“Ross Poldark and Noblesse Oblige”

“ROSS POLDARK AND NOBLESSE OBLIGE”

“You are mistaken if you think greed and exploitation are the marks of a gentleman.” – Ross Poldark to George Warleggan, “P0LDARK” (2015) 

When I first heard Ross Poldark speak those words to his nemesis, George Warleggan in Episode Eight of the current “POLDARK”series, I found myself wondering if Ross might be full of shit. Or perhaps he was either illusional . . . or a class bigot. Regardless, I could not help but roll my eyes at his remark.

I realize that some might wonder how I could accuse Ross Poldark . . . Ross Poldark of class bigotry. This man has been a champion of the working-class in his little part of Cornwall. He has managed to befriend his workers. He has spoken out on behalf of them and other members of their class. And he has been willing to make any effort to come to their aid – especially those who work on his land, even if he sometimes come off as patronizing. He has certainly expressed anger when he believed any of them has needlessly suffered, due to the actions of the upper-class or other wealthy types. Ross had spent days in a state of drunken anger after one of his former employees, Jim Carter had died after spending over a year in prison for poaching. He had also married his kitchen-maid, Demelza Carne, despite the tongue-wagging of his elite neighbors and family members.

Also, one cannot deny that the Warleggans deserved Ross’ scorn. George Warleggan’s grandfather had been a blacksmith who eventually became a moderately wealthy man. His sons – George’s father and uncle Cary – acquired even more wealth, leading the family to become their parish’s wealthiest bankers. George was the first in his family to be and his family were a money hungry bunch that resort to grasping ways – legal or illegal – to not only acquire money, but also rise up the social ladder in order to become part of Cornwall’s upper-class. They are pretty much an ambitious and venal bunch who do not seemed to give a rat’s ass about the suffering of the lower classes. They also seemed willing to inflict suffering upon them for the sake of greater profits and social respectability. And yet . . . the interesting thing about the Warleggans is that they had managed to acquire great wealth on their own – meaning without the help of some aristocrat or member of the landed gentry.

So, why did I have a problem with Ross’ words? Were viewers really expected to believe that only noveau riche types like the Warleggans were capable of greed and exploitation? History tells us that the landed gentry and the aristocracy were just as guilty of greed and exploiting not only their workers, but their land, despite occasional moments of taking care of those beneath them when times were tough. And yet, I get the feeling that those moments of compassion stemmed from the idea of “noblesse oblige” – people of noble birth being duty bound to take responsibility for the well being of those under their patronage or employment. However, “noblesse oblige” had not prevented aristocrats and members of the landed gentry from engaging in years of exploiting their land, their tenants and their employees; living greedily from their profits, and doing a poor job of managing their money led to a decrease in their wealth. This was the case for Polarks, the Chynoweths and other upper class families – fictional or not – who found themselves cash poor by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. British landowners had been enclosing their lands – forcing tenant farmers to become agricultural laborers – since the late seventeeth century, at least a century before George Warleggan had enclosed the Trenwith estate, following his marriage to Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark. And they continued to do so well into the nineteenth century.

If Ross regarded himself, his uncle Charles Poldark, his cousin Francis Poldark and other members of the landed gentry like Sir Hugh Bodrugan, the Treneglos, Ray Penvenen and Unwin Trevaunance as “gentlemen”, then his comments to George were spoken in error. Most, if not all, of these gentlemen were capable of greed and exploitation. Ross might occasionally criticize the behavior of his fellow members of the upper-class, just as he had did following the death of his former employee, Jim Carter. But he has never expressed antagonism toward them with the same level that he has toward the Warleggans. It is quite obvious that he regarded these men as “gentlemen”. He seemed to have no problems with socializing or forming a business enterprise with them. And if this is the case, I cannot help but wonder about the true reason behind Ross’ antipathy toward the Warleggans.

Had Ross’ antipathy originated with his exposure of the Warleggans’ cousin, Matthew Sanson, as a card cheat? I rather doubt it. Ross and some of his other acquaintances had been making snide comments about the Warleggans’ rise in wealth since the series began. No matter how many times George tried to befriend Ross throughout most of Series One, the latter would dismiss his effort with a sardonic or nasty comment. Yet, Ross seemed to have no problems with socializing with the likes of the snotty Ruth Teague Treneglos and her ineffectual husband; the money grasping blue-blooded politician Unwin Trevaunance, who sought heiress Caroline Penvenen’s hand for her money; or the self-absorbed Sir Hugh Bodrugan, who seemed to have no concern for anyone or anything, aside from his own pleasures – including Demelza Poldark, whom he pursued like some aged satyr. Even Ross is not the epitome of “gentlemanly” sainthood. He seemed so hellbent upon finding a wealthy source of copper or even tin from his mine, Wheal Grace that he failed to consider that he lacked the funds to ensure a safe environment for his workers. This determination to strike a lode without any safety measures led to an accident and the deaths of a few men. And his aggressive, yet adulterous actions against his widowed cousin-in-law (I might as well be frank – his rape of Elzabeth) in the eighth episode of Series Two made it perfectly clear that “gentleman” or not, Ross can be repulsive.

And yet, despite all of this, Ross seemed to regard the Warleggans as an unworthy lot. I am not saying that George and his uncle are a nice bunch. They can be just as repulsive and greedy as their upper-class neighbors. And on several occasions, the Warleggans have made derisive comments about Demelza, who happened to be a miner’s daughter. All this tells me is that contrary to Ross’ comment to George, the latter’s family is no better or worse than the other upper-class characters in the “POLDARK” saga. They are quite capable of being snobs. But what about Ross? Is he a snob? He may be friendly toward his workers and willing to help them out, but his friendly and compassionate regard for them seemed to have a patronizing taint. In fact, his love toward his working-class wife Demelza seemed to have the same taint.

Although his good friend, Dr. Dwight Enys, managed to rise from his working-class background to become a doctor, he did so with the help of upper-class patronage. And Ross provided his own patronage toward Dwight in helping the latter establish a medical practice in their part of Cornwall. Ross even helped Dwight in the latter’s romance with the blue-blooded Caroline Penvenen. I cannot help but wonder if the Warleggans had the benefit of “noblesse oblige” – namely an upper-class mentor to guide them in their rise to great wealth, would Ross have been less hostile toward them?

Perhaps it is one thing for Ross Poldark to help the lower classes have a better life – by offering them jobs or homes, providing patronage for someone with potential like Dwight Enys, or marrying his kitchen maid. It is another thing – at least for him – to tolerate people from the lower classes like the Warleggans to rise up in wealth through their own efforts and not via the benefit of the “noblesse oblige”. And my gut instinct tells me that the Warleggans’ rise via their own grit, ambition and brains was something that Ross could not stomach.

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“POLDARK” Series One (2015): Episodes Five to Eight

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“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (2015): EPISODES FIVE TO EIGHT

Within the past year, I had developed a major interest in author Winston Graham’s 1945-2002 “POLDARK” literary saga and the two television adaptations of it. Series One of the second adaptation produced by Debbie Horsfield, premiered on the BBC (in Great Britain) and PBS (in the United States) last year. Consisting of eight episodes, Series One of “POLDARK” was an adaptation of 1945’s “Ross Poldark – A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787” and the 1946 novel, “Demelza – A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790”. Whereas Episodes One to Four adapted the 1945 novel, Episodes Five to Eight adapted the 1946 novel.

Episode Four left off with the death of Ross Poldark’s uncle, Charles; leaving Trenwith, the family’s premiere estate, in the hands of his cousin Francis. Ross’ former kitchen maid and new bride, Demelza Carne Poldark, formed a friendship with Francis’ sister Verity and accompanied Ross to a rather tense Christmas celebration at Trenwith, which was further marred by an unexpected appearance of the noveau-riche Warleggan family and friends. Ross also learned that copper had been discovered inside his mine and that Demelza had become pregnant with their first child.

Episode Five began several months later with the arrival of a traveling theater company that includes a young actress named Keren, who attracts the attention of miner Mark Daniels. The episode also marked the arrival of two other players – Dwight Enys, a former British Army officer and doctor, who happens to be a former comrade of Ross’; and young Julia Poldark, whose birth interrupted her parents’ enjoyment of the traveling theater company’s performance. The four episodes featured a good number of events and changes in Ross Poldark’s life. Julia’s birth led to a riotous christening in which he and Demelza had to deal with unexpected guests. Francis lost his fortune and his mine to George Warleggan’s cousin Matthew Sanson at a gaming party. Ross learned that his former employee Jim Carter was seriously ill at the Bodomin Jail and tried to rescue the latter with Dwight Enys’ help. The tragic consequences of their attempt led to Ross’ ill nature at the Warleggan’s ball. Dwight drifted into an affair with Keren Daniels, with tragic results.

Ross and several other mine owners created the Carnmore Copper Company in an effort to break the Warleggans’ stranglehold on the mineral smelting business, while Demelza plotted to resurrect her cousin-in-law Verity Poldark’s romance with Captain Andrew Blamey. The success of her efforts led to an estrangement between Ross and Frances. Demelza’s matchmaking also led to financial disaster for her husband’s new business venture. A Putrid’s Throat epidemic struck the neighborhood, affecting Francis, Elizabeth and their son Geoffrey Charles. Not long after Demelza had nursed them back to health, both she and Julia were stricken by disease. The season ended with a series of tragic and tumultuous events. Although Demelza recovered, Julia succumbed to Putrid’s Throat. The Warleggans’ merchant ship wrecked off the coast of Poldark land and Ross alerted locals like Jud and Prudie Paynter to salvage any goods that wash up on the shore. This “salvaging” led to violence between those on Poldark lands and neighboring miners and later, both against local military troops. One of the victims of the shipwreck turned out to be the Warleggans’ cousin, Matthew Sanson. After Ross insulted Sanson’s death in George Warleggan’s face, the season ended with the latter arranging for Ross’ arrest for inciting the riot.

I must admit that I liked these next four episodes a bit more than I did the first quartet. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed those first episodes very much. But Episodes Five to Eight not only deepened the saga – naturally, considering a they were continuation of the first four – but also expanded the world of Ross Poldark.

One of the aspects of Series One’s second half that caught both my attention and my admiration was the production’s continuing portrayal of Britain’s declining economic situation during the late 18th century . . . especially for the working class. Both Episodes Five and Seven featured brief scenes that conveyed this situation. In Episode Five; Ross, Demelza and Verity encounter a starving family on the road to Turo, begging for food or money. A second brief scene in Episode Seven featured Demelza baking bread and later, dispersing it to the neighborhood’s starving poor. However, the series also featured bigger scenes that really drove home the dire economic situation. Upon reaching Truro in Episode Five, both Demelza and Verity witnessed a riot that broke out between working-class locals and the militia when the former tried to access the grain stored inside Matthew Sanson’s warehouse. I found the sequence well shot by director William McGregor. The latter also did an excellent job in the sequence that featured locals like the Paynters ransacking much needed food and other goods that washed ashore from the Warleggans’ wrecked ship. I was especially impressed by how the entire sequence segued from Ross wallowing in a state of grief over his daughter’s death before spotting the shipwreck to the militia’s violent attempt to put down the riot that had developed between the tenants and miners on Ross’ land and locals from other community.

Even the upper-classes have felt the pinch of economic decline, due to the closing and loses of mines across the region and being in debt to bankers like the Warleggans. Following the discovery of copper inside his family’s mine in Episode Four, Ross seemed destined to avoid such destitution. Not only was he able to afford a new gown and jewels for Demelza to wear at the Warleggan ball in Episode Six, he used his profits from the mine to create a smelting company – the Carnmore Copper Company – with the assistance of other shareholders in an effort to break the Warleggans’ monopoly on the local mining industry. One cannot say the same for his cousin Francis, who continued to skirt on the edge of debt, following his father’s death. Unfortunately, Francis wasted a good deal of his money on gambling and presents for the local prostitute named Margaret. In a scene that was not in the novel, but I found both enjoyable and very effective, he lost both his remaining fortune and his mine, Wheal Grambler, to the Warleggans’ cousin, Matthew Sanson, at a gaming party. But this was not the end of the sequence. Thanks to director William McGregor and Horsfield’s script. The sequence became even more fascinating once the Poldarks at Trenwith learned of Francis’ loss, especially Elizabeth. And it ended on a dramatic level with Francis being forced to officially close Wheal Grambler in front a crowd. I realize the sequence was not featured in Graham’s novel, but if I must be honest; I thought Horsfield’s changes really added a good deal of drama to this turn of events. Not only did McGregor shot this sequence rather well, I really have to give kudos to Kyle Soller, who did an excellent job in portraying Francis at his nadir in this situation; and Heida Reed, who did such a superb job conveying the end of Elizabeth’s patience with her wayward husband with a slight change in voice tone, body language and expression.

I was also impressed by other scenes in Series One’s second half. The christening for Ross and Demelza’s new daughter, Julia, provided some rather hilarious moments as their upper-crust neighbors met Demelza’s religious fanatic of a father and stepmother. Thanks to Harriet Ballard and Mark Frost’s performances, I especially enjoyed the confrontation between the snobbish Ruth Treneglos and the blunt Mark Carne. It was a blast. Ross and Dwight’s ill-fated rescue of a seriously ill Jim Carter from the Bodmin Jail was filled with both tension and tragedy. Tension also marked the tone in one scene which one of the Warleggans’ minions become aware of the newly formed Carnmore Copper Company during a bidding session. Another scene that caught my interest featured George Warleggan’s successful attempt at manipulating a very angry Francis into revealing the names of shareholders in Ross’ new cooperative . . . especially after the latter learned about his sister Verity’s elopement with Andrew Blamey. Both Soller and Jack Farthing gave excellent and subtle performances in this scene. Once again, McGregor displayed a talent for directing large scenes in his handling of the sequence that featured the wreck of the Warleggans’ ship, the Queen Charlotte, and both the looting and riot on the beach that followed. Series One ended on a dismal note with Ross and Demelza dealing with the aftermath of young Julia’s death and Ross’ arrest by the militia for leading the beach riot. Although I found the latter scene a bit of a throwaway, I was impressed by the scene featuring a grieving Ross and Demelza, thanks to the excellent performances from series leads, Aidan Turner and Elinor Tomlinson.

If there is one sequence that I really enjoyed in Series One of “POLDARK”, it was the Warleggan ball featured in Episode Six. Ironically, not many people enjoyed it. They seemed put out by Ross’ boorish behavior. I enjoyed it. Ross seemed in danger of becoming a Gary Stu by this point. I thought it was time that audiences saw how unpleasant he can be. And Turner did such an excellent job in conveying that aspect of Ross’ personality. He also got the chance to verbally cross swords with Robin Ellis’ Reverend Dr. Halse for the second time. Frankly, it was one of the most enjoyable moments in the series, so far. Both Turner and Ellis really should consider doing another project together. The segment ended with not only an argument between Ross and Demelza that I found enjoyable, but also a rather tense card game between “our hero” and the Warleggans’ cousin Matthew Sanson that seemed enriched by performances from both Turner and Jason Thorpe.

I wish I had nothing further to say about Episodes to Eight of Series One. I really do. But . . . well, the episodes featured a good number of things to complain about. One, there were two sequences in which Horsfield and McGregor tried to utilize two scenes by showing them simultaneously. Episode Seven featured a segment in which both Demelza and Elizabeth tried to prevent a quarrel between two men in separate scenes – at the same time. And Episode Eight featured a segment in which both Ross and Demelza tried to explain the circumstances of their financial downfall (the destruction of the Carnmore Copper Company and Verity Poldark’s elopement) to each other via flashbacks . . . and at the same time. Either Horsfield was trying to be artistic or economic with the running time she had available. I do not know. However, I do feel that both sequences were clumsily handled and I hope that no such narrative device will be utilized in Series Two.

I have another minor quibble and it has to do with makeup for both Eleanor Tomlinson and Heida Reed. In Episode Eight, the characters for both actresses – Demelza Poldark and Elizabeth Poldark – had been stricken by Putrid’s Throat. Both characters came within an inch of death. Yet . . . for the likes of me, I found the production’s different handling of the makeup for both women upon their recovery from Putrid’s Throat rather odd. Whereas Elizabeth looked as if she had recently recovered from a serious illness or death (extreme paleness and dark circles under the eyes), the slight reddish tints on Demelza’s face made her looked as if she had recently recovered from a cold. Winston Graham’s portrayal of Demelza has always struck me as a bit too idealized. In fact, she tends to come off as a borderline Mary Sue. And both the 1970s series and this recent production are just as guilty in their handling of Demelza’s character. But this determination to make Demelza look beautiful – even while recovering from a near fatal illness – strikes me as completely ridiculous.

If there is one aspect of this second group of Series One’s episodes that really troubled me, it was the portrayal of traveling actress Keren Smith Daniels and her affair with Dr. Dwight Enys. After viewing Debbie Horsfield’s portrayal of the Keren Daniels character, I found myself wondering it Debbie Horsfield harbored some kind of whore/Madonna mentality. Why on earth did she portray Keren in such an unflattering and one-dimensional manner? Instead of delving into Keren’s unsatisfaction as Mark Daniels’ wife and treating her as a complex woman, Horsfield ended up portraying her as some one-dimensional hussy/adultress who saw Dwight as a stepping stone up the social ladder. Only in the final seconds of Keren’s death was actress Sabrina Barlett able to convey the character’s frustration with her life as a miner’s wife. Worse, Horsfield changed the nature of Keren’s death, by having Mark accidentally squeeze her to death during an altercation, instead of deliberately murdering her. Many had accused Horsfield of portraing Keren in this manner in order to justify Mark’s killing of her, along with Ross and Demelza’s decision to help him evade the law. Frankly, I agree. I find it distasteful that the portrayal of a character – especially a female character – was compromised to enrich the heroic image of the two leads – especially the leading man. Will this be the only instance of a supporting character being compromised for the sake of the leading character? Or was Horsfield’s portrayal of Keren Daniels the first of such other unnecessary changes to come?

Despite my disppointment with the portrayal of the Keren Daniels character and her affair with Dwigh Enys and a few other aspects of the production, I had no problems with Episode Five to Eight of Series One for “POLDARK”. If I must be honest, I enjoyed it slightly more than I did the first four episodes. With the adaptation of “Demelza – A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790” complete, I am curious to see how Debbie Horsfield and her production staff handle the adaptation of Winston Graham’s next two novels in his literary series.

The 18th Century in Television

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Recently, I noticed there were a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 18th century. In fact, I managed to count at least six productions. Astounded by this recent interest in that particular century, I decided to list them below in alphabetical order:

THE 18TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

banished

1. “Banished” (BBC TWO) – I do not whether this is a miniseries or regular series, but it is basically about a penal colony in New South Wales, Australia; where British convicts and their Royal Navy marine guards and officers live. Russell Tovey, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and MyAnna Buring star.

black sails

2. “Black Sails” (STARZ) – Toby Stephens stars in this prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”, about the adventures of Captain Flint.

book of negroes

3. “Book of Negroes” (CBC/BET) – This six-part miniseries is an adaptation of Lawrence Hill historical novel about a West African girl who is sold into slavery around the time of the American Revolution and her life experiences in the United States and Canada. Aunjanue Ellis, Lyriq Bent and Cuba Gooding, Jr. star.

outlander

4. “Outlander” (STARZ) – This series is an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” book series about a 1940s woman who ends up traveling back in time to 18th century Scotland. Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies star.

poldark

5. “Poldark” (BBC ONE) – Aidan Turner and Elizabeth Tomlinson star in this new television adaptation of Winston Graham’s book series about a former British Army officer who returns home to Cornwall after three years fighting in the American Revolution.

sons of liberty

6. “Sons of Liberty” (HISTORY Channel) – Ben Barnes, Rafe Spall and Henry Thomas starred in this three-part miniseries about the Sons of Liberty political group and the beginning of the American Revolution.

turn - washington spies

7. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (AMC) – Jamie Bell stars in this series about a pro-American spy ring operating on behalf of General George Washington during the American Revolution.