“There is much in the world which is monstrous” — Graham’s Ross on the beach, Demelza
“I am finding it very hard to live with myself” — Francis to Elizabeth, Christmas, Wheeler’s script, invented scene …
“Have a care for the law. Tis a cranky and twisty old thing. And you may flout it half a dozen times. But let it once come to grips with you, and you find it harder to be loose from than a great black squid.” — Captain MacNeil to Ross, Horsfield’s script, a darker variant on Graham’s utterance
Dear friends and readers,
So we are come to the end of this year’s first season: Poldark re-booted, 40 years on. Though I’ve not titled this blog to include Graham’s Demelza nor the 8th episode of the 1975 Poldark, as in all previous this is another comparative blog which assumes previous knowledge. Once again we have the old familiar pictures from the 1970s for those who loved them as I did. And once again, the distance as well as similarities between Ross Poldark and Demelza and the two disparate kinds of film art.
Our theme though is a bit different. I have been able to profit from watching one of Debbie Horsfield’s previous mini-series, the astonishing, riveting All the Small Things (directed by Metin Huysein, whose corpus includes the 1997 Tom Jones) and read about a couple of others. All the Small Things differs strongly in its dramaturgy from this new Poldark: Like Sex, Chips & Rock-n-roll, its scenes are not short, the characters use precise interesting complicated language, and its strength derives from what the characters say to one another. In neither is there this continual back-and-forth switching of montage and repetition of archetypes and simple ideas. This dramaturgy was therefore deliberate, and British ratings say it’s been widely watched. Thanks to Anibundel I’ve also been comparing costumes, hats, hairdos, wigs. If these be not costume drama, costume drama is nowhere to be found.
My suggestion tonight: while the 1970s film-makers were content to produce a sufficiently historically accurate and novelistic series reproducing the spirit of the original books (4 of them, post WW2 milieu), Horsfield’s cinematic archetypal approach is an attempt to make a new mythic matter. The 1975 films are Cornish regional romance, an adaptation of 4 historical fictions set carefully in the later 18th century, low-keyed enough for comedy. The 2015 films are not localized in the same way at all; they reach out to function the way recent films do, aware of themselves as in an intertexual film universe. This is not as hubristic as it may seem, as Graham says in the early 1970s when filming the first four books was broached to him, the idea was to make a British kind of Gone with the Wind, I half-regret to admit US mythic matter because so pro-Southern, so racist.
This is not to say that both don’t differ from the original book and try to appeal to the mainstream politics of the era. So in Demelza where it is acceptable and understood from centuries of custom, that the flotsam and jetsam of wreckage on a beach is fair game for the people living around both films takes into account this seems to our capitalist private-property obsessions crime of the first order. There was also a deep resentment against the excise tax, the imposed soldiers of the British army who were there to stop any reform movements lest they turn into a 1790s English style French revolution. In Graham’s Demelza Ross arouses Jud to waken the community, he is half-mad with grief and rage and needs to strike out against an implacable universe which has taken his child, his business, still threatens his wife, and he is gladdened to see the local people gain food and furniture for the coming year, and he participates, but he does not lead; he encourages, represses, orders where needed; only when a riot ensues when other groups of people come does he intervene to save the captain and his men and look to see if anyone needs saving on the ship.
Looking from on high over the beach, distraught (many close-ups), taking action, first a line to go into the ship and then stumbling on soldiers urging them back to Nampara (Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark, 1975)
Paul Wheeler departs from this by having Robin Ellis go to Jud to find help for the men on the ship, and only realize that scavenging will result when he looks into Jud’s eyes, and then exult; Ellis spends his night trying to stop the riot, and save people. We see the British soldiers as in an earlier corn riot killing the people. By contrast, Debbie Horsfield has Ross not only rouse Jud deliberately, but himself organize the scavenging so as to be deeply useful to all, alert throughout, a figure of controlled stern anger, taking on managerial functions; like Ellis and Graham’s Ross himself violent to stop others’ violence, as a last thought inviting the Captain and his men back to the house but if they do not trust him they need not come. We see the lead British soldier taking a bribe from Warleggan to lie about what Ross did on the beach.
The changes are telling. In 1975 we have a deeply psychological take on a man in distress and acting half-insanely, innocent of scavenging himself; in 2015 we have a hero caring for his people by scavenging with them. Wheeler’s is closer to the book where Ross means to allow others to scavenge, but then tries to stop the riot, but in neither film is there a willingness to dramatize one of Graham’s paradoxical themes: the self fighting society’s deep corruptions, refusing to be coopted except on its own definition of what is virtue.
Graham’s Demelza, the last quarter
Chapter 1: Verity’s letter to Demelza: her happiness and gratitude, Verity now has the life to live she wanted to and could. Family and business, politics and gender are utterly intertwined in the world (seen in Graham’s Forgotten Story and Cordelia. Demelza did it. Chapter 2: a bleak Christmas — at Nampara and Trenwith. Francis despairing, alcoholic, Elizabeth turning away. Demelza and Ross and Enys carrying on with carols; he going over books, ending company; the two struggling through to be decent to one another and restore relationship; she visits Sir Hugh Bodrugan, Ross’s angery: he will not ask for loan; he will see Pascoe.
Chapter 3: The desperate illness at Trenwith brings Choake and then Enys; Ross’s meeting with Tonkin and then George’s offer to buy him out at inn; narrator insists on spite as strong motive in George. So Demelza’s (to Ross and the Poldark family) loyalty to her gender and sister-friend has destroyed Ross’s company. As in Ross Poldark where Ross’s humane rescue of the child Demelza brought down the community on him, so her humane rescue allows others’s exploitation. Chapter 4: News of illness at Trenwith: another decision of hers, to be a nurse to Francis, Elizabeth and Geoffrey Charles, partly because she feels she took from them Verity — this will lead to her sickness, the death of Julia. This is interwoven with Ross and Sir John, Ross and Pascoe where Ross will not sell his mine.
Chapter 5 Ross to Pearce. Pearce lives with his sister; he will arrange 1000 pound loan if he can; Ross home to Demelza who tells Ross where she’s been and what done: at Trenwith with the dying helping to save them. His intense business for a year is useless and he is thrown back on farming. He refuses still to sell his shares to Warleggan and takes out a new loan to pay through Pearce — refusing to bend to the monopoly. It is his choice to do this (which will lead to smuggling in the next book), but it was Demelza’s interference interacting with the family that inadvertently led to the failure.
Chapter 6: New Year’s Day, 1790, a gale, snow flurries, Demelza takes to her bed; Enys: both wife and daughter have it. Chapter 7: Northerly gale for another 3 days: Demelza’s nightmares; her father’s crazed religion about being saved: she dreams of Ross saying “let him die in the mud;” memories of Keren and Mark, she calls to her dog, “He takes things so much to heart, Verity had said” (of Ross); choaking someone’s hand there (Enys). The cold, the thaw, the weather, Demelza wakes and Ross lies to her that she can see Julia in morning; Julia has died
Chapter 8: The burial of the child; Ross’s rage; Julia will be lonely in the cold, she hated wind. Now deep in Ross’s mind (as we went back and forth between them just before and after marriage in first book); the wreck reported, how he rouses the people, Grambler miners to come, Jud says she never saw Ross looking so much like his father
Chapter 9: A scene Ross remembered for years afterwards: the men on the beach, women taking needed food; he gets inside ship and sees hopelessness (Sanson’s body) the fires, the wreck happening, and more men streaming on. Rose’s mind half-crazed but he does join in, advising, encouraging, repressing, ordering. There is a second ship and the wreckage is more ambiguous; it seems with help the wreck might have been avoided. But Ross’s despair and then identifying with the working classes utterly does lead to the high conflagration food riot: unintended consequences (rather like Demelza’s act for Verity). Chapter 10: Drunken fights and mayhem on the beach; men of ship come and Ross there invites them back to his house although his wife has been sick. Ross: “much in the world is monstrous”.
(A sub plot-design is Ross’s perpetual kicking against the laws and customs of his world directly while Demelza works against them indirectly — both are pro-family, pro-friend. This is by the end seen to be attached to his male friendships and companions whom he is loyal to: lower class, Jim and Mark, then upper for bank loans, and then at the end Captain MacNeil who warns him he must not get caught disobeying the law nor push it too far. MacNeil chases down smugglers on the beach and at the same time, Mark Daniels so knows Ross has been instrumental in freeing Mark. MacNeil and Ross identify as ex-solder who fought in North America, but their allegiance is to in McNeil’scase the state and law (MacNeil on the twisty nature of the law which will swallow Ross); in the Ross’s to friends, love, family, principles.)
Chapter 11: Morning after; tranquil now: he had planned so much for Julia; normative life returning to him; she so thin and weak; he takes her to window to look out, she asks that he let her stay in the sun. Book ends quietly, wrap my shoulders, let me have the light a little longer please.
For a more detailed exposition with themes worked out see Demelza, A Cornish world mirroring our own.
1975, Episode 8: it’s been rearranged but just about all the original events and characters are there. The only loss is it ends more melodramatically than the book: the soldiers come to arrest Ross. A cliff-hanger and final anguish for Demelza (which is the way 2015 ends). As throughout the film opts for theatric while the mood is naturalistic, melodramatic romance, sudden action, or wry comedy. I’ve come to realize that Francis is made considerably more appealing by Wheeler’s script: Graham’s Francis is witty, but his open self-berating and guilt are from Wheeler; also his generosity of spirit now and again.
Opens as a continuation of Episode 7. There we saw Ross helping Mark Daniels to escape from Cornwall and a murder charge from his own boat into the sea across to France, and running up the high cliff be shot at by MacNeil and his men. Episode 8 begins with him running down the hill and across the fields to Nampara. A delicious scene for someone totally on their side ensues. Ross runs into the house where Demelza awaits him at the window; she frantically pulls off his boots and he says since MacNeil has no evidence, MacNeil cannot jail him and he must go upstairs to bed. Jinny is there, quick with an alibi — he’s been in bed all night with “the headache.” There is a comic feel to the scene as all three know Ross, Demelza and Jinny are lying.
MacNeil bursts in and Demelza is there to greet him, with Ross upstairs and coming down in a robe. We see them outwit MacNeil while his eyes glitter and he issues a warning to Ross that the law will entangle him if he does not watch out. One visible motif of this episode is those stairs: Ross running up at the opening, coming down, from the last one Mark Daniels running past to the library; MacNeil coming in and out of the hall.
The Christmas scenes are ironic — they remind me of Trollope’s Christmas scenes as they show Christmas to be an extra fraught time (not the complacent joy of stereotypes). After Ross and Demelza first escape the clutches of MacNeil we switch to Demelza and Ross hosting Enys, Sir Hugh and Lady Brodugan — in book they are alone first Christmas Eve night and visit Brodrugan the next day and her desire to ask for loans is not enacted, just discussed. At first all seemed high cheer, until Demelza not being able to contain herself asks the knight and lady for a loan to help them out. They speedily leave and Ross is indignant at her.
Switch to Trenwith and we see Elizabeth and Geoffrey Charles at table waiting for Francis. He comes to the table drunk, filled with self-hatred over his betrayal of the names of Ross’s contributors to George; Clive Francis again delivers a powerful performance, until he collapses. Elizabeth sends for Enys then at Nampara who returns with Demelza.
Ross’s first reaction to the news of Francis’s illness is indifference; Demelza’s determination to go over to Trenwith elicit an “I forbid it,” but when she insists this is family (the great sacred cow which is not invoked in Graham’s book) and says she will go anyway, relents.
The scene where Ross is driven from wanting to behave with high integrity, to moving again to try to outwit someone, this time it’s George he wants not to sell his property too. There is a self-destructiveness here we see.
Elizabeth at first wants to turn Demelza out of the house for her low rank (and because Ross married her) but in her terrible need, allows Demelza in, and Francis in his terrible sickness sees and acknowledges. One night Elizabeth and Demelza sit and makes frends. Elizabeth confesses how she broke off her engagement with Ross, how she meant to marry for money and prestige and thought she could do without love (this reminds me closely the TV mini-series version of Trollope’s Lady Laura Kennedy by Simon Raven — made a year before this series). The scene is too inhibited in its mode of acting (as are a number of the scenes of this episode), but Graham’s material comes through enough and realization gives this film an intense edge of the books. Demelza saves Francis, wins over Francis and Elizabeth, only to return herself very sick.
As she comes in Ross scoops her up and carries her up the stairs. She is very ill and the baby Julia catches it. Enys there throughout. As in the book, it’s the death of Julia and the destruction of Ross’s hope for a successful mining venture that intertwine behind his despair which precipitates his inciting the men to their violence. Film removes Jacobin arguments and moral preferences of book for friends, high ideals, independence, integrity.
The scene on the beach occurs. Very effective and unlike today done with no computers so literally for real in front of cameras, including ships brought in, really felt underproduced violence.
Ross brings home the crew and they return to their boat in the dawn. He hears her ill, goes up and find her hysterical over the empty cradle, down those stairs again to talk in front of the fire with captain and crew.
They are in the front room the next day or so dressed as from a funeral, her comments about the small coffin and the MacNeil’s entrance and arrest. In the book the funeral occurred first and Ross’s guilt over not providing food another motive for his wanting to see people fed.
Here they talk and in film she says now there is no Julia, he must be very bitter for he married her because she was pregnant with Julia. She stood in the way of his marrying Elizabeth. He loved Elizabeth when he married her. Of course this is not in the book as in the book he married her well before she got pregnant. He acknowledges this but says that was then and now he has learned to love her. He and she speak of their two years together since. It’s at this point the book Demelza ends with a beautiful dialogue between them (re-spoke here). Book does not emphasie rivalry between women at all; book interested in social and economic pressures
Eight, though, closes with MacNeil again rushing the house. This time Ross was not expecting to be arrested, and this time MacNeil has a warrant for his arrest. The episode ends with Demelza running out of the house crying frantically for Ross. A wild thrust.