This image is not the image on the cover of Poldark: The complete Scripts, series 1 (which is awful), but the cover does feature Aidan Turner in just this sort of mood and in need of a shave
Dear Friends and readers,
While I was away in Cornwall, I had a number of wonderful finds in bookshops, especially Fowey where I found Poldark: The Complete Scripts, Series 1 by Debbie Horsfield; in the parlance of film studies, these are screenplays, not just actual records of what was said and acted, but scenes intended to be acted that were cut or never made it into filming, many stage directions, brief commentaries in brackets on the characters as they speak the proposed dialogue, and descriptions of the scenery to be filmed, the mise-en-scene of a set, and larger action as envisaged by Horsfield. I also found Claude Berry’s excellent county book, A Portrait of Cornwall, updated in 191 (a Robert Hale book) and a superb book of essays on Daphne DuMaurier: The DuMaurier Companion, ed Sarah Waters. I’ll be (I hope) writing about the last two in the near future; for now. Here I will comparing the screenplays with the original historical fictions by Graham and (briefly) the older 1970s mini-series.
Horsfield’s scripts for the first season of Poldark (that is all eight hour-long episodes) have been a revelation. The script called for better shows than we got. Really. Horsfield has lots of commentary and description that is psychologically suggestive. I had accused the scripts of being crude, and been puzzled why the lines were so short, or blunt when her other work has sophisticated dialogue. Well the lines are not short; what happened was that when the dialogue was filmed, the speed at which it was done, gives the effect of abruptness, and the way the scenes are enacted often precludes resonance. This was a choice by the two male directors, Edward Balzagette and William McGregor.
What’s more: there are numerous small and larger cut scenes, and some of them contain subtlety and slow development for Heidi Reed as Elizabeth. As I read the scripts, from the outset, Horsfield had in mind to change the interpretation of Elizabeth as found in Graham’s books and as found in the 1970s series: lines and descriptions suggest she is yearning to “be with” Ross as it’s called; for talk, for a coming together of their spirits, for sex. What’s left are silent short takes of the actress at the window, looking out, none leaving enough time to understand what the meaning of the shot is. Without wanting to attack an actor, it seems to me in the love scenes of the first series, Turner lacks the subtlety he needs; it’s as if others of them were directed to be more blunt and simplistic than the script called for. I want to re-watch the first season against the scripts before quoting any specific scenes (and I would prefer not to allow these blogs to become as overlong as they did last year).
I’m particularly impressed with how each episode has its own arch and emphatic themes. I’ve seen this in other BBC drama books, but this one is remarkably tightly-knit. It is clear that she wants the character of Ross to be central to each episode, even if he does not have a linchpin or dominating POV; this is not true of Graham’s second book (Demelza) and his perspective is the wider one of the world of Cornwall so he has rich complicated characters in main and subplots. The major presence after Ross is Demelza, with Francis (like Elizabeth) being given suggestive lines. Kyle Soller was up to the role and he alone (it seems to me) was allowed the time and space to realize the lines of the four principals. I was confirmed in the side-lining of Keren who is given marginal space. OTOH, there is lyrical beauty to her introduction while she is playing Helen (“that bright particular star” of All’s Well that Ends Well).
Having read the scripts, it seems to me that the flaws and problems I outlined as did others in this new Poldark, the first series, were not due to the script but the realization. Extrapolating from this, I’ll give the new season the benefit of the doubt and assume the same might hold true. There will soon be published a book of the second series (just now available only in kindle editions), with Demelza’s face on the cover. I’ve pre-ordered it. The cover still is not as aggressively “in your face” as the cover for the first series: Eleanor Tomlinson looks weary and grief-striken, near tears
We know that she will be having to deal with a full-blown love affair between Ross and Elizabeth, enough to make any wife as deeply invested in her husband as this ex-kitchen and working class girl is.
The volume is introduced by Karen Thrussell who says she is a lover of Graham’s novels and tells us that Horsfield did not know the novels at all before she was hired. This is her first time for costume drama. That was deliberate: they wanted someone whose expertise was proved in popular mini-series that get high ratings. An online article by “the historical advisor,” Hannah Grieg, to Horsfield and the film-makeers (crew, costumer, production, actors) released by the BBC tells you these are well researched novels, embedded in history; they are. Grieg says she “stripped the books down” for Horsfield. Greig claims she became deeply immersed and marvels at the accuracy of the presentation of mining and banking business at the time (and central to the stories, as well as the prison system, the injustice of the laws against poaching). I suspect that most of the time the historian’s roles are exaggerated in these series, and they are rather consulted when the writer fears she is making some egregious error. Perhaps in this case Horsfield needed help? At any rate it would be superficial and the scripts don’t feel superficial; the scenes about mining seem to me to have taken what could be taken from Graham’s books.
I’ve said that this year I don’t want perpetually to be comparing the older series with the newer one as I’ve done that before, and after a while the finding that the older one is the subtler, with far more novelistic scripts, and closer to the original Post World War Two and 1970s subversive and feminist conceptions of the books is simply repetitive. I’ve written, delivered at a conference and published an essay on this now: Poldark Rebooted: 40 Years On. Instead my idea is to compare this historical fiction series with one very like it, Outlander from Diana Gabaldon’s historical romance time-traveling tales (as the older 1970s Poldarks were remarkably parallel and like to The Onedin Line).
Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall (1943)
Claire Randall beginning her relationship with Sam Heughan as her protector-chivalric Jamie (1743)
I’ve said how much I am drawn to both series, and argued that both are if not fully feminist, proto-feminist, that Graham’s fiction has been said by others to be “instinctively feminist” and he is on record saying that he was concerned to show the “raw deal” women have been handed across history. The films from Gabaldon’s first book made the POV of the series Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser just as surely as the new films from Graham’s books made Aidan Turner as Ross. I’ve called the Outlander series film-feminism because of the use of Claire’s perspective and memories as over-voice; she is the linch-pin mind of the series, her memories take us back and forth in time.
This is Robin Ellis’s face as Ross Poldark as he begins to mount the roof to where Elizabeth is lying in a rage that ends in a rape (1975-76 Poldark, from Warleggan)
But there is a real problem with this pleasant outlook and I don’t want to ignore this and misrepresent the books and films. The new series has wiped out Ross’s rape of Elizabeth in Warleggan. Among the arguments for insisting it is a rape (which I’ve made in my analyses of the books) is that marital rape and rape itself outside marriage is common across Graham’s oeuvre. In Graham’s The Forgotten Story (set in Cornwall in 1898), the young husband rapes his wife after he thinks she has been having an affair with a sailor and she becomes unconscious after a traumatically violent incident in her uncle’s tavern. In Marni, the “cure” for the mentally troubled young heroine in Hitchcock’s movie is aggressive rape; this comes from the book where the husband rapes his wife in a passionate moment of despair. In the plot-summaries I’ve read of other of his mysteries, and spy thriller, I found rape repeatedly. As those who know The Four Swans remember, we have a sadistic Vicar Whitworth forced on Mowenna Chynoweth as her husband; she finds him distasteful morally and aesthetically and to get back at her and because he enjoys it, he inflicts sadistic sex on her; among other things, twisting her feet and ankles so repeatedly that when she finally escapes him and years go by, she is still hobbling.
I would like to interpret all this as Graham exposing the reality that coerced marriage is a form of rape: the parents and family insist this female give her body to a specific male in order for the family to aggrandize itself with money or rank. I’d like to see all these incidents as him exposing how men think they are the solution when they have been the problem (Marni – the heroine’s mother is a deeply distraught women as a result of having sold herself as a prostitute to make ends meet), but it is clear they can also be read as voyeurism. Indeed that’s the way Hitchcock films them. The men are not always punished; the rape is slid over. In the case of Ross, there is finally a deep punishment but it takes years and wreaks damage on Elizabeth (death) and destroys the character and life of their son, Valentine. The Vicar is simply murdered by the husband of Morwenna’s salacious and promiscuous sister, Rowella. Which brings in the question of how Graham offers only limited sympathy to women who he has invented as promiscuous (Keren who marries and destroys Mark is damned by suggestions she was after more men than Dwight Enys)
The Walking Stick (one of the great films made from a non-Poldark novel, where the hero is a crook and the heroine disabled)
In the case of Winston Graham, a woman friend,journalist and film critic whose views I respect, Judy Geater, could not bear the marital rapes in the Poldark series: she agreed that the thrust was actually feminist, but felt Graham was offering this up as enjoyment; that he was (as other male writers are) obsessed with the fear that a woman will be false (one finds this in LeCarre’s Smiley books); she also did not enter into Demelza’s attitudes towards Ross which for me were a paradigm of something of what I knew with Jim, and what Claire Beauchamp gradually begins to evince towards Jamie Fraser. So both this popular historical fiction series is problematic for serious women readers. Horsfield change from a raped and angry woman, to a woman who chooses to have sex with a longed-for man may be seen as getting rid of the problematic nature of the books. Not altogether as she deepens the hostility to aggressive, sexualized women (Keren and now I think Caroline Penvennen from what I’ve seen the second episode of the first season).
There is something equally troubling in Outlander which far from moderating (as the 1970s writers did) or erasing (as Horsfield has done), Gabaldon’s group of writers make emphatic. In Chapter 22, called The Reckoning, and in the parallel episode, Jamie beats Claire to teach her a lesson in obedience. The idea is she was captured by Black Jack Randall because she didn’t take seriously enough that her own danger also endangered her husband and all the men who were loyal to him. Diane Reynolds, a friend of mine, also once a journalist, and now author (see my review of her The Doubled life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer), put it this way:
“Black Jack’s sadistic (what I remember) beating of Jamie with a cat o’ nine tails was horrified and it did shock me, but it also fit a familiar paradigm: it is what we expect the evil character to do to the hero. But Jamie IS the hero, and it being acceptable that he beat his wife (and that her humiliation was key to her acceptance) did bother me. He is also sexually aroused by the experience, and that seemed realistic to me (I had read about concentration guards who would beat prisoners until they (the guards) ejaculated) but I wondered: couldn’t Jamie, if such a good guy, have pretended to beat Claire and had her scream (to satisfy his friends’ need for her abjection) while he hit a table or whatever? Well, any way, a minor point. I don’t mean it to be a huge thing, just an example of a reactionary strain in Gabaldon–and it is what it is. It does make a difference if one comes to a book first or a filmed version– easier to engage the filmed version if it doesn’t irritate preconceived ideas. I probably like the second Poldark better than you for not seeing the first, and the Davies WP for not having seen another version.
Claire shocked and frightened when told by Jamie he is going to beat her in the hearing of his “mates”
This turns the time-traveling tale into a metaphor for a fraternity where the female dreamer is helpless against an all-male universe and must submit lest she end up gang-raped ….
Diane’s comments acknowledge that Horsfield’s version in fact is feminist because like Claire in most of the scenes of Outlander freely gives of herself to Jamie and we are invited to revel with them in their wedded sexual compatibility (so to speak). I had pointed out that the concluding two episodes of the film series and chapters in the book where we witness Jamie raped and then his character broken, him humiliated with nothing sparred us of the buggery were far more transgressive and could be seen as voyeuristic. I think the series is on a high-tier to permit the film-makers to do this (it wouldn’t do for BBC Sunday prime time). But as I read the chapters I have to admit the next (omitted in the film) is one of Jamie justifying corporal punishment. He tells stories of how his father beat him and how this was good for him, and by the end of the conversation Claire seems almost grateful for having been made aware she was reckless. This is somewhat countered by her pulling a knife on him just as they are about to have sex once again, and him kneeling before her to swear he will never beat her again, but i fact that he beat her is insisted on. It was not just mild hitting. She cannot sit comfortably, cannot ride a horse for more than say 20 minutes at a time. The book is not written in 1743 but 1991.
Beyond that the doubling of the Claire’s mild, gentle Frank, her 20th century husband, with the cruelly sadistic homosexual Black Jack Randall is deeply anti-homosexual (it takes us back to the characterizations of homosexuality in The Jewel in the Crown and the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs), this blending of the two suggests beneath Frank lurks Black Jack, and the subtext is titillating. There are also the many rape attempts on Claire, on Jamie’s sister, Jenny, and way Geillis Duncan, near the end of the series revealed as another woman from the future (1968), manipulates and kills her husband, Arthur, to enable her to marry the brutal and treacherous Douglas Mackenzie (brother to the Laird, so next in line to rule the clan). Some of the women of Outlander do not conform to the older paradigm of submissive romance heroine as outlined by Miriam Burstein in her essay on Anne Boleyn as a character type (The fictional afterlife of Anne Boleyn: how to do things with the Queen, 1901-2006.” Clio 37.1  and Jerome de Groot (Consuming History) in his chapter on Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (on the 2003 film too). We see her in Andrew Davies’s alignment of Lise, Prince Andrey’s doomed pregnant-child wife with Jane Seymour in Wolf Hall through having them played by the same actress, Kate Phillips. But Claire learns to and Demelza and Verity never stop.
Yet Poldark and Outlander are perceived as contemporary women’s fare, are widely popular, make a lot of money and will thus be repeated and sold as long as there is audience for them.
The new Poldark’s Cornwall — which is quite different from Graham’s 1983 books (for a start all but one picture has been changed)
Why argue over this? why bring out matters of taste and outlook? It matters because there is things in work of art, be it book or film, that makes it worthy of praise as well as criticism. We pay these works a compliment by taking them seriously and in our emotional life they function seriously. When I go on to write about the first and second episodes of the second season of the new Poldark and carry on with the first season of Outlander I am discussing real properties in these works of art however intangible. Realism at whatever level the work allows is important: how do people really behave towards one another and how do we relate to this? Nowadays the canon (however unacknowledged are Outlander and Poldark) patently does not just express the preferences of an elite class. We argue about these things because we assume judgements are true and matter. There’s value here and there’s danger.
I’ve been working out some thoughts about the relationship of the new Poldark scripts to the actual programs, and then thinking about the problematic nature of how rape and violence towards women is presented in Poldark and Outlander, taken to be woman’s fare.