Monday, 2 March 2015

Poldark Article from The Times

In case you weren't lucky enough to get a copy, here is the article from The Times on Saturday 28 February, 2015.   Many thanks to @morangles for this.

The Times 28 Feb 2015

'I think of Poldark as part Rochester, part Heathcliffe, part Rhett Butler'

Poldark, the smuggling and swashbuckling hit of 1970s TV, is back with Aidan Turner as the swarthy hero. Andrew Billen reports

On pain of legal redress I am not at liberty to tell you where my quest to discover the true identity of Captain Poldark first took me. Suffice it to say that last summer I was to be found in a big house in the West Country whose owners are fearful of being trampled down by Poldarkfanatics once the BBC’s new adaptation of the Cornish romance gallops across the nation’s screens. A ball was being filmed, and Poldark, played by the heart-throb Irish actor Aidan Turner, was looking down from a balcony, all moody and drunk and ready to leave and “acquaint myself with as much brandy as George can supply”.

Forty years ago, the original BBC adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels was so popular that introductions to its hero would have been superfluous. The critic Clive James may have jested that the Sunday night potboiler was an anagram of Old Krap, but 15 million viewers were not laughing; between 1975 and ’77, they were enthralled. As for Robin Ellis’s Captain Poldark, “Captain ROSS Poldark”, as the actor tended to announce himself boomily upon entering a room, was the sexiest thing in period breeches.

Poldark was a young Cornish soldier who had returned from the American war of independence to find his father dead and his inheritance — a tin mine — facing ruin. Worse, his first love, Elizabeth, was engaged to his wussy cousin. As we would say these days, Poldark had a lot of re-invention to do.

“Ross is such a fascinating combination I think, of a whole host of literary and movie heroes,” says Debbie Horsfield, the new version’s adapter, sitting for shade under a canopy outside the house. “I think of him as being part Rochester, part Heathcliff, part Robin Hood, part Darcy, part Rhett Butler. He’s got elements of all of those great literary and movie-hero rebels.”

Poldark soon finds himself in an irregular love triangle, still infatuated with Elizabeth whose relative wealth and class he increasingly despises, yet living with and marrying a miner’s daughter he has taken in as a maid. In the book Demelza is 13 when he rescues her from the streets and four years pass before he realises she has grown up in the most delightful way. In this production, she is played by Eleanor Tomlinson who is a respectable 22. Choosing her for his wife is an aspect of Poldark’s non-conformism, says Horsfield. “The sex is amazing,” she speculates, although, disappointingly, there will be little raunch on screen.

“I think there’s a delicacy about the way Ross and Demelza fall in love. Demelza’s in love with him before she gets married at the end of episode three. Episode four is really about how Ross falls in love with his own wife. It’s a wonderful progression because it dawns on him gradually that this woman, actually, is amazing: spirited, sparky, optimistic. There are no airs and graces about her.”

The Times 28 Feb 2015

To play this uxorious romantic hero Horsfield and her producer at Mammoth Screen, Damien Timmer, chose Aidan Turner, Rossetti in Desperate Romantics, the vampire in Being Human and one of the 12 dwarfs in The Hobbit saga. Turner, it should be said, is considered by many women to be the zenith of sex appeal. The 31-year-old Irish actor, whose ink black hair and chocolate eyes show off his extraordinarily white teeth, nevertheless turns out to be, when we remove ourselves to a glade to talk, charmingly modest.

When I ask why a movie star is slumming it on Sunday night telly, he first disputes he is anything of the sort and then says he fell in love with the script and the novels. On the best of terms with his leading ladies as well as Seamus, his Co Wexford horse — whom he would like to buy but isn’t for sale — he is happy with the thought of getting six years’ work out of this (there are 12 novels in all).

“I think Ross embodies all the qualities of characters that I’d really like to play right now. He’s got it all for me. He has very anti-establishment tendencies, a rebellious attitude towards a lot of things and situations and people. He is a bit of an outsider but he is also a staid kind of character, somebody who is quite emotionally inarticulate. He’s happier on a battlefield, commanding soldiers and shouting orders than telling his beloved how he actually feels about her.”

The times 28 Feb 2015

My mistake on this adventure of mine to Poldark country is to make fun of the original TV series. First, everyone points out this version is not a remake but a fresh “adaptation”. Second, Robin Ellis — the man who for women of a certain age will always be Poldark — has a cameo in the new production and is popular. I discover him back at the film unit’s base in the car park of a local school. He is sitting in the sun with his wife, Meredith, who met him when interviewing him about Poldark for American television. He is 73, white-haired but still handsome and lives in rural France where he writes diabetic cook books. He emerged from acting retirement to play a judge in the show.

Its cast and producers are mindful of the bad press the BBC’s last Cornish drama, Jamaica Inn, attracted for its inaudible dialogue. This, I say to Ellis, was not a problem for Captain ROSS Poldark.

“Well, I think probably I was too much, but that was the style of the time,” he replies. “I saw a scene so long ago and I’m more or less shouting. If only the director had just popped out of the box and said, ‘Just take it down a bit.’ But I’d worked for three years in the Actors Company and so I was projecting a bit.”

When Ellis was cast he had already made some 50 television dramas and had enjoyed a successful career in theatre. Between the two Poldark series he acted with the RSC. Nothing, however, made as much impact as Poldark. He had, as he puts it, “quite a lot of fan mail” from women — or as Meredith puts it, when they met in the mid-Eighties, he was still getting knickers in the post.

“But I didn’t segue into a film career. In fact, that never really happened, although I kept working.”

The Times 28 Feb 2015

Did he want it to? “I suppose I did but maybe I didn’t want it enough.”

That Ellis did not become the next James Bond — although he met the producers (“Wore a suit for one of the few times in my life but I don’t think I impressed them enough”) — is sometimes counted by the press as part of the “curse of Poldark”. This figment of its imagination was summarised last year in a Daily Mail headline: “Stars of the new version beware. The originals were hit by tragedy and never found fame again.” The death toll in fact is not so very heavy, although Warren Clarke, cast as Ross’s uncle in the revival, sadly added to it in November.

Certainly Ellis sees nothing cursed about his time on the show. Every two weeks the cast escaped the BBC studios where the interiors were taped and tore down to Cornwall, where they found “watering holes” of the pre-Rick Stein era. “We were up till four in the morning sometimes, really terrible.”

Did he suffer pangs when he heard it was coming back with another actor playing him? “It was all a pangless experience. It’s a long time ago and I have benefited hugely from it. The Poldarkperks have been huge, including Meredith!”

Ellis is lovely company but for a psychological portrait of the soldier-turned-mine owner I travel some months later to north Oxford and the home of the former master of Balliol. Andrew Graham, a political economist who once worked for Harold Wilson, is Winston Graham’s son. He tells me how his father, who died aged 95 a dozen years ago, fell out badly with the BBC exactly over the issue of Poldark’s character.

For Graham, indeed, the first series was “a disaster zone”, although relations were repaired for the second when the author became more involved in the production. (Mammoth is required to “consult meaningfully” with Andrew who is the literary executor.) The problem, it seems, was that the BBC, as it were, made Demelza pregnant and that made it look as if Ross had married her out of honour and conformism.

“In the book he sleeps with Demelza and then the next thing they’re getting married. I think my father thought that this was all part of Ross not caring what people thought about him. In the books people were chattering behind their hands: ‘Oh, isn’t Ross Poldark dreadful? Pulling this young thing away from her father and then exploiting her and sleeping with her?’ Ross just thought, ‘I know, I’ll show them: I’ll marry her.’ ”

Andrew Graham believes Ross represents a lot of what most men would like to be: a swashbuckler, quick, sharp and rarely lost for the telling riposte. Ross is not, however, his father, who never had any job but the sedentary one of writing. Born in Manchester, Winston Graham moved to Perranporth in Cornwall when his father retired there after being disabled by a stroke. His wife, Jean, helped the family finances by running a bed and breakfast during the war. He was good company but adept at concealing himself behind anecdotes (his autobiography was entitled Memoirs of a Private Man) and although when the war began he volunteered for the navy, he failed his medical. The nearest he came to action was coastguard duty. Over its long nights, looking out to sea, tuning into the dialect of his fellow volunteers, the Poldark saga began to form in his imagination.

“I said, in the address I gave at my father’s funeral, my father wasn’t at all a swashbuckling man, but I think he would quite like to have been. I think Ross is the alter-ego of my father’s imagination, at least in part.”

Poldark had two real-life antecedents according to Graham’s memoirs. He had observed a soldier on a train during the war — “tall, lean, bony, scarred” and bearing “a vein of high-strung disquiet”. His character was also partly based on one of his best friends, a chemist called Ridley Polgreen who died “grievously early” aged 32.

Yet there is one character in the books Andrew Graham does recognise: Demelza. In his memoirs, Graham admitted he took her “sturdy common sense”, “courage” and “gamine sense of humour” from his own wife.

A big chunk of her is my mother,” Andrew agrees. “My father was quite private in contrast to my mother. She was naturally engaging and outgoing, an endlessly encouraging and optimistic presence. She had an acute eye for detail and an ear for an amusing story. She could hardly go into the village without returning with something new to relate. She had tremendous warmth: a huge zest for life, very much like Demelza.”

Andrew adds sternly, however, that his father insisted that for a novelist it was not enough to describe, nor even to empathise with his characters: “A good novelist has to beget.”

For a new generation, the begetting of Captain Ross Poldark is about to start all over again.

Poldark begins on BBC One on March 8

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