POLDARK

British Historical Drama

Poldark is one of the most successful British television dramas of all time. The popularity of the first series in 1975 was matched by enthusiastic reception of the 1993 video release. As a costume drama, scheduled for early evening family viewing Poldark was not unusual, but its exterior sequences, cast and immense popularity have made it ultimately memorable. The first episode, opening to Ross Poldark's ride across the Cornish landscape on his return from the American War of Independence, was seen by an audience of five million. As the series continued this figure rose to an average of fifteen million viewers. The two BBC Poldark series have been sold to over forty countries and ten years later a third series is being made by HTV.

All three of the Poldark series are closely based on the novels of Winston Graham, well known for his thrillers and for the screen adaptations of his later non-historical books, e.g. the Hitchcock directed Marnie (1964) and the British film noir Fortune is a Woman (1956). In 1969 Associated British Picture bought an option on the Poldark best-sellers and commissioned a four-hour Cornish Gone with the Wind. However, the film project was dropped during the EMI take-over of the company. The option was taken over by London films who eventually collaborated with the BBC.

The first BBC series dramatises the original four novels which Graham wrote at the end of World War II. Graham had initially planned a trilogy set in 18th-century Cornwall which would explore the love triangle between the war hero Captain Poldark, his less exciting cousin Francis Poldark and the aristocratic Elizabeth Chynoweth. However, as the narrative developed Graham became more interested in the social situation in Cornwall at that time and the dramatic contrast between the oppressed poor and the new landowning classes. Graham added the engaging urchin Demelza who marries Ross out of her class and a fourth book focused on the villain, the nouveau riche George Warleggan.

The first series established Ross Poldark as a character at war with his own class. After his return to Cornwall and his failure to win back Elizabeth, Ross attempts to restore Nampara his father's ruined estate. He shocks his neighbours by marrying Demelza, the daughter of a brutal miner, and interesting himself in the affairs of those who work for him. His legitimate business deals and mining company ventures bring him into direct competition with George Warleggan. Illegal activities, such as the false charge of incitement to riot and, later, smuggling, also bring him the power of the Warleggans. In this feud Poldark is portrayed as the forward looking benevolent landowner and entrepreneur, whereas Warleggan is seen as a tyrannical arriviste whose grand house is burnt to the ground by dispossessed miners and tenants.

The latter scene and climax to the first series was a radical departure from Graham's novels. Although the author felt that the first series was marred by the use of a different writer for every episode, Graham wrote a further trilogy for adaptation and became closely involved with the second series made in 1977. This series follows the fortunes of four different marriages; the Poldarks, Elizabeth now the wife of Warleggan; Caroline who has married the progressive doctor Dwight Enys; and Elizabeth's unhappy cousin Morwenna. All are affected by the intense rivalry between Poldark and Warleggan. Ross Poldark and George Warleggan continue their feud in London as well as Cornish society by becoming opposing members of parliament.

The outdoor locations set the first series apart from other studio based costume dramas. Scenes such as the dramatic rescue of Dr. Enys from a prisoner of war camp in Revolutionary France, the wrecking of the Warleggan ship, and action set against mines, seascapes and coastal paths created a spectacular backdrop for the vicissitudes of Poldark's marital and financial dilemmas. The contrast between the theatrical approach to studio production and the spontaneity engendered by location filming gave the historical drama a unique fresh quality.

Not surprisingly, the BBC expressed an interest in making a third series, but at that time Graham did not feel that he could write the books required for the source material. Since 1977, Graham has written a further four books which deal with a second generation of Poldarks continuing the Warleggan feud and introducing the Industrial Revolution to Cornwall. The Poldark Appreciation Society has campaigned for repeat showings of the series, videos of the BBC series and Poldark 3. The HTV production will dramatise the remaining books, but despite much media speculation the third series will not feature the original stars.

-Nickianne Moody

 


Poldark
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

CAST

Ross Poldark............................................... Robin Ellis George Warleggan...................................... Ralph Bates Jud ............................................................Paul Curran Mark Daniel................................................. Martin Fisk Francis Poldark......................................... Clive Francis Caroline Penvenen.................................... Judy Gleason Demelza............................................... Angharad Rees Verity Poldark....................................... Norma Streader Elizabeth Warleggan................................. Jill Townsend Prudie................................................... Mary Wimbush

PRODUCERS  John McRae, Morris Barry, Tony Coburn

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

BBC
1975-77                                                      29 Episodes

FURTHER READING

Clarke, D. Poldark Country. St. Teath, England: Bossiney Books, 1977.

Ellis, R. Making Poldark. St. Teath, England: Bossiney Books, 1978.

Graham, W. Poldark's Cornwall. London: Chapmans, 1994.

Westland, E. Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place. Newmill,England: Pattern Press, 1996.

 

See also British Programming