Lizzard Light, Cornwall
Robin Ellis as Poldark
Dear friends and readers,
It’s been several weeks now since I fell in love with a new (to me) season-long mini-series (previously it was the 1974 BBC Pallisers): I found just irresistible the first season (1975) of Poldark adapted from 4 novels by Winston Graham. I began it because I was exploring the differences between films based on 18th century and 19th century matter (novels, history, legends). I finished it, have begun to read Graham’s novels and will go on to watch the second season (1977) of the series because even with its older cinematography, occasionally too restrained or decorous acting style, and uninventive cinematography filmstyle, it’s story, characters, themes are riveting, and its on location shooting, individual performances, dramatic scripts and scenes brilliant and effective and its whole mise-en-scene poetic.
Yesterday I read Robin Ellis’s slender unpretentious volume, Making Poldark. in which Ellis offers insight into the filming of these series, the troubles and pressures and tensions they had (over script — the series changed the books somewhat and there were debates over what kinds of changes to make), Cornwall in the 18th century and 1970s, the characters and his own career (which the series made). He remarks of the Ross character that he’s a cross between Stewart Grainger (an actor who did a swash-buckler role repeatedly in the Gainsborough studio costume dramas of the 1940s) and an 18th century Cornish Che Guevara.
Ross and Demelza Carne Poldark (Angharad Rees)
Ellis sees Poldark as starting life “as an impoverished member of the gentry class with an instinctive contempt for their values, the way they conducted their lives, and their dealings with working people. To his social peers he was a rebel, an uncomfortably disruptive force agains the status qo that they would do their damndest to be rid of.”
This goes a long way to explaining to me why the character charms me, and how the story manages to present a critically intelligent perspective on Cornish history.
It is romantic: Ross is in love with two women: Elizabeth (Jill Townsend), who he returns home from the American wars to marry and who jilts him for his richer apparently more secure, safer-to-wed, cousin, Francis (played just marvelously by Clive Francis)
Elizabeth with the baby she has by
Francis who the actor of the same name endows with vulnerability, self-dismay, high self-awareness and articulateness and candour
and Demelza who he first meets as a waif he kindly rescues from a brutal father, impoverishment and ignorance and grows in his generous household to become an attractive, self-possessed, intelligent and effective woman
When first seen at a local fair
Grown up, and shortly after she and Ross marry
Morning, noon and night, drama is taken from the books. The Warleggen family, the relatives trying to ruin him, the head of which is George, an arch-enemy:
Ralph Bates did the part with great intensity
Demelza and he fighting as frequenty as loving, rivalry with his cousin, Francis and others — Ross is no compromiser. Great houses burnt down — and they really did burn a house down — or part of it; riots, smuggling, great dashes across the wild bleak landscapes of Cornwall against the wild waters:
Making a landing after a night’s attempt to evade the tax collectors
What more can one want?
I wrote a few postings to Eighteenth Century Worlds, each after watching a few more hours of the first 16, and share a few here.
Cover of a 1980s edition: based on and enhancing a real cliff with mines in Cornwall
The 1970s dramaturgy includes the use of location symbolically — as waves crashing on rocks (anticipating the 2008 S&S?, not really, both are archetypal), and lovers embracing, fleeing, and struggling with one another against a sublimely it (and musically accompanied) seascape.
A hero more different from Tom Jones cannot be imagined — somber, serious, a man whose troubles are those that might appeal to people today: home from the war after having been declared dead, he finds his relatives and friends may welcome him, but the woman he was engaged to marries his cousin (for her family wants his family’s money), his uncle calls in a debt from money he has worked hard to loan, he is driven by a man (monopolizer in the making) who wants his mine. He is presented as a strong courageous type but with depth of feeling and intelligence. His central feature is not his gay sexuality or innate integrity (though he has both); its rather a seriousness of stance towards life, generosity of spirit, and decent ethics.
The series has several groups of intertwining stories where you care about central characters, and then as the stories move on, they create anxiety for the character’s fate. You are made to feel that by no means will all end in a conventional happy ending because already you’ve seen a few fates where this was not so. For the women this is mostly about marriage and who she will end up with: she gets pregnant outside marriage; she is bored with a husband whose job is awful and keeps him away for long hours plus he’s dull; her family has made it impossible for her to marry someone she loves and now she is defying them (about to run off). For me this is about the public world: one man almost dies in a terrible prison where a wound is uncared for; our hero, Poldark defies the law in taking him out (but he is a landowing gentleman so may get away with it); another is getting deep into debt.
A third set of anxieties shows the second strength: it really engages with serious issues in Cornwall, later 17th century. It may be said superficially but no more so (perhaps less so) than say, The duchess. Who will control the mines? Will it be a monopoly? The money to work them comes from English investors and will it be put back into the community. Concluding a barbain in which our revenant (for that’s what he is) puts himself into debt:
Our hero, Poldark is trying to use laws to hide his manipulation to try to keep and work his own mine and make money by the new process of smelting. Colonialism, the conditions of prisons, the class system — each takes a turn within a story line.
I notice less anxiety about masculinity because the woman really do implicitly obey the males when it comes to public decisions. Sex is kept offstage and that made marginal makes this partriarchy easier to take for women (especially as the males do the right thing and are — the good ones — non-violent). At the same time there is no harridan female, though there are alluring ones. he types are older: the protective strong good male (good husband material in at least three heroes). A masculinistic (swash buckling ultimately) point of view shapes its soap opera and feminine aesthetic structure.
Finally the acting. The dramaturgy and cinematography is of the older stage scene kind; no montages, little voice-over, no mesmerizing computers and music. But the acting is often superb. I recognize a number of actors from other mini-series at the time, and find myself hard put not to love Robin Ellis.
It doesn’t hurt to have a real fondness for costume drama and it be piqued by interest in the long 18th century — from the 17th century wars to the Napoleonic ones to enjoy this or the O’Brian novels (the same sort of thing as I’ve said). And a love of rural unspoiled scenery, suc as St Ives Harbour (in 1970s an artists colony – cheap to live), Prussia cove and shots of Angharad Rees dressed in the feminized masculine style Vigee-Lebrun put Marie Antoinette, and more.
St Ives, 1970s photo
Among other things that compel me on are the moviing images. A good deal is shot on location — on cliff, near the edge of waters, on meadows. One noticeable difference from modern scenes of this type is the activity of women. They run free on these meadows; often they are running away from someone.
In one sequence when Demelza decides that after all she will have an abortion or else simply do away with herself, and flees the house of one of Ross Poldark’s servants, we see her crossing a wasteland; naturally around this moment he discovers he has caused this pregnancy and being the good man he is (and also having affection for her), he chases after her by horse. He easily catches up, and stops her, brings her down to the ground and insists on bringing her back and marrying her. Their conversation is both touching and realistic. He is going the right thing and after all she doesn’t want to die.
I cannot recall a similar sequence in more recent film adaptations. Either the woman is made unreal in her over-the-top challenges or aggression, or the man is made much less decent and to some extent feminized and sentimentalized.
In another Sue Karen Thomas (Sheila White), having an affair with the local Dr Ennys (Richard Morant)
Ennys and Sue
She leaves his home at dawn and wanders through the meadows. She comes to a bad end; also met by a man, this time her husband, Mark Daniels; he, Othello like, knowing of a real affair murders her. I’m afraid the series is too sympathetic over this murder and in a later sequence we see Poldark helping this man to escape by boat to France (chased by militia) but again this sequence is well done, not overdone is the key.
When Francis Poldark, the “bad” cousin goes wild with drink and rage and resentment at his failures in life the acting by Clive Francis is perfect, again just right, with persuasive words (in this hour Jack Pullman who wrote the 1972 Golden Bowl)
I have bought an old battered copy of Volume I of Winston Graham’s
series to see how much of the admirable characters come from the book.
In the 1970s too we have real sympathy with the poor and vulnerable. The way monopolies and the privileged are treated is from a mildly left-of-center standpoint. I know I’m liking the series for what is made admirable and so sympathetic in the chief character I like and feel sympathy for. There is for example nothing hypocritical about either Ross or Demelza. They are really decent people; one sees such characters still, but they are presented as total aliens having to refuge themselves from the larger environment. Here they fight and occasionally have wins, though at this point in the series Ross does contemplate suicide at one point. He has lost his investment, is hounded by creditors, has helped criminals against the police (see above), one man he tried to help went to prison for longer becuase of his efforts, his baby by Demelza has died (sickened). But we know in the end all will be well enough …
Ross and Demelza, from an early moment in their relationship, she anxious, he determined
I’ve reached mid-point in the first season, the first episode of the Fourth of my sxi VHS Cassettes. In this one Poldark is acquitted of the crime he was accused of; we see him stubbornly refuse to manipulate and kowtow and almost ruin his own case. We also see that the loyalty he did engender in the servant the bribers depended upon won out — as well as the servant’s dislike and distrust of so much bullying. He speaks out in favor of helping the poor even if it means deprecating or taking off rich man’s property. Of customs that are communitarian. Where would we hear this today?
The courtroom scene is powerful in itself — they usually are.
The other story lines continue with Poldark and his cousin, Francis, now brought together — through Demelza who also by her quiet politicking helped her husband’s case along. She had met the judge (an honest man we are told) at the ball she went to and did all she could to make friends for Poldark and remind others of him.
At the close of the episode things are not going much better: he does not know Demelza is again pregnant; she hides it for it’s a burden he says he does not want (though apparently doing nothing to stop this); she has been badly hurt by overhearing a conversation between him and Elizabeth where it seems he still feels love for Elizabeth and a sense of having compromised in his marriage; it’s not clear — as in life things are not.
There are old-fashioned steretypes no longer seen in these film adaptations: simply good people who act out of kindly motives, affectionate and well meaning talk. There is also a kind of hold-over from 18th century fiction itself: the challenge and duel. One of my favorite women characters,Verity Poldark, in the novel chooses a man her relatives will not accept, and Ross, whom she befriends, befriends her by letting her meet this man in his house. For his pains, he is threatened by her relatives, and the man he tried to help almost kills her brother, his cousin, Francis.
Norman Streader as Verity Poldark
I like her for her kind good nature, strong ethical values (like Ross she disdains judging people by rank) and her time as a spinster in the series — not for who she chooses to marry (a man the series forgives for killing his wife too) nor her later complacencies. Hats tell a lot about characters in series; hers is not the fancy Gainsborough one, high, with feathers, but a plain pancake with a ribbon.
These flaws (or stereotypes) do not detract from the really strikingly good acting and complexity of a number of the major characters. The old dramaturgy which leaves time for acting is a joy. They make an effective use of landscape dynamics.
The unmarried life-loving sweet Demelza
I see this continuity: generic tropes in scenery and scenes. The recent 2008 S&S has crashing sea on the rocks and waves; so does this one only there are now computer technologies to enhance. Tropes of love romance (the physician is slowly forming a relationship with a woman from an aristocratic family) and others are found in the praised later films said to be subversive in this way and that; but these punctuating archetypes are there.
Beyond the character of Poldark I’d like to single out how what is emphasized and what is omitted is unusual. For example the verdict of not guilty is not dramatized. You’d think it would be, but in a way it’s a waste of time, for the characters would rejoice or sulk. Instead we see a quiet conversation between the father and son who were bribing everyone to destroy Poldark; now they’ll call in loans, and can try to eliminate his oppostion to them in other ways. Pullman did write teh 1972 Golden Bowl, and I note it’s Alexander Baron who wrote a number of the episodes in the second season (also a fine writer of these film adaptation in the 1980s).
Hero against cliff
At the conclusion of the Fifth of my VHS Cassettes Poldark is resorting to allow smugglers on his property to make ends meet, pay his creditors. Hanging is the punishment for this tax evasion (as some of the characters call it — this is a subversive mini-series). At last Demelza tells him she is pregnant for a third time (she has had the one miscarriage of the pregnancy that caused the marriage, and one baby dead from a disease caught ultimately from Francis Poldark whom she nursed). Since we are given warning signs she is endangering this one by going out fishing to get the family food, we stand warned for anxiety over this. Poldark takes it well – and we see them become affectionate again — though he says he would have been angry a few weeks ago; and did not want any more after the dead child; there is a truthfulness to this series which is seen in the fight sequences. Unable to control himself, he attacks his arch-enemy, George Warlegen — he’s the man who engineered the trumped up trial in the last episode, whose result could also have been hanging; Warlegon’s father is the man who wants a monology on copper and mining in the area and to destroy Poldark’s mines or take them over. This fight is unusually realistic. Probably stunt men did it, but no great feats of darnig-do or swordsmanship or anything graceful. They slam one another clumsily and there’s time for close-ups of hatred and intense resentment.
Jud Painter (Paul Curran), one of Ross’s two main servants
Comic interludes are provided Jud Painter, by the poor man who didn’t give evidence against Poldark when paid to do it. He is taken up by Warlegen’s men and beaten. He’s thought dead and put in a coffin; turns out he’s just so drunk and beaten. The funeral fun is interrupted when he gets up. Unrealistic since it would not have taken a couple of days for a man in a coma to awaken or he would not have, but this leaves room for an imitation Cornish wake and ghost sequence.
A promotional group photo
The scenes on location continue to be strong – as well (I hope anyone reading this will see) the genuinely left-of-center point of view in the series.
We have the militia represented again seeking out these people. But it turns on Demelza managing to put them off and flirting with the captain. So too the financing issue and debts are shown but not with much depth — enough to make us see the struggling pair but not the larger context which is colonialist — English power and wealth came from exploiting these people.
The spread of scurvy, and the desperate need for fresh fruit is brought in to by the story of our doctor (Ennys played by the man who did Bunter) and his growing romance with a rebellious aristocratic woman who I surmize is the one who has funded Ross’s mine. This is a male wet dream but she wears very pretty hats and would fit in well in 1940s Gainsborough (UK company) film costume movies. Pleasing archetype for women here too.
The riveting part of this episode is the death of Francis Poldark: he drowns himself, half an accident but one is led to surmize half-unconscious death wish. He imagines that he finds copper in the mine he now shares with his cousin, Ross. He wants so badly to find it. It would solve all their problems; it would make up for his betrayal of Ross to the capitalist monopolizer, old man Warlegan; he would gain self-respect and respect from others. He seems suddenly to forget he can’t swim — we see him almost drown early on in the series. We also have scenes where he articulates his knowledge of Elizabeth, his wife’s lack of love for him — or Ross Poldark — remember she married him for his money and rank over Ross to whom she was engaged, and she would have run off with Ross a few years later but that Demelza got pregnant and Ross did the right thing in marrying Demelza. He expresses the loneliness of life. Clive Francis is a high point in the series for me (his performance).
While the historical part of the novels do not come across sufficiently in the story line (though we do see a lot that’s suggestive):
Port Quinn, Cornwall;
What is probably the core issue of the novels autobiographically does: again when Francis dies, we see Ross willing to express to Elizabeth that his married life represents a compromise and maybe he’d have rather married her after all; he even for a moment seems to suggest that if he might just chuck the whole life he has, rejoin his regiment and pension Demelza off (in effect). But there are words he suddenly spouts — poetry where he speaks of what is his real commitment to Demelza for her character, his love for her has grown, and by the end of the episode, having been given money mysteriously, far from chucking it all, we see him rush home to Demelza with a gift and the good news and they go up to bed together.
A fun scene in the series is him changing their baby’s diapers. I mentioned yesterday that anxiety had been created over Demelza’s new pregnancy. She keeps it from Ross; he didn’t want it; she goes out fishing endangering herself. As the episode opens even though she has now told him, she goes fishing again and we are made to worry — as the camera watches her struggle in her boat, maybe it will capsize, maybe she will drown, maybe she will have another miscarriage or a stillborn (as she did the first pregnancy).
We hear her breathing hard and struggling on land and we think she’s about to drop it, but cut to another scene and it’s been delivered safely, a boy. Jeremy Poldark — I see a later novel is named after him so he lives to grow up.
Now the diaper scene is wholly anachronistic as are the scenes of women refusing to obey absolute orders from the men — but it is fun for a 20th century woman to watch this.
Prude (Mary Wimbush), in the novel she helps the child Demelza orient herself into the household; in the novel, she is an ally, this part worried for Demelza over her pregnancy
Poldark, 1st Season ends in stunning defeat
I finished watching what IMDB tells me is the 16th episode (one hour) of the 1st season of the series. Each of the six parts my VHS cassettes ended with a “to be continued;” this is the first part to end with a “The End” full cast list and fade out shot with Ross and Demelza embracing, kissing against a bleak shore with quiet waves and spirited yet melancholy music.
The ending is remarkable: the series ends in utter defeat. Ross arrived from the US to try to build a life for himself out of his inheritance, specially his farm land and mines and fails. He is going to return to his regiment for a 6 (or ten) year bout, leaving Demelza behind. Her beloved dog, Garrick, is murdered, shot dead by Warleggen’s armed flunkies when she on her way to leave Ross for good takes him with and her makes the mistake of crossing a fence. Another of our chief heroes, albeit a murderer of his wife, Mark Daniels, is shot dead as he with a gang of angry marauders enters the Warleggen house (taken over from the Poldarks upon Francis, Ross’s cousin’s death and Francis’s widow, Elizabeth’s bad decision to marry George) Warleggen has been systemically throwing all tenants off the land to enclose it, firing most miners to replace them, imprisoning and/or killing and transporting all protesters because he has the judges in his hand. A riot has ensued and the house is burnt to the ground. We last see Warleggen saved by Ross (remember he’s our hero) from some tortured death by being put in his horse and Elizabeth on the other, and the two chased out of the area. This should please Elizabeth for in this last episode she has been at George to take her away from “here” to London as part of his promises when they wed, and he has refused, as the first of other promises he had no intention of keeping.
The great house destroyed — a major symbol of all these series: one is imported into the recent (2001) Dr Zhivago as where Zhivago and Lara run a hospital from; it’s standing as they part for Moscow and Yuritan, the symbol of lastingness in these series. Not at the close of Poldark 1.
Ross has not behaved well to Demelza to say the least of it. When he heard that Elizabeth is about to marry or has married George, he jumped on his horse and rode off to her house, climbed into her window (very hero like all this) and raped her. Not so hero like. This is 1980 and the scene is only implied — less is shown than the 1979 Tess by Polanski but the event is clear. No explanation given, nor is it discussed in terms of why do this to Elizabeth — who Warleggen nonethless married so if it was to stop him, it didn’t; if to humiliate him, he waived that (so to speak). No sense in the series of Elizabeth’s distress is given time for — this is like the murder of the wife who was adulterous with the doctor.
She is not photographed to show any real distress either. Her hair is overdone in the way of the early 1970s mini-series, and probably this shot is intended to evoke resentment as much as identification:
Jill Townsend as Elizabeth
Not just rape, but he has all long let Demelza know her status, and while he was gone that night she went off to a ball (naturally one is happening), a striking scene where the two men who had been after her almost get to go to bed with her. Since she is of course our chaste heroine, in the case of the more serious one, the military man who let Ross off, she changes her mind and simply throws him out. (Not likely or improbable, but a strong enough scene). The other is treated comically. But Ross believes she went to bed with at least one of them and is very angry. He wants her to confess and apologize — clearly though he’s not intending to end the marriage over this or even get brutal. She refuses and demands a separation. As with her pregnancy where she led thim to believe she had other lovers and the baby coming was someone else’s, so here she does not disabuse him at first. Only as time goes on and the quarrel grows worse and she sees him get up separation papers, an allowance for her and determine where to send the son to school, does she tell.
Still they fight because he won’t regret his actions to Elizabeth. Slowly though he melts to the extent of apologizing — because (now romance gets in) he is influenced by what he sees among the families of his miners, and even more the good Dr Ennys and his upper class Caroline compromising and engaging themselves at last. Ennys too is going off to wars — we are in the 1790s now and I imagine the wars of the French revolution are spilling over into the riots and chaos in Cornwall (as they did in Ireland). So the last scene by the beach is another chase one where he has come home to find her not gone but grieving over the dead dog and not wanting to give up the child. She flees him out of the house and he runs after her and they bound through the cliffs, past the destroyed mine and near to the shore. They reconcile sufficiently so that we know they will be making love soon and spend the next 10 days together.
Ross’s farmhouse, which he leaves to Demelza to care for while he’s gone
But this does not change his having failed, his leaving her to cope as he says he can’t.
The mood is (oddly) upbeat in its way with odd comic moments (Dr Ennys’s getting together with Caroline). The music is part of this; scenes of the ball; and the sheer energy of the riot scenes. Ross does also finally strike tin and there is a powerful scene of a miner dying — Ross blaming himself. Oh yes, his mine blows up too. I forgot that.
Recent movies — since the later 1990s are far more frank about emotions, show the full vulnerability of people they way these older ones didn’t and the full darkness of what happened would not be undermined, but in that the series stayed true to the failure ending has impressed, the determined grim depiction of compromises in love and sex, the depiction of class differences,the attempt to expose the upper class maneuvers through Warleggen are all strongly commendable.
In fact this series as a political romance is worthy of the 1980s British TV to come. I end on my favorite still, Ross as he appears in the beginning of the next season.
Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark, back from a 2nd set of wars, civil, revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, this time in Europe
When the first series opened, Ross was back from the American wars, “French and Indian” we call them, and I fancy were someone to adapt Charlotte Smith’s Old Manor House (and it would make a great adaptation), when the hero, Orlando comes back from the middle section of the book where he fought in the French and Indian wars, was captured by Indians and lived for a time as an Indian, the actor doing it could do no better than dress in such an outfit and take such a stance towards the world. Or the Fitzgerald who fought and lost in the Irish revolutionary wars (a Lennox grandson), from Tillyard’s Aristocrats (in fact the 1999 mini-series had a polished, cleaned up luxurious image rather than this).
Surely, the reader who has got this far will have seen I’ve fallen in love with Robin Ellis as Poldark (who I was drawn to as Edward Ferrars in the 1971 S&S) and identify, or recognize aspects of an ideal self I find deeply appealing in Angharad Rees as Demelza.
P. S. Journalizing: 6/15/10. As someone has commented on Judy Geeson, I thought I’d add a still of her. Geeson’s character, the London-born rich orphan, Caroline Penvenen, seems to me the most unreconstructed of the transfers from 1940s Gainsborough costume drama romance (renamed using Graham’s fiction), as evidenced by her absurd hats, super-extravagant costumes for every day life, and providential interest in curing scurvy and giving of money to Ross (secretly yet). Perhaps she is part of what keeps the film popular; alas, she replaces the unfortunate murdered Sue (who I did put on the blog above) in Dr Ennys’s life — to his credit Dr Ennys remains guilty and grief-stricken for Sue, at first unwilling to accept this replacement.
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