore that the latter had allegedly discovered while hiding from the law back in Episode Eight. However, Ross found it difficult to get any information, due to Mark’s bad health continuing obsession over his murder of his wife, Keren. During this time, Dwight Enys and Caroline Penvenen finally decided to elope. Unfortunately, Dwight discovers that a local man named Charlie Kempthorne had betrayed the smugglers to Captain McNeil and the militia. He sacrificed his marital plans with Caroline to warn the smugglers and Ross, who had just returned from France. The latter managed to evade being arrested by McNeil by hiding inside the Nampara manor.

While Ross dealt with his concerns over Wheal Grace and Trencomb’s smuggling operation, his nemesis George Warleggan courted the impoverished Elizabeth Poldark before finally proposing marriage to her. Elizabeth informed Ross about her upcoming nuptials in a letter. This drove Ross to ignore Demelza’s pleas to stay home and confront his widowed cousin-in-law at Trenwith about the engagement. Elizabeth made it clear that she intends to marry George. In retaliation, Ross took her by surprise by raping her. When he returned to Nampara the following morning, Demelza angrily guessed that Ross had sex with Elizabeth. Angry over his infidelity, Demelza accepted an invitation to a party hosted by Sir Hugh Bodugran. She planned to pay back Ross’ infidelity by having sex with Captain McNeil. However, at the last minute, Demelza could not go through with it and was forced to prevent herself from being raped by McNeil with a blow to his nether regions. And to avoid being sexually assaulted by Sir Hugh and another guest, she climbed out of the window and returned to Nampara.

The adaptation of “Warleggan” ended in Episode Sixteen. By this time, Elizabeth has married George, yet the couple continued to live at Trenwith. George closed off the Trenwith lands from its tenants against Elizabeth’s advice. Meanwhile, Demelza and Ross’ marriage deteriorated even further . . . to the point that she made plans to leave him and return to her father’s home. Discovering that Ross had went to Trenwith to castigate George for the enclosure of the estate, Demelza headed there as well. Not long after her arrival, both Demelza and Ross found themselves protecting George, Elizabeth and the other inhabitants at Trenwith from a mob bent upon expressing their displeasure at the enclosure. Although everyone got away – aside from a few servants, the mob burned Trenwith to the ground. By the end of the episode, the War of the First Coalition had started. Dwight Eyns joined the Royal Navy as a ship’s surgeon following his aborted elopement with Caroline. After fleeing the burnt out Trenwith manor together, Ross and Demelza finally reconciled on the beach before he could report to his regiment.

There were many aspects of Episodes Thirteen to Sixteen that I enjoyed or admired. I found the performances rather first-rate. Although there were moments that Robin Ellis’ portrayal of Ross Poldark struck me as cold and stiff, overall, I thought he gave a great performance – especially in Episodes Fifteen and Sixteen. Both he and Angharad Rees really stood out in one scene from Episode Sixteen in which they had a serious quarrel over his night with Elizabeth. The latter was also excellent in her scenes with actor Donald Douglas, who portrayed Captain McNeil. Episode Thirteen marked Clive Francis’ last performance as the doomed Francis Poldark. I realize that I have not always been that impressed by his performance in past episodes. That was due to the limited scenes given to him in the series’ first four episodes. But I thought Francis gave an excellent performance in his last episode – especially in his scenes with Rees and Jill Townsend. As always, the latter gave an excellent performance as Elizabeth Poldark Warleggan – especially in one scene with actress Norma Streader – in which Elizabeth expressed her disenchantment with the Poldark family to her sister-in-law, Verity Poldark Blamey. And Ralph Bates continued his smooth and cool performance as the ambitious George Warleggan, who seemed hellbent upon claiming Elizabeth as his wife and getting his hands on Poldark land.

The four episodes also marked memorable performances from Richard Morant and Judy Geeson, who continued to create sparks in their portrayal of the Dwight Enys-Caroline Penvenen romance. Donald Douglas gave a very lively and a times, rather intimidating performance as the Scottish-born militia officer, Captain McNeil. Pip Miller gave a very intense performance as Mark Daniels’ brother, Paul. And Martin Fisk returned to give a very poignant and effective performance as the dying fugitive, Mark Daniels. Other memorable performances also came from Patrick Holt (whose character’s name has been changed from Ray Penvenen to Benjamin Penvenen), Norma Streader as Verity Blamey, Mary Wimbush as Prudie Paynter, Peta Mason as Rosina Hoblyn and David Garfield as Jacka Hoblyn.

Episodes Thirteen to Fifteen also featured some memorable scenes and sequences. One interesting scene in Episode Thirteen featured Ross’ visit to Trenwith following Francis’ death and a rather poignant conversation between him and recently widowed Elizabeth, thanks to superb performances from Robin Ellis and Jill Townsend. I was rather surprised and impressed by how screenwriter Jack Russell and director Paul Annett utilized three separate story lines – Ross’ visit to Mark Daniels in France, Dwight Enys and Caroline Penvenen’s botched elopement, and the smugglers’ conflict with Captain McNeil and the militia – and managed to combine them into a suspenseful episode and strong story. I have already pointed out the scene in Episode Sixteen in which Ellis and Angharad Rees superbly conveyed a bitter quarrel between Ross and Demelza. I thought Annett did an excellent job in directing the mob attack upon Trenwith. I thought it was exciting and very detailed. But the most interesting sequence for me proved to be Sir Hugh Bodrugan’s house party. Thanks to Annett’s direction, I felt as if I was witnessing the upper-classes of 18th century Cornwall at its most decadent.

I had a good deal to praise about the 1975 series’ adaptation of “Warleggan”. But if I must be brutally honest, I did not like it in the end. I did not like it one bit. There were too many changes to Graham’s novel that I either did not like or rubbed me the wrong way. One problem I had with this adaptation was its use of the Verity Blamey character. When the series’ adaptation of “Jeremy Poldark” had failed to introduce Verity’s stepson and stepdaughter, I assumed they would appear in the “Warleggan” adaptation. Unfortunately, Coburn, Barry and Russell felt it unnecessary to provide audiences with a peak into Verity’s personal life with the Blameys. Instead, they used Verity in a scene with Elizabeth, involving a letter announcing the latter’s engagement to George Warleggan – a scene that I heartily disliked. I certainly did not like how the producers and Russell handled Francis Poldark’s death in Episode Thirteen. It seemed . . . rushed. Unnecessarily so. After a minute or two of exploring the depths of Wheal Grace, Francis slipped and felled. The camera then briefly focused on Francis’ dead body before the episode rushed to Ross paying the recently widowed Elizabeth a visit at Trenwith. The episode did not bother to focus on Francis’ struggles to stay alive before he drowned. Nor did it feature Francis’ funeral. I cannot help but feel that if Coburn and Barry had aired Jeremy Poldark’s birth in Episode Twelve – where it belonged – Episode Thirteen could have focused more time on Francis’ death.

I also disliked a scene from Episode Sixteen featured a scene that had Caroline Penvenen playing “Lady Bountiful” to abused and physically disabled Rosina Hoblyns by offering the latter a job as her personal maid. It never happened in the novel and the scene pointed a false portrait of Caroline, who was never that saintly in any of the novels. One other scene from Episode Sixteen had me rolling my eyes with contempt. In it, a still angry Demelza had decided she would leave Ross for good. She planned to leave their two year-old son Jeremy with Verity and Andrew Blamey . . . and return to her father’s home. I found this decision utterly laughable and anachronistic. Demelza was a character in a novel set in the early 1790s, not the mid 1970s. Since she was a woman, there is no way Ross would allow Demelza to dictate their son’s whereabouts without his consent. And since Demelza also had working-class origins, no judge throughout Great Britain would allow her to hand Jeremy over to the Blameys or keep him for herself without Ross’ consent. Chances are if Demelza had insisted upon leaving Ross for good, he would have assumed control over Jeremy and insure that Demelza never set eyes upon their son, while the latter remained a minor.

But what truly made me dislike the 1975 series’ adaptation of “Warleggan” was the manner in which it handled Ross Poldark’s rape of his cousin-in-law, Elizabeth Poldark in Episode Fifteen. I found it abominable. Producers Coburn and Barry, along with screenwriter Russell were willing to show Ross about to rape Elizabeth. The episode ended the scene in the same manner that Winston Graham did – with Ross about to force himself on Elizabeth, inside her bedroom at Trenwith. But Russell made so many changes – before and after the rape – to ensure that viewers would never castigate Ross for the rape.

One, the portrayal of Elizabeth underwent a drastic change in Episode Thirteen, when she was suddenly portrayed as this greedy and cold bitch. Many fans have accused the literary Elizabeth of being cold. Elizabeth was never really cold . . . just reserved. Introverted. Two, screenwriter Jack Russell drastically changed Elizabeth’s reason for marrying George Warleggan. Although she was satisfied with George’s promises of great wealth, more social clout and trips to London; Elizabeth’s true reason was to prevent her life and the lives of her immediate family from abject poverty and to prevent her son Geoffrey Charles from losing Trenwith in the future. This is what she had conveyed to Ross in her letter written to him. This did not happen in the 1975 series. Instead, Elizabeth literally boasted to her sister-in-law Verity that her only reason for accepting George’s proposal was for her to enjoy a life of great wealth. That is what she had conveyed to Ross in her letter. It seemed that Elizabeth was being “set up” to being punished by Ross for her “selfishness and greed”.

Ross read Elizabeth’s letter. He rushed over to Trenwith and tried to insist that she break her engagement to George. Then he raped her. The ironic thing is that the entire scene between Ross and Elizabeth was rushed. The pair barely exchanged three or four sentences before Ross threw her on the bed and proceeded to rape her. The attitude behind this entire rush job seemed to be one of “let’s hurry it up and get this scene over with”. But what happened in Episode Sixteen almost disgusted me as the actual rape did. Jack Russell created this entire scenario of Trenwith’s former tenants marching upon the estate’s manor house, attacking the inhabitants and burning it down. This was never in the novel. Yes, George did enclosed the Trenwith estate from its tenant farmers. But there was no mob scene created by Graham to give Ross the opportunity to play “hero” and save Elizabeth and George from being killed.

Worse, just before the outbreak of attack, Ross confronted the recently married couple about the enclosure. He had the nerve to confront Elizabeth and castigate her for her wedding to George. It . . . was . . . disgusting . . . to watch. I sat in front of my television set and watched a rapist slut shame his victim for marrying his rival. That moment was one of the most misogynist I have ever seen in my life. After Ross had saved Elizabeth and George from the mob, he slut shamed her again with a you are beneath me look, when she asked him why he had bothered to save George. He was disgusted? I was disgusted . . . with producers Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn for sanctioning this piece of misogynist shit. And I was disgusted with Jack Russell for writing it. There was only one scene in the entire four episodes adaptation of “Warleggan” that painted Elizabeth in a positive or sympathetic light – when she criticized George for enclosing the Trenwith land from the tenants. I am glad that the producers and screenwriter were willing to portray Elizabeth being capable of sympathy toward others. But apparently, they were unwilling for television viewers to sympathize with her being raped. Why? Because she was a woman and thanks to the leading man’s obsession with her . . . a threat to his marriage with the leading lady.

And if that was not enough, I found myself wondering if the producers and Russell had found another way to slut shame Elizabeth. I am referring to the scene featuring Demelza’s confrontation with Captain McNeil at Sir Hugh Bodrugan’s party. Following her initial intent to sleep with McNeil, she changed her mind. In the novel, McNeil eventually backed off, realizing that he was not the kind of man to force his unwanted attentions on a woman. In the 1975 adaptation, McNeil came to no such conclusion and tried to rape Demelza. She fought him off by kneeing him in the balls. Then she made her escape. The message I got from this version of Demelza and McNeil’s encounter was a criticism of Elizabeth for failing to fight off Ross, earlier in the story. Russell’s screenplay seemed to hint that Elizabeth could have done the same if she truly wanted Ross out of her bedroom. Hmmm . . . considering that only one or two people have ever complained about this change, I cannot help but realize that our society has truly embraced a rape culture.

I plan to continue my viewing of the 1970s version of the “POLDARK” series. Why? Well, I bought the entire box set for the series. And many people, including myself, believe that the next three novels that follow “Warleggan” are among the best in the series. But I will never like the 1975 adaptation of “Warleggan”. The producers and the screenwriters corrupted Winston Graham’s story and completely changed what he was trying to say about the consequences of rape through the Ross Poldark and Elizabeth Poldark Warleggan characters. For me, Episodes Thirteen to Sixteen were a damn travesty.

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One Response

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