Poldark: a beginners’ guide


Warning: contains spoilers for Poldark series one and two.

Welcome to eighteenth century Cornwall, land of sumptuous landscapes, confusing personal pronouns and Captain Ross Poldark. The bearer of an ancient name and a tousled mane, Poldark’s the hero around this way. (Well, he is until series two episode seven, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).

Known variously as Ross, Mr Ross, Mr Ross Sir, Cap’n Poldark, ‘that classless ruffian bringing shame upon his family name’ or ‘ee with t’alluring scar who can blast us tin-mine any time ee choose’, depending on who’s addressing him, Poldark is cut from typical Byronic cloth. He’s a gentleman rebel given to fits of temper and anguished clifftop gallops in pursuit of love and justice. He lives twenty per cent of his life as a dramatic silhouette.

Having inherited his father’s failing mines, Ross (Aidan Turner) is often to be found at his desk frowning over a diagram of some rocks. Or staring mournfully out of a window. Or gazing intensely at the horizon from a picturesque clifftop. He has a fist fight roughly every third episode. More often than you’d think likely, you’ll see him up in front of a magistrate, arguing angrily for his or someone else’s life.

Justice, you see, is very much Poldark’s bag; less so, the law. His Robin Hood politics often find him on the wrong side of the latter in pursuit of the former. Yes, he’s a gentleman, but one of the good ones, more or less the only good one between Bodmin and the English Channel. The other local toffs are either gouty whip-crackers (his uncle Charles), weak-willed playboys (his cousin Francis) or hard-hearted capitalists who’d grind the local peasantry into sausage meat if it would spin them a profit (his nemesis George Warleggan).

Cap’n Ross is none of these. He pays a fair wage, hands out shiny coins to the filthy poor, rolls up his sleeves alongside his workers, and does what he can to help the wretched. (In Cornish dialect, the name Poldark originally meant ‘justice warrior with 90s Gavin Rossdale hair’, which explains a great deal.)

Such behaviour, as you might expect, makes Ross an oddity amongst the gentry. The scheming mothers pushing their young daughters’ juicy syllabubs into his face with the hope of securing his ancient name do so with one hand pinching their nose from the reek of the poor. If Ross Poldark loves the common folk so much, why doesn’t he just go and marry one?

He does, of course, which ruffles the hat feathers of society’s elegant ladies no end. Particularly upset is Elizabeth, a Lancôme lipstick model posing as an eighteenth century woman who promised herself to Ross before he went away to war, then thinking him dead, married his cousin Francis despite finding him as sexy as a bookmark.

Ross and Elizabeth having the hots for each other but being married to other people is Poldark’s big main thing. Other stuff happens—mining and shareholders and death and pilchards—but really, it’s all just distraction from the loud humming sound coming from her knickers and his breeches every time they’re in the same room.

The commoner Ross marries is Demelza Carne, a waif whose flea-ridden mutt he rescues from a dogfight in the market square. Beaten by her brute of a dad and a skivvy for her brothers, Demelza’s a poor wretch, and we all know how Ross feels about poor wretches. Up she’s scooped on his horse and off they gallop to his family seat of Nampara, where she’s put to work as a kitchen maid.

Seeing as she starts off the colour of a used football sock, it takes a few goes under the water pump before Ross lets Demelza near the actual kitchen. Soon though, she’s a gleaming vision of red curls, green eyes and bony elbows. Free of grime, she’s immediately more beautiful than the local women and the Cornish landscapes combined. Think Merida from Brave as painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In one of Demelza’s country dresses, actor Eleanor Tomlinson could be a fairy on a collectible porcelain plate ordered from the back pages of a Sunday supplement. That’s how pretty she is.

Demelza is besotted with Mr Ross from the get-go, what with him being handsome, moody, and the first man she’s met who doesn’t beat her daily with a leather strap. It doesn’t take Mr Ross long to notice he’s installed a pre-pre-Raphaelite beauty in his kitchen, either, nor to learn that he likes the taste of her pie.

Theirs isn’t what you’d call a long courtship. After one shiveringly sexy scene in which Ross unlaces the ribbons on Demelza’s dress (dampening undercarriages in bungalows across the nation), the pair do the deed and marry forthwith. A child soon follows, then sadly perishes of Putrid Throat – even the diseases in Poldark having excellent names.

To begin with, the new Mr and Mrs Poldark have few allies. Feckless comedy servants Prudie and Jud (Beatie Edney and Phil Davis), who talk like they’re in an Edward Lear poem and are usually to be found snoring in front of the fire like a couple of drunk Labradors, quickly see that the new domestic situation works to their advantage so throw their lot in with their new mistress.

In the upper echelons, only Ross’ kind cousin Verity (Ruby Bentall) offers them congratulations. Verity is lovesick for a sea captain she met once for ten minutes at an assembly ball, so is primed for sympathy towards undesirable matches. (When we meet Verity, she’s twenty-five and unmarried so all agree she may as well kill herself).

Everyone else calls Ross a fool and Demelza a gold-digging hussy, names the couple happily ignore because of all their top-notch nightly doing-it. “Abed, I have reason to believe I do please him,” Demelza tells a shocked Verity, not quite having got the hang of elegant conversation (or curtseying – that girl spends most of series one doing wonky curtseys that’ll melt your heart). But he’ll never love me, she says, and that’s okay. She never expected half her luck in marrying such a man.

Does Ross love Demelza? “We get on” he smiles in answer to that very question. And they do mostly, until series two at least. He even tells her he loves her when she looks a right sort in a new frock at Francis and Elizabeth’s Christmas party (to indicate that it’s winter, the makers of Poldark turn down the colour saturation on your TV). In society, Demelza in a new frock often has the local lords dribbling down their neck-cloths, which might be seen as a kind of vindication after their earlier snobbery but really just feels a bit pervy.

Whatever her gratitude to Ross, in truth, being mistress of Nampara puts Demelza in a difficult position. As she says, she’s “betwixt and between, neither one thing nor the other”. That conflict is what makes her a fascinating character – she looks every bit the lady while retaining the ability to rugby-tackle thieving servants and dole out black eyes to cheating husbands.

That’s let the cat out of the bag (incidentally, a popular rural pastime in eighteenth century Cornwall). Towards the end of series two, Ross and Elizabeth’s knicker-humming reaches such intensity that he literally breaks down her door and forces himself on her. That she, despite some initial protest, gets into it is problematic in the extreme when it comes to depictions of sexual assault, something much debated in op-ed pieces last year. Suffice to say, Ross stopped being a hero in many a fan’s opinion that episode.

Not least for betraying Demelza the magnificent, a woman who learns to read, write and get to grade four on the harpsichord in the time it takes a lady of the gentry to cross-stitch a napkin (Elizabeth literally spends the whole of series one playing the harp). Demelza’s a marvel, and worth a hundred of the toffee-nosed snobs who call her an upstart troll.

While we’re on the subject of redoubtable women, a word on Ross and Francis’ Aunt Agatha (Caroline Blakiston aka Return Of The Jedi‘s Mon Mothma), the elderwoman of the Trenwith Poldarks. Aunt Agatha is, it’s fair to say, the absolute bollocks. She’s 93 and will outlive every last one of them, driven solely by the power of poached eggs and sass. When she’s not forecasting doom with her tarot set, she’s producing pistols from beneath her shawl, delivering lines you want to get tattooed on your biceps, and giving George ‘the devil’ Warleggan the shiteye.

When Francis exclaims “what’s the matter with the women in this family?” Aunt Agatha wryly answers “the men!” She’s not wrong. After his father expires in series one (his heart having exploded due to too many capons in custard), Francis meets a sad and unnecessary end in series two after having gambled away the family fortune and attempted suicide. It wasn’t the gun to his head that killed him though; Francis drowned in his and Ross’ mine.

That’s right, Poldark isn’t only an escapist idyll about pilchards and pouting. There’s also an enormous amount of stuff about mining. Peasants with candles tied to their waistcoats–which was the style at the time–rely on the mines for a living. The mines are always causing Mr Ross to say things like “damn this ironstone! Is there no end to it?”, while an ancient Cornish by-law requires one cast member per episode to deliver the line “mining be in my blood”. After two series of Poldark, you’ll not only be fluent in the ways of the heart, but also in the fluctuating market price of copper.

The peasants are another key feature. While Jane Austen adaptations are largely free of frayed-buttonhole types, Poldark loves a pauper. Whatever their destination, be it a wedding, a riot, or a day’s work at the mine, the poor in Poldark travel everywhere in big groups, laughing and twirling as they go (in olden days Cornwall, you were never more than six feet away from somebody jauntily playing a fife). The Cornish vulgars sang constantly, on account of Candy Crush not having been invented yet. In series one, their chief occupations are grinning in slow-motion and being thankful to Mr Ross. In series two, fired up by revolution on the continent, they spend more time rioting and threatening to burn the rich.

Poverty being a time-consuming business, eighteenth century peasants in Cornwall were too busy to use the full complement of personal pronouns, so replaced you, him, her, he and she with ‘ee’, thus freeing up valuable time to laugh in slow-motion or starve to death. It’s a little-known fact that the chorus to Old Macdonald Had A Farm originated as a way for poor Cornish children to practise their grammar.

The dialect in Poldark is completely bewitching, chiefly thanks to Jud and Prudie who sound as if they’re in continual recitation of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. T’int right, t’int fair, t’int proper is a common refrain of Jud’s, while Prudie’s chief concern is being left a widder all forlorn, both statements usually delivered after a diatribe on cocky-eyed blasted blathering dandical folk fligged up in their flammels who need to hush ee’s creening. Nobody, not even the scriptwriters, know what those two are saying, and pick me liver if that isn’t all part of the fun.

Series two left Ross and Demelza reunited and staring attractively out to sea, Elizabeth married to the villainous George Warleggan (but preggo with Ross’ child) the good Dr Enys (I haven’t mentioned him yet, but his star-crossed romance with a wealthy heiress niece took up much of series two) off to war leaving his intended behind, Verity a new mother married to her sea captain, and Aunt Agatha keeping on keeping on. She’s probably still alive today if you take the train down to Cornwall and care to look her up.

Poldark was first adapted for TV from Winston Graham’s novels in the mid-seventies, which explains both its nostalgic popularity among baby boomers and the reason there were seventeen boys called Ross a couple of years above me at school. Its return to BBC One in 2015 courtesy of creator Debbie Horsfield soon made an name for itself as soft-porn for retirement flat-dwellers, largely thanks to Aidan Turner’s glistening thorax.

There’s much more to Poldark than topless scything though. It’s truly gorgeous stuff. Set against some beautiful backdrops and starring some beautiful people playing characters you’ll soon come to see as old friends, it’s the story of an historical way of life, a community under threat, love and most importantly, pilchards. Give it a go why don’t you.

Poldark series three starts on Sunday the 11th of June at 9pm on BBC One. 



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