Poldark: Get Over the Cliffhanger
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In 1783, Captain Ross Poldark returns to Cornwall from the American Revolution battle-scarred, but still tall, dark, handsome and eager to resume relations with his sweetheart, Elizabeth Chynoweth. Ross is dismayed to discover that his home, Nampara, is close to ruin and Elizabeth, having wrongly assumed him dead, has married his closest cousin.
Through the first four books Ross instigates prison breaks, aids smugglers, abets murderers and comes a cropper of risky investments. Along with flouting the law and vexing society, Ross finds time to rescue a filthy waif, Demelza Carne, from her abusive father, fall in love with her, and make her almost respectable as Mrs Poldark. Demelza may lack Elizabeth’s grace and poise, but she is earthy and brave and loves Ross with ferocious loyalty. It hardly seems fair or right that Ross continues to carry a torch for Elizabeth which simply refuses to be extinguished.
Season Two of the BBC series, running currently, brings us to 1793. The French Revolution is raging, Poldark’s arch-enemies are on the rise, and the smouldering tension between Ross and Elizabeth is fanned to a flame.
Only a handful of novels have been dramatised more than once by the BBC. Poldark, Ivanhoe, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Day of the Triffids have each been filmed twice. Only Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and Louisa May Alcott have had their books remade thrice by the BBC. How then has Winston Graham remained a relatively lesser known author?
In fact, Winston Graham gave few interviews and took pride in being described as, ‘the most successful unknown novelist in England.’
Graham published the first four books of the Poldark series between 1945 and 1953. The author then took a twenty year hiatus from Nampara during which time he was most interested in writing modern suspense novels. Six of these were adapted for the big screen, most notably Marnie, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1954 and starred Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery.
In 1972, reluctant to avoid what he saw as the trap of writing novels for movie scripts, Graham determined to travel back in time and discover what happened at Nampara after the eventful Christmas of 1793.
The publication of The Black Moon, the fifth in the Poldark series, in 1973, spawned the first television adaptation by the BBC. When Poldark aired in 1975 its star, Robin Ellis, was immediately catapulted to sex symbol status. The show was so successful that some vicars rescheduled Sunday services in order to avoid the unwinnable contest of clashing with Captain Poldark.
Winston Graham was unhappy with the first season, which spanned the first four books but, perhaps in character with Ross, was less than entirely faithful to them. Graham based the character of Demelza Carne on his wife, Jean Williamson, who he first met when she was only 13 years old. He credited her with a great eye for detail as well as an amazing sense of humour and admitted that she provided invaluable inspiration and guidance to his writing. The writer disliked the television portrayal of Demelza as promiscuous and ‘loose’ and he even tried, but failed, to have the show cancelled.
The BBC began filming the second season, based on books five and six, while Graham was still writing the seventh. He commented in a much later interview that the BBC put no pressure on him to write faster, but would occasionally telephone to make polite inquiries as to which actors’ contracts ought, or ought not, to be renewed.
Winston Graham ‘did a Hitchcock’ by making a small cameo appearance. He was costumed as a yeoman farmer and filmed greeting a clergyman as he came into church. Tragically, Graham’s single line, ‘Mornin’, ‘Zur!’ was left on the cutting room floor.
That original BBC adaptation came to a close in 1977 at the
end of the seventh book. The video of Poldark continued to outsell every
costume drama until a certain damply-clad Colin Firth stole Ellis’ sex symbol
crown in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
Winston Graham continued to churn out the books. He wrote 32 novels in addition to the 12 books of the Poldark series. Bella Poldark, which Graham declared on its publication would be the final book, was published in 2002. Just like those that went before, it was meticulously researched and written long-hand with a fountain pen. Winston Graham died in 2003, aged 95. Having so carefully guarded his privacy for half a century, Graham’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Private Man, was published a few months after his death.
As a man and as a writer Winston Graham had class. While his books are bursting with passion, they are never for a moment cheap or tawdry. The wonderful stocking scene, played beautifully by Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner, is barely a paragraph in the book and reveals no more flesh that a pale knee but yet encapsulates, 'that odd fusion of desire and affection for which there is no substitute.'
Winston Graham built a world, neither real nor recent, and populated it with credible, flesh and blood characters. He had the knack of identifying the drivers of all human endeavor, which remain constant through time: pride, passion, greed and prejudice. He distilled human desire to the essential theme:
‘Life holds only two or three things worth having, and if you possess them the rest don’t matter, and if you do not possess them the rest are useless.’
Graham knew well how to
whip up a rousing plot, how to pace the action and maintain suspense. Perhaps
best of all, he knew how to temper the tale with humour, kindness and
The current adaptation has been warmly praised by the author’s family who have collaborated with the production team. Writer Debbie Horsfield has stuck closely to the books and much of the dialogue is almost unedited. The cinematography, directed by Cinders Forshaw, is vivid and breath-taking. In every scene, costumes and exquisite sets are coordinated with artistic details to rival 18th century paintings. Those old enough to have enjoyed the original production should watch out for Robin Ellis, who has a small recurring role as Rev. Dr. Halse.
Nevertheless, you don’t need me to tell you that the book is always better. Poldark didn’t break TV ratings in 1975 just because Robin Ellis rocked in tight trousers. Ross Poldark isn’t desirable just because Aidan Turner looks good shirtless (yes okay, he really does). Ross Poldark is a proper hero. He is his own man, a renegade from his class, a working man’s champion, a fearful father and a protective lover. He is brave, he gambles, he is flawed, he gets it wrong, he perseveres, he gets it right. He is the man women want and men want to be.
A third season of Poldark has already been commissioned for next year but there is plenty of time yet to get ahead of the BBC. Sit down with Winston Graham and get to know Ross Poldark. You will be in good company.