Monday, February 13, 2012

Poldark: Romance, Adventure, and First-Rate Drama in 18th Century Cornwall

Before Downton Abbey, there was Poldark. Despite having nothing in common in terms of plot and setting, these British television series share a fervid following in Great Britain and America. The difference is that Downton has benefited from today's entertainment-obsessed media. Poldark had to build its following the old-fashioned way through a few glowing reviews and word of mouth. Still, over 35 years since its original broadcast, Poldark remains immensely popular. When the Cafe included it among our 10 Must-See Classic British TV Series, Poldark fans from across the Twitterverse clamored for a review dedicated to their favorite show. So, when Acorn Media released the complete series in a value-priced DVD set on January 31st, it seemed like the ideal time to post a piece on Poldark.

Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark.
Set in late 18th century Cornwall, Winston Graham's sweeping historical drama centers on the Poldark and Warleggan families (although there are plenty of subplots involving other characters). In the opening episode, Captain Ross Poldark, supposedly killed during the American Revolution, returns home to find his father dead, his estate in ruins, and his fiancee Elizabeth about to marry his cousin. Rather than becoming bitter, the resolute Ross (Robin Ellis) sets out to get his affairs in order. His biggest challenge is Elizabeth (Jill Townsend), who still loves Ross but has developed doubts about his "dark side." Elizabeth's rejection of Ross impacts not only their lives, but ultimately those of two other key characters:  Demelza Carne (Angharad Rees), an impoverished young woman employed by Ross, and George Warleggan (Ralph Bates), the ruthless son of a nouveau riche banker.

Th rocky beaches of Cornwall.
The first Poldark series, broadcast in 1975, was based on four novels written by Winston Graham between 1945 and 1953.  Known for his historical accuracy, Graham (who also wrote the novel Marnie) was also an accomplished storyteller capable of interweaving commentary on social injustices, class differences, and politics. For example, although Ross's estate is modest compared to other landowners, it's apparent that he's considered affluent among the the poor residents of coastal Cornwall. The majority of the men work in copper mines, oblivious to the risks to their own health. They sometimes poach from the rich, even though a squalid life in prison awaits anyone who is caught. And they aren't above plundering the wreckage of any ship that washes ashore the rocky beaches ("There be pickings for all!"). Even Ross, weighed down by his own debts, agrees to hide smuggled goods for money.

The first season of Poldark was intended to be the only one, but the series' immense success--coupled with two more Graham novels published in 1973 and 1976--prompted Poldark 2. The original cast returned, except for Richard Morant who had played the emotionally-scarred Dr. Dwight Enys (he was replaced by Michael Cadman). Although the second season was shorter than the first (13 episodes instead of 16), the producers recognized the need for a longer storyline and asked Graham to write a third novel while the series was in production. Hence, The Angry Tide was published in 1977, the same year that Poldark 2 debuted on television.

Jill Townsend as Elizabeth.
The second season, while still revolving around the Poldarks and Warleggans, expands the storylines for its supporting characters even more. The middle episodes are based on The Four Swans, my favorite of the novels. The title refers to four central female characters:  Elizabeth, whose attempts to save her marriage end in tragedy; Demelza, who questions her faithfulness to Ross; Elizabeth's cousin Morwenna (Jane Wymark), whom George marries off to the pompous, self-centered Osborne Whitworth though she loves another man; and Lady Caroline (Judy Geeson), a wealthy young woman who struggles to create a life of contentment with Dwight. If these subplots sound soapish, it's only because I've done a poor job describing them. Graham's ability to create vivid, interesting characters makes Poldark addictive (but in a good way).

Like many fine series, Poldark benefits from the presence of a strong protagonist and a worthy nefarious adversary. Ross Poldark, while often heroic, struggles to overcome his flaws. He is quick to defend the downtrodden and never turns his back on friends in need. However, he sometimes lets his temper get the best of him, is not above ignoring the law, and--in one instance--commits a questionable act that threatens the happiness of the two women he loves.

A smug greeting from George.
In contrast, George Warleggan is a greedy man who embraces grudges and shows little consideration to others. Yet, he truly loves his wife (though he married her for the wrong reason) and remains sensitive to his status as a nouveau riche gentleman among elitists. Still, he is unquestionably a villain, as evidenced by his treatment of Aunt Agatha Poldark, an elderly woman kept alive by one thing: her 100th birthday party. When the spiteful George learns that she will really be only 99, he cancels the celebration. The disappointment drives Agatha to her death, but not before she exacts a horrible revenge on George.

Angharad Rees as Demelza.
The Poldark cast is practically perfect (though, like many fans, I prefer Richard Morant as Dwight and missed him in the second season). Robin Ellis, Angharad Rees, and Ralph Bates are all superb--and I've subsequently sought them out in other roles (e.g., Ellis in The Europeans, Rees in Hands of the Ripper, and Bates in several Hammer films). Today, Ellis lives with his wife Meredith in France and has written a popular cookbook for diabetics (click here for our interview with him). Angharad Rees designs jewelry and sells it online. Ralph Bates died in 1991 at the age of 51.

Since I first watched Poldark with my mother and sister on Masterpiece Theatre in the 1970s, I've shown it to college roommates, my wife, my in-laws...practically anyone I could talk into it. The result is always the same: Watch one episode and you're hooked. I can't think of a better endorsement for any television series.

Acorn Media provided a copy of the DVD boxed set for this review.


  1. Nice post, Rick. Your love for the series is obvious.

  2. I was so excited to see your post today. Love, love, love "Poldark" and cannot recommend it highly enough! The stories are compelling, the Cornwall setting incredible, and the acting superior. Excellent post, Rick!

  3. Enjoyed your post Rick. I watched Poldark and have always loved it. I remember watching it with my little brother. We couldn't wait to see another episode the next week! I enjoyed watching the interview with Robin Ellis. I got his cook book for Christmas and have made several of his recipes.

  4. Rick, your excellent posts on this series--this one and the earlier one on the 10 must-sees--have sufficiently piqued my interest that I've added "Poldark" to my Netflix queue and will soon begin watching it. I love this kind of Masterpiece Theatre mini-series and miss them these days, when such series seem to have been compressed to accommodate the lavish budgets now deemed necessary for such costume dramas and what producers apparently believe to be the drastically reduced attention spans of contemporary audiences. Many of those you described earlier aren't easily available on DVD; this one, fortunately, is.


  6. Does anyone know why Richard Morant was replaced by Michael Cadman?

    1. In his book MAKING POLDARK, Robin Ellis says simply that Richard Morant did not want to do POLDARK II.

  7. Rather than becoming bitter, the resolute Ross (Robin Ellis) sets out to get his affairs in order. His biggest challenge is Elizabeth (Jill Townsend), who still loves Ross but has developed doubts about his "dark side." Elizabeth's rejection of Ross impacts not only their lives, but ultimately those of two other key characters: Demelza Carne (Angharad Rees), an impoverished young woman employed by Ross, and George Warleggan (Ralph Bates), the ruthless son of a nouveau riche banker.

    Elizabeth's rejection is NOT to blame. Ross' inability to deal with her rejection is to blame.

  8. I have watched both versions of Poldark. The original, with Robin Ellis, while older, is truer to the ‘darkness’ of the novels than the Aidan Turner series. I enjoy both actors’ interpretations of the role, but find the 1970’s series more memorable.