“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (2015): EPISODES ONE TO FOUR
In the years between 2010 and 2015, I have not been able to stumble across a new British period drama that really impressed me. Five years. That is a hell of a long time for a nation with a sterling reputation for period dramas in both movies and television. Fortunately, the five-year dry spell finally came to an end (at least for me) with the arrival of “POLDARK”, the BBC’s new adaptation of Winston Graham’s literary series.
I am certain that some people would point out that during this five-year period, the ITV network aired Julian Fellowes’ family drama, “DOWNTON ABBEY”. I must admit that I enjoyed the series’ first season. But Seasons Two to Six merely sunk to a level of mediocrity and questionable writing. I had never warmed to “RIPPER STREET” or “THE HOUR”. And I have yet to see either “PEAKY BLINDERS” or “INDIAN SUMMERS”.
A few years ago, I had tried a stab at the first episode of the 1975-1977 series, “POLDARK”, which starred Robin Ellis. After viewing ten minutes of theatrical acting and dated photography in Episode One on You Tube, I gave up. Last summer, I read all of the hullaballoo surrounding this new adaptation with Aidan Turner in the lead. Utilizing Netflix, I tried my luck again with the 1975 series and ended up enjoying the first four episodes (I have yet to watch any further episodes) and quite enjoyed it. Then I tried the first two episodes of the 2015 series and found it equally enjoyable. I enjoyed both versions so much that I took the trouble to purchase both the entire 1975-77 series and the first series of the new version. In fact, I have decided to watch both versions simultaneously. But I am here to discuss the first four episodes of the 2015 series.
Series One of “POLDARK” . . . well the 2015 version . . . is based upon Winston Graham’s first two novels in the saga – 1945’s “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787” and 1946’s “Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790”. Episodes One to Four seemed to be an adaptation of the 1945 novel. The series begins with a young Ross Poldark serving with the British Army in 1781 Virginia, during the American Revolution. During an attack by American troops, Ross is struck unconscious in the head by a rifle butt. The episode jumps two years later with Ross returning home to Cornwall by traveling coach. He learns from a fellow coach passenger and later, his Uncle Charles Poldark at the latter’s Trenwith estate that his father had died broke. More bad news follow with Ross’ discovery that his lady love, Elizabeth Chynoweth, became engaged to Charles’ son, his cousin Francis, after receiving news of his “death”. The only possessions Ross has left is his father’s estate, the smaller estate Nampara, which is now in ruins, two copper mines that had been closed for some time and two servants – the drunken Jud and Prudie Paynter – to help him work the estate. Even worse, a family named Warleggan, who had risen from being blacksmiths to bankers, were gaining financial control over the neighborhood. Not long after his decision to remain in Cornwall, Ross rescues a miner’s daughter named Demelza Carne from a mob trying to use her dog Garrick as part of a vicious dogfight. Taking pity on her, he decides to hire her as his new kitchen maid.
There have been a few complaints that this first season for the new “POLDARK” series had moved a bit too fast, in compared to the first one in 1975. After all, the latter spanned sixteen episodes in compare to the eight ones for this new first season. However, what many failed to consider is that the first series from 1975 had adapted four novels ranging from “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787” to Graham’s fourth novel, 1953’s “Warleggan”. Granted, the Demelza Carne character was first introduced in this version’s first episode, whereas she was introduced in the second episode of the 1975 series. This did not bother me at all . . . in compare to some other viewers.
There were other changes that did not bother me. Many have commented on the warmer nature of Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark, Ross’ former love and cousin-in-law. Frankly, I am glad that showrunner Debbie Horsfield had decided to go this route with Elizabeth. Unlike many, I have never considered Elizabeth’s character to be cold. Considering that Elizabeth was never a cold parent, I found it difficult to conceive her as a cold woman. I have always suspected that she was simply a very internalized character who kept her emotions close to her chest. Although actress Heida Reed portrayed Elizabeth as a reserved personality, the screenplay allowed more of her emotions to be revealed to the audience in compare to Winston Graham’s first four novels. Elizabeth’s erroneous decision to marry Francis and her personality flaws – namely her penchant for clinging to society’s rules – remained intact. But she was not portrayed as some walking icicle in a skirt, even though a good number of fans had a problem with this. I did not. I never saw the need to demand for this icy portrayal of Elizabeth in order to justify Ross’ love for Demelza. Apparently, neither did Horsfield. Some viewers have complained about Elizabeth’s husband, Francis Poldark, as well. He seemed too weak and hostile in compare to Graham’s portrayal of Francis in his novels. First of all, Francis never really struck me as a strong character to begin with. And thanks to the screenplay and Kyle Soller’s performance, Francis began the series as a rather nice young man who seemed genuinely relieved that Elizabeth had decided to continue with their wedding plans, despite Ross’ return from America. But it was easy to see how his character began its downward spiral, starting with the villainous George Warleggan’s poisonous insinuations that Ross and Elizabeth still had feelings for one another. And when you combine that with Charles Poldark’s equally negative comments regarding his nature, it was not difficult to see how Francis allowed his insecurities to eventually get the best of him.
Horsfield certainly stayed true to the story arc regarding the romance between Francis’ sister Verity Poldark and a hot-tempered sea captain named Captain Blamey. I must be honest . . . I have slightly mixed feelings about the whole matter. A part of me recognized Verity’s loneliness and the fact that her family seemed willing to use her spinster state as an excuse to nearly regulate her to the status of a housekeeper. My problem with this story arc is Captain Blamey. Why oh why did Graham made a character who had killed his wife in a fit of alcoholic rage during a domestic quarrel? When I first learned about his background, I could easily see why Charles and Francis Poldark were so against the idea of Verity becoming romantically involved in this guy. Yes, I realize that people need a second chance in life. Yes, I realized that Blamey was honest about his alcoholism and the details surrounding his wife’s death. But he became the first sympathetically portrayed male character who ends up committing an act of violence against a woman. The first of . . . how many? Two? Three? Frankly, I find this rather disturbing coming from a politically liberal writer like Graham, let alone any other writer.
But if there is one aspect of Graham’s saga that I wish Horsfield had not so faithfully adapted, it was the series of circumstances that led to Ross’ wedding to his kitchen maid, Demelza. By the beginning of Episode Three, audiences became aware of Demelza’s unrequited love for Ross. Audiences also became aware of Ross’ growing dependence of her presence in his household. I find this understandable, considering that both Jud and Prudie proved to be questionable servants. However, two things happened. First of all, one of Ross’ field hands, Jim Carter, got arrested for poaching on the property belonging to another landowner named Sir Hugh Bodrugan. Ross tried to prevent Jim from being sent to prison. Unfortunately, his temper got the best of him at Jim’s trial and he ended up in a heated debate with the narrow-minded judge, Reverend Halse. Meanwhile, Demelza received word from her abusive and newly religious father that he wanted her back in his home after hearing rumors that she and Ross were having an affair. So what happened? Demelza decided to spend her last day appreciating the finer household goods at Nampara . . . while wearing a gown that once belonged to Ross’ late mother. A drunken Ross returns home, finds her in his mother’s gown, chastises her before she seduces him into having sex. A day or so later, Ross decides to marry her in a private wedding ceremony with only Jud and Prudie as witnesses.
What on earth was Winston Graham thinking? What was he thinking? I have never come across anything so unrealistic in my life. What led Ross to marry Demelza in the first place? Many fans have tried to put a romantic sheen over the incident, claiming that subconsciously, Ross had already fallen in love with Demelza. Yeah . . . right. I knew better. I knew that Ross did not fall in love with her, until sometime after the wedding. So, why did he marry her? Someone named Tim Vicary posted a theory that Ross, drunk and still angry over Jim Carter being imprisoned, had married Demelza as a way of thumbing his nose at the upper-classes, whom he blamed for Jim’s fate. To me, this sounds like Ross had entered matrimony, while having a suppressed temper tantrum. Hmmm . . . this sounds like him. But despite Mr. Vicary’s theory, I still have a problem with the circumstances surrounding Ross and Demelza’s nuptials. Why? Let me put it this way . . . if I had returned home and found my servant roaming around the house wearing the clothes of my dead parent, I would fire that person. Pronto. The only way this sequence could have worked for me was if Ross had fallen in love with Demelza by Episode Three. Ross may have been fond of his kitchen maid and grown used to her presence. But he was not in love with her . . . not at this stage.
I really do not have many other complaints about these first four episodes. Well . . . I have two other complaints. Minor complaints . . . really. There was a scene in Episode Two in which Ross and a prostitute named Margaret discussed Elizabeth’s marriage to Francis. Margaret cheerfully consoled Ross with the prediction that he would find someone who will make him forget Elizabeth. The next scene shifted to Demelza strolling across Nampara with her dog Garrick closely at her heels. Talk about heavy-handed foreshadowing. And if there is nothing I dislike more it is ham-fisted storytelling . . . especially when it promises to be misleading. My other complaint centered around the Ruth Teague character and her mother. I could understand why Ruth would be interested in marrying Ross. He is young, extremely attractive, a member of the upper-class and the owner of his own estate – no matter how dilapidated. But why on earth would Mrs. Teague support her daughter’s desire to become Mrs. Ross Poldark? Despite Ross’ status as a member of the landed gentry and a landowner, he has no fortune. Thanks to his late father, he found himself financially ruined upon his return to Cornwall. Why would Mrs. Teague want someone impoverished as her future son-in-law? Especially when she seemed to be just as ambitious for her daughter as Mrs. Chynoweth was for Elizabeth?
Despite the circumstances surrounding Ross and Demelza’s wedding and that ham-fisted moment in Episode Two, I enjoyed those first four episodes of “POLDARK”. Enormously. Watching them made me realize that Winston Graham had created a rich and entertaining saga about complex characters in a historical setting. I have to confess. My knowledge of Great Britain during the last two decades of the 18th century barely exists. So, watching “POLDARK” has allowed me to become a little more knowledgeable about this particular era in Britain’s history. One, I never knew that Britain’s conflict with and the loss of the American colonies had an economic impact upon the country . . . a negative one, as a matter of fact. I had heard of the United States and France’s economic struggles during this period, but I had no idea that Britain had struggled, as well. More importantly for Cornwall, the price of tin and copper had fallen during the 1770s and 1780s, thanks to this economic depression. This economic struggle contributed to the slow decline of the aristocracy and the landed gentry for Cornish families like the Poldarks and the Chynoweths. I read somewhere that this period also marked the increased rise of Methodism throughout the country. Although this phenomenon will play a bigger role later in the series, Episode Three revealed the first hint through Demelza’s ne’er do well father, who ended up becoming a fanatic Methodist after remarrying a widow with children.
But the heart and soul of this series is the drama that surrounds Ross Poldark and the other major characters in the saga. When I say all of the major characters, I meant it. I realize that many would regard both Ross and his kitchenmaid-turned-bride Demelza as the heart and soul of this saga. Well . . . yes, they are. But so are the other characters – including Francis, his father Charles, Verity, Jud, Prudie Cary Warleggan, Jim and Jinny Carter, Captain Blamey, Ruth Teague and especially George Warleggan and Elizabeth. I found them all fascinating. I especially enjoyed how their stories enriched Ross’ own personal arc.
More importantly, these first four episodes provided some very interesting moments and scenes that left a strong impression . . even now. I am certain that only a few would forget that moment when Ross experienced both joy and disbelief when he reunited with his family after three years. And at the same time, discovered that his lady love had moved past the reports of his death and became engaged to his cousin Francis. Wow, what a homecoming. Other memorable moments featured the first meeting between Ross and Demelza at the local street market and the first meeting between Verity and Captain Blamey at an assembly dance. Despite my feelings regarding the circumstances surrounding Ross and Demelza’s wedding, I must admit that I found her seduction of him rather sexy. The scene featuring Demelza and Verity’s growing friendship in early Season Four struck me as very charming and entertaining. I also enjoyed the Episode Three montage that conveyed how Ross had grown accustomed to Demelza’s presence in his household and her ability to sense any of his particular needs. Another montage that I managed to enjoy, featured the community’s reaction to the couple’s wedding in early Episode Four, the poignant death of Charles Poldark in the same episode and the numerous conversations between Ross and George Warleggan that featured their growing enmity. But there were certain scenes – especially those that featured social gatherings – that stood out for me. They include:
*The assembly ball in Episode Two in which Verity met Captain Blamey for the first time. This scene also featured that very interesting and rather sexy dance between Ross and Elizabeth, which made it clear that the former lovers still harbored feelings for each . . . especially Ross. And this scene also marked the first time in which Francis became suspicious of those feelings, thanks to George’s poisonous insinuations.
*Charles and Francis’ confrontation with Ross regarding the latter’s support of Verity and Blamey’s courtship at Nampara. I found this scene to be very emotionally charged, due to the violent confrontation between Francis and Blamey that resulted in an ill-fated duel. It was capped by Elizabeth’s appearance at Nampara and her revelation that she was pregnant with Francis’ child.
*Ross tries to help his farm hand Jim Carter to avoid a prison sentence for poaching. This scene not only revealed Ross’ inability to control his temper and self-righteousness, but also featured a delicious confrontation between him and the judge, the Reverend Dr. Halse. And here is a lovely tidbit, the latter was portrayed by none other than Robin Ellis, who had portrayed Ross Poldark in the 1975-77.
*Episode Four also featured that marvelous Christmas at Trenwith sequence in which Ross and Demelza visit Francis and Elizabeth for the holidays. The entire cast involved in this sequence did a great job in infusing the tensions between the characters. I especially enjoyed the scene that featured the actual Christmas dinner.
Speaking of the cast, I have no complaints whatsoever. Everyone else have their favorites. But for me, the entire cast seemed to be giving it their all. Caroline Blakiston proved to be very witty as the elderly Aunt Agatha Poldark, who seemed bent upon making the other members of her family uncomfortable with her blunt comments. Warren Clarke gave a very memorable performance as Ross’ Uncle Charles. Unfortunately, he had passed away after filming his last scene in Episode Four. At least he went out with a first-rate role. Richard Harington made a very intense Captain Blamey and Harriet Ballard made an effectively bitchy Ruth Teague. “POLDARK” marked the first time I have ever really paid attention to Pip Torrens, who portrayed Cary Warleggan, George’s uncle. Which is not surprising, since he did a first-rate job in his portrayal of the greedy and venal banker, who seemed to be dismissive of both the upper and working classes. There were times when I could not decide whether to find Jud and Prudie Paynter funny or beneath contempt. This was due to the complex performances given by Phil Davis and Edney. I have already mentioned Robin Ellis, who was wonderfully intimidating and self-righteous as the bigoted Reverend Dr. Halse. Even after nine years away from the camera, he obviously has not lost his touch.
I first saw Ruby Bentall in the 2008 miniseries, “LOST IN AUSTEN”. But if I must be honest, I had barely noticed her. I certainly noticed her poignant and emotional performance as Verity Poldark, Ross’ “Plain Jane” cousin, who seemed doomed to spending the rest of her life serving her father’s and later, her brother’s household. Physically, Jack Farthing looks nothing like the literary George Warleggan from Graham’s novels. And I do not recall his character being featured so prominently in the first two novels. Personally, I do not care. I am really enjoying Farthing’s complex performance as the social climbing George, who seemed to resent the Poldarks’ upper-class status and especially Ross personally. Despite being as much of a greedy bastard as his uncle, Farthing did a great job in conveying George’s more humane nature. Fans have been so busy complaining that Kyle Soller’s portrayal of Ross’ cousin, Francis Polark, is nothing like the literary character, I feel they have been ignoring his superb performance. Personally, I suspect that Soller has been giving the best performance in the series. I have been really impressed by how he transformed Francis from a likable, yet mild young man to an embittered one filled with resentment and insecurities. I found myself wondering why Soller’s performance seemed familiar to me. Then it finally hit me . . . his portrayal of Francis reminded me of Robert Stack’s performance in the 1956 melodrama, “WRITTEN IN THE WIND”. Only Soller will be given the chance to take Francis’ character on another path before the series’ end.
The character of Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark seemed to produce a curious reaction from fans of Graham’s literary series. From my exploration of the Internet, I have noticed that many fans either tend to ignore the two actresses who have portrayed her – Heida Reed and Jill Townsend in the 1970s series – or criticize their performances. For this particular series, I feel that Reed has been knocking it out of the ballpark in her portrayal of the introverted Elizabeth. Yes, Debbie Horsfield’s production has allowed Reed to express Elizabeth’s inner feelings a bit more prominent to the television audiences. Yet at the same time, the actress managed to perfectly capture the internalized and complex nature of Elizabeth’s character. On the other hand, fans and critics have expressed sheer rapture over Eleanor Tomlinson’s portrayal of Demelza Carne Poldark, the kitchen maid who became Ross’ bride. Well, I certainly believe that Tomlinson is doing a hell of a job portraying the earthy Demelza. What makes me appreciate her performance even more is how she manages to combine Demelza’s feisty personality and the insecurities that lurk underneath.
Before “POLDARK” first aired in Great Britain, many of the country’s media outlets had speculated on whether actor Aidan Turner would be able to live up to Robin Ellis’ portrayal of Ross Poldark from the 1970s. I knew it the moment I had heard he had been cast in the lead of this new series, based upon his previous work in “DESPERATE ROMANTICS” and “THE HOBBIT” film series. And Turner prove me right. He turned out to be the right man for the right role. Turner seems obviously capable of carrying the series on his shoulders. He has a very strong presence and seems quite capable of conveying Ross’ strong will. But more importantly, he is doing a top-notch of portraying not only Ross’ virtues – the will to rebuild his life and especially his compassion for other – but also his personal flaws – namely his temper, his arrogance and self-righteousness (which were on full display during Jim Carter’s trial and his assumption that Demelza would immediately know how to become an upper-class wife), and especially his obsessive nature, which has been directed at Elizabeth ever since his return to Cornwall.
Considering that this article is mainly about the first four episodes of “POLDARK”, I am surprised that I have written such a great deal. To be honest, this series has really impressed me. I have not been this enthused about a story since John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” series and its television adaptation. I suspect that it is not as highly regarded by critics, due to it being labeled a bodice ripper or a turgid melodrama. But for me . . . personally . . . “POLDARK” is more than that. Yes, it is a costumed melodrama. But it is also a good history lesson of life in Britain in the late 18th century. And more importantly, the melodrama and the historical drama serve as effective backdrops to a first-rate story filled with interesting and very complex characters – especially one Ross Poldark. I cannot wait to see how Debbie Horsfield handles the second half of this first season.
Filed under: Book Review, Essay, History, Television | Tagged: aidan turner, american revolution, beatie edney, british empire, caroline blakiston, eleanor tomlinson, georgian era, harriet ballard, heida reed, history, jack farthing, kyle soller, literary, matthew wilson, patrick ryecart, phil davis, pip torrens, poldark, politics, richard harrington, richard hope, robin ellis, ruby bentall, television, warren clarke | Leave a comment »