When the weather is sweltering hot, why not turn up the emotional heat with a romance on the cool, windy shores of Cornwall? Our hero is Ross Poldark, a dashing British Army officer returning home after the American Revolution was won for us and lost for the British. Yet no hero’s welcome for him. Thought dead, his father has died, his inheritance a ruined estate and his beloved now engaged to marry someone else.
Poldark is based on Winston Graham’s (1908-2003) historical novels that began with the 1945 “Ross Poldark” (known in the U.S. originally as “The Renegade”) and followed by the 1946 “Demelza.” The last novel, “Bella Poldark” was published in 2002. Graham lived in Cornwall since moving there at age 17. He also wrote the 1961 story “Marnie” which was made into 1964 movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren.
The first novel covered the years 1783-1787. The American Revolutionary War ended in 1783.
The PBS series, “Poldark,” begins in 1781 and we’re not in Cornwall. We’re in Virginia. The first word we hear is, “Propose.” Poldark is sitting before cards and his opponent asks him to wager his gold pinky ring. He refuses. An officer scold Poldark for gambling yet again and asks him why he enlisted. “To escape the gallows, ” our hero replies. Ross Poldark (played with dark, smoldering passion by Aidan Turner) committed a bit of “free trading” (let’s translate that as smuggling) and assaulted a customs officials.
The officer asks Ross Poldark, “You doubt the justice of our cause, sir?
Ross replies, “And what cause would that be, sir? Liberty or tyranny?”
The cards are soon splattered with blood. The officers are shot and Ross Poldark takes charge, but he is knocked unconscious. Ross remembers how he got that ring; he took it from a laughing young woman with long curly medium brown hair, his Elizabeth. She asks him “Pray do not be reckless; I wish you to return.” She teases that he will forget her. He tells her, “Never.”
That’s before we even see the title, “Poldark,” with the many scenes of a man on a dark horse on a rocky cliff overlooking the darkened angry sea.
From there, we fast-forward to Cornwall, two years later. It is 1783. The American Revolutionary War has ended. Ross is in a carriage, still in uniform–tricorn black hat, the bright red “lobster back” long coat and the white shirt and pants. He now has a scar on the left side of his face. He overhears the other passengers gossiping about him and learns that he was thought dead, his father was also thought a bit scandalous (he was a libertine) and his father is now dead. Yes. Really dead. Six months ago.
With his father dead, he decides to visit his uncle at Trenwith, Charles (Warren Clarke) instead of going to his home, Nampara. As the youngest son, Ross’ father got the worst of the land and the property. Still in uniform, Ross visits his uncle’s grand estate to find a celebratory dinner in progress. At the table are his uncle, Charles; Charles’ son Francis (Kyle Soller); Great-Aunt Agatha (Caroline Blakiston); Elizabeth (Eleanor Tomlinson); Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Chenoweth (Sally Dexter); and Francis’ spinster sister, Verity (Ruby Bentall). Only Verity truly rejoices at Ross’ return.
“I couldn’t have wished for a better homecoming,” Ross says, looking at Elizabeth. Her joy is a bit more subdued.
Mrs. Chenoweth, Elizabeth’s mother, cleverly asks her daughter to fetch her shawl. While Elizabeth is happy to see Ross and his face beams with joy, things soon change.
“I’ve seem to have interrupted a party. Is this in celebration of the peace or the next war,” Ross quips, cheerily. While Elizabeth is out of the room, Ross learns that Elizabeth is engaged to Francis, someone she barely noticed before. Ever the gentlemen, Ross congratulate the couple and leaves. He later learns from Verity the couple will be married in a fortnight (that’s two weeks).
Ross borrows a horse from his uncle Charles and journey’s home. There are chickens and clutter in the house. We hear a goat. Ross quickly doffs his spiffy uniform and changes into darker duds. He wakes up his father’s personal servants Jud (Phil Davis) and Prudie (Beatie Edney) and warns them to get the place cleaned up. How could they have let the estate fall into such ill-repair, Ross asks.
Jud complains what were they to do without any guidance? “T’isn’t right, t’isnt fair, t’isn’t fit, t’isn’t friendly.”
Ross looks about at his ruined estate. He gazes out at the ocean. The winds blow. No, this is not a perfume commercial or a tourist advertisement. The beaches look too cold for a sunny holiday, but Turner’s Ross Poldark makes it look more like a great place for a romantic tryst.
The next day, Ross visits first the tenants. Their homes have not been mended since his father died. The tenants are glad to see Ross home and later, Ross will find them good enough company.
Ross goes to find out the state of his affairs from his banker. His father left little of value. There is the house, two derelict mines and a few cottages. His father had debt and his property is mortgaged. There is no income. He cannot borrow money from the banker, who advises him as a friend.
The economic problems aren’t limited to Ross’ inherited estate. All of Cornwall is suffering from high taxes (to pay for the American Revolutionary War one guesses), and the tin mines are being closed. Men are out of work. If they can, people are leaving Cornwall.
There is another possible source of income. That’s when we meet an old frenemy of Ross. George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) oozes with envy as he tells his uncle, Cary Warleggan (Pip Torrens), “At school I rather admired him. He said what he thought, he did what he liked…It got him a following.” George suggests they might have a use for Ross Poldark. He might be able to open doors that are closed to them because they are viewed as grubby upstarts while the Poldark name is old.
Back at Trenwith, Elizabeth is accosted by her fiancé Francis. He asks her “An alarming prospect is it not? A lifetime with me. I cannot promise to be as fascinating as some or as bold or reckless. But one think I can promise you: my undying love and gratitude.” He asks her if there is something that troubles her or that there is something she wishes to tell him.
“I wish to tell you that I cannot wait to be your wife,” Elizabeth says. She has made the choice of good reputation and a solid and sound financial state. She followed her mother’s advice and not her heart.
Only then does Francis ride out to find Ross. Francis finds Ross at his tin mine. They decide to go and explore the mine. Francis tells Ross that his father, Uncle Charles, is concerned that Ross is making the right choices. “Face certain realities, accept that your future might lie elsewhere,” Francis says. Then he brings up his wedding. “You’ve not yet accepted our invitation…you must come. It is our dearest wish.” In the mine, after Ross yells at him, not to rub his nose in his upcoming wedding to Ross’ beloved and Francis slips and falls into a dark pool of water. Francis can’t swim, but Ross saves him, after a bit of hesitation. Will both regret that decision?
Nothing gets in the way of the wedding. We don’t really see the blushing bride and instead the camera focuses on Ross, who is at the back of the church. He remembers taking the ring from Elizabeth. Then he hears Elizabeth say, “I will,” he breaks out of his daydream. It has really been her choice.
At the wedding feast, Ross meets George and Verity mentions the Warleggans are on the rise. “Perhaps I should have purchased her for you nephew,” Cary Warleggan comments to George while looking at the happy bride in earshot of the brooding Ross. George goes after Ross to tell him he can depend on “friends” but as Ross is leaving that conversation, Verity fetches Ross to speak with Elizabeth. Yes, Elizabeth now safely wed has decided to summon Ross to a private conversation.
“I thought you would come to see me,” Elizabeth says. “You know there was something, an understanding. Three years was a long time.” Elizabeth tells him that it was her decision and asks if they might be friends.
“If you say so,” Ross replies. I’m not convinced and you won’t be either. Like any wounded brooding hero he goes home where he finds comfort in a bottle and casts that ring away. But has Elizabeth and her mother bet on the wrong Poldark? At Trenwith, Great Aunt Agatha reads tarot cards and says “The stronger rises as the weaker falls for all is fair in love and war.”
Charles and Francis are still worried about the Ross and Elizabeth attraction. Now Charles goes to talk with Ross. He reveals that his mines also are not producing. He suggests that Ross make a change of profession, the law or the church? He offers to pay for an education and his expenses. His brother, Ross’ father would have wanted it that way.
Instead, Ross decides to go to town where Ross sells his father’s pocket watch. His activities are not unseen. George and his uncle watch Ross as he buys livestock. But something else happens in the marketplace. A man brings a scruffy looking dog to face another dog, who is barking and straining at the leash. A crowd gathers to see the sport. Although Francis and Elizabeth and George and Cary are all part of the crowd, they do nothing to stop what is happening.
The dog, Garrick, belongs to a poor child. She comes to retrieve her dog. The men make sport of her, pushing her about until she falls face down. Ross tells the man in charge of the dogfight to leave and disperses the crowd. At least, he’s a man of action.
The child is Tom Carne’s daughter from Illugan who is dressed in her brother’s clothes. She is hungry and has previously been beaten by her father. She has six brothers and her name is Demelza Carnes. Ross feeds her. Then he takes her on horseback to the crossroads between Illugan and Nampara. Before she has gone but a few steps, he offers her a job as a kitchen maid.
Jud and Prudie don’t welcome the girl, but Ross advises her to stand up for herself. Just when Ross thinks to send her home to her father, he finds her father is already there, but the girl is nowhere to be seen. He gives the father a thrashing and his friends and Jud give his fellows from Illugan a good beating as well.
After being told by Prudie she is causing too much trouble, Demelza, who was hiding in Ross’ house starts to go back to Illugan, but is stopped by Poldark. As they ride to the crossroads between Illugan and Nampara and London (Yes, literally at the crossroads), Elizabeth meets them on horseback and asks Ross not to leave because all that he cares for is in Cornall. Does she mean herself as well as his land? What she doesn’t mean is Demelza and one senses she not at all in favor of Demelza, now dressed as a woman, remaining at Ross’ home.
I haven’t seen the original series, but if you liked the Irish actor Aidan Turner when he played the dwarf Kili in “The Hobbit” trilogy, then you’ll undoubtedly enjoy seeing him as the romantic lead here. The 32-year-old Turner plays Ross Poldark as a more angry and troubled man than the dwarf Kili. Soller plays Francis as descent guy who will suffer in comparison to his more dashing cousin and his secure financial status won’t be enough to sooth his ego. Tomlinson’s Demelza is hardly a threat to Reed’s cool Elizabeth as she is first introduced, but we know better. With her reddish hair and fair skin, she stills a bit rough around the edges, but Turner’s Ross hints at a roguish side.
Ross Poldark’s is becoming a man of the people, partially due to his financial circumstances and partially due to the war which forced him to grow up, yet the tale’s villain is one of those new rich George Warleggan (Jakc Farthing), an industrialist. Ross Poldark is a long-time landowner and thus has some status with the aristocracy while George Warleggan wants that kind of status and recoils from the common folk, the class of people he hopes to leave behind.
This is the second time BBC has adapted the Graham’s “Poldark” novels for television. The original series aired in 1975 and 1977 and starred Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark, Jill Townsend as Elizabeth and Clive Francis as Poldark’s cousin Francis. Ellis is now 73 and appears in the new series as Reverend Halse.
This episode is dedicated to the memory of Warren Clarke, the actor who played Charles Poldark. Clarke died on 12 November 2014 (age 67).
“Poldark” airs on PBS on Sundays,9/8c on Masterpiece and is then available online on the PBS website.