Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Poldark Primer: Getting Ready for the New Masterpiece Classic

Cafe contributing author TerryB provides all you need to know about the latest Masterpiece miniseries on PBS. You can follow Terry on Twitter as @IUPUITerry.

Poldark. Until recently, the name resonated with folks-of-a-certain age that viewed--and generally loved--the 29-episode series that appeared on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre in the mid-1970s. Or, with fans of the 13-book series by Winston Graham, which the author began in 1945 and concluded in 2002 with his final novel Bella Poldark

This weekend marks the beginning, for American viewers, of the newest incarnation of Poldark: an eight-part series starring Aiden Turner (The Hobbit trilogy, the TV series Being Human) as Ross Poldark. Its broadcast earlier this year in Great Britain was received so enthusiastically that the BBC has already renewed it for a second season. This overview of the show's setting and characters will help you get ready for the first episode on Masterpiece this Sunday, June 21st.

The scenic Cornish coast.
The Setting: The Poldark saga takes place almost entirely in England’s Cornwall. Life is hard, the weather is often unforgiving, and the land is rocky and barren in most parts. Life in the southwest corner of the British Isles is, however, undergoing slow and dramatic changes. Political power and influence belongs to rich landowners and the nobility. Newly-rich merchants and bankers struggle to join the upper class. Below them are the great mass of the population--miners, farmers, fishermen, and smugglers. Class distinctions are still in force, but in flux as nearby France is tearing itself apart as the poor rise up against the government and the upper class. Change in industry, including the use of steam engines and manufacturing advances, is finding a place in the Empire. John Wesley’s Methodism and Catholicism are challenging the Church of England among the lower classes. Revolution of some sort is everywhere.

Ross Poldark – son of a landowner; member of the gentry class. Owns a small estate on the Cornish coast with mines and farmland. In the U.S., the title of the first Poldark novel was The Renegade, which suits our hero’s nature. Our story begins with Ross returning to Cornwall from the war in America to find his father dead, his fortune and house in ruins, and his fiancée about to marry another man.

Elizabeth Chenoweth – Ross left for America with the law on his heels, leaving his intended bride--one of the most beautiful women in England--with a vague promise of return. When rumors spread that Ross had been killed in America, Elizabeth (and her class-conscious mother) cast about for a new love, settling on Ross’ cousin Francis.

Francis Poldark – Ross and his cousin grew up nearly side-by-side, albeit a prickly relationship. Francis is heir to the main Poldark estate with a huge copper mine, a large income, and a large manor house. He is destined to be an important man in the county. A bit of a fop with an interest in gambling and wenching, his future begins to change when he marries his cousin’s bride-to-be.

Verity Poldark – Francis’ sister. A dowdy young woman with no marriage prospects. She has a close, sisterly relationship with her cousin Ross. Verity is resigned to managing the Poldark home, Trenwith, for her father and brother until she meets a seafaring man with a troubled past.

Charles Poldark – the elder brother of Ross’ father. A bulldog of a man, Charles takes his position as family patriarch very seriously and rules his children and estate with an iron fist.

George Warleggan – childhood classmate of the Poldark cousins and the son of merchants in Cornwall. His family has become one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the area. George is ruthless in his quest for acceptance by the aristocracy and the accumulation of money. He also covets Elizabeth.

Jud and Prudie Paynter – servants and friends of Ross’ father. Fond of drink and regularly drunk, the pair are best-suited to finding excuses not to work. Ross allows them to stay because of their relationship with his family. Jud also works part-time as a smuggler and generally finds trouble at every turn.

Demelza Carne – the daughter of an abusive, impoverished miner from a nearby village. At a local fair, she meets Ross, who hires her as a kitchen maid. Under his roof, she grows into a woman--meddlesome, impulsive, independent--with a thirst for knowledge and a strong feeling of loyalty to her employer. Demelza has a major impact on nearly everyone’s life.

For more Poldark at the Cafe, check out our review of the original Poldark series and our interview with its star Robin Ellis.


  1. Thank you for this fine public service.

    My loyalty to the original series runs deep and I had almost convinced myself that I couldn't bear to look at this new treatment. My first trailer on PBS put those thoughts, noble though they may have been intended, out of my head.

  2. Terry, thanks for the refresher! Your description of the setting--particularly the comment that "change is everywhere"--is very perceptive. The richness of period details and the compelling characters are what made the original POLDARK series and the novels so addictive. Like CW, I was initially leery about a remake, but the reviews have been glowing and my interest level is now running high! (And just to say it again, THE FOUR SWANS is the best book....)

  3. Guess I'll watch this after all. Nice write-up.

  4. I am soooo excited to revisit Cornwall! Thanks for your splendid preview, Terry!

  5. The original series is one I've been meaning to get around to watching, but still haven't done so. Now I don't know if I should start with the new one or take them in order. But this piece does make me more interested in finally checking out this story.

  6. This looks beautifully filmed. I'd never heard of it before, but I'll have to check it out. Thanks!