Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Renegade Returns

The BBC series Poldark returned to U.S. television screens earlier this evening with PBS premiering the show's second season as part of its Masterpiece series. If you missed it and would like to see it, you can catch it this week when it's repeated on various regional PBS stations. For instance, here in Minnesota, TPT is re-broadcasting the premiere on Wednesday night and early Thursday morning. For the complete schedule, click here.

About the show's protagonist, series writer Debbie Horsfield says:

Ross Poldark is one of literature's great heroes: a gentleman who is also a rebel, who has a keen sense of morality and social justice but without any priggishness or moralizing. He's also a great romantic figure – caught between two women from two completely different backgrounds. A gentleman who marries his kitchen maid. A man who doesn't stand on ceremony, who doesn't play by the rules and often falls foul of authority.

The series is based on Winston Graham's acclaimed set of historical novels set in Cornwall at the turn of the nineteenth century, and given Horsfield's (accurate) description of Graham's main character, it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that Graham originally intended to title the first novel of his series The Renegade before settling instead on Ross Poldark. That first novel introduces the young Captain Ross Poldark as a battle-scarred veteran of the American War who, upon returning in 1783 to his derelict family estate on the windswept coast of Cornwall, discovers his widowed father dead and Elizabeth, the woman he loves, engaged to his cousin Francis. Bitterly disappointed and close to financial ruin, Ross nevertheless vows to make the most of what he has.

The first season of Poldark covered the events of the first two books in Graham's 12-book series, and saw Ross begin to rebuild his family estate by embarking on the risky venture of opening the family's long-derelict copper mine. He also rescues a street urchin whom he takes on as his kitchen maid and eventually marries, much to the shock of members of his social class.

Above and below: Aidan Turner as Ross and Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza. According to writer and executive producer Debbie Horsefield, author Winston Graham set out to tell the story of a "good marriage, not a perfect marriage. . . . What I love about Ross and Demelza is that they're real people."

About the second season of the show USA Today notes the following.

The challenges come quickly in Season 2, as Ross Poldark [Aidan Turner] stands trial for spearheading the looting of a merchant ship that wrecked in the waters just off his property, well aware of the fact that it was owned by his arch-enemy George Warleggan, an insecure, new-money banker played by Jack Farthing. “They want to do a lot of damage to each other, both to their reputations around town and physically,” Turner explains. “It’s quite a gruesome thing, actually. George actually wishes Ross dead.”

Another major point of contention between Ross and George is Elizabeth [Heida Reed], the girl who broke Ross’ heart and is the object of George’s unrequited affection. Despite being one of the richest men in town, he’s still looked down upon as new money. With her old family name, Elizabeth could be the key that finally unlocks Cornish society to him.

“She’s revered in society and very beautiful,” Turner says of Elizabeth. “She can offer him children. It seems like a natural progression for George.”

As for Ross, Turner says, “I don’t even know if he understands how he feels about her. First and foremost, she’s a friend. He leans on her for support, and vice versa. Sometimes, Ross confuses those feelings ... I don’t know that he can ever really get over her. I suppose that’s a question that will be worked out by the characters in this season.”

I've made no secret on this blog of my great admiration for Graham's Poldark novels. This admiration dates back to when I read them as a teenager. I've revisited them over the years and they've undoubtedly had a marked impact on how I've come to understand many important aspects of life and love (as I explain here, here and here).

The BBC adapted the first seven novels into a highly successful television series in the mid-1970s. At the time, that's how many Poldark novels Winston Graham had written, starting in 1945. He would go on to write five more before his death in 2003. That's twelve novels over a period of 57 years. Quite an achievement, especially given the consistently high quality of his writing.

The new BBC adaptation premiered last this year to overwhelmingly positive reviews in the U.K., Australia and elsewhere. The Telegraph's Allison Pearson even went so far as to declare Poldark "one of those rare occasions when a popular drama series delivers something that properly belongs to art."

It's been said that this new adaptation will eventually cover all twelve Poldark novels. If this indeed happens then it will be quite the feat, as the novels cover a period of almost 40 years (1783-1820) and a number of major historical events, including the development of the steam engine and the Battle of Waterloo.

Anyway, I'll share my thoughts on season two of Poldark at a later date. For now, here's excerpts from some reviews by actual TV critics.

What really keeps this series afloat is the relationship between Ross and Demelza: there is a genuinely moving connection between Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson. The moment when she pushed him away as he saddled up to ride to Bodmin was sublime. They are a great, believable partnership whose connection moves Poldark well beyond shonky, forgettable Sunday night costume drama and into the realms of classic TV.

Equally watchable is the dynamic between the two semi-tragic couples at the heart of this story. We like Francis, Elizabeth, Ross and Demelza and we know they’re all good people. The links between them are complicated. We sympathise with their shifting allegiances and the things that must be left unsaid.

. . . [There can] be only one major supporting star skulking terrifyingly in the wings. The pewter tankard goes to Caroline Blakiston, the exceptionally badass 83-year-old actor playing Aunt Agatha [right], who is always sitting in the corner looking like the angel of death, turning over tarot cards. The scowling countenance! The hooded eyes! The guillotine-style chopping of the fig! “That new contraption they have in France ...” And her dismissal of Evil George was priceless: “Pasty-faced ... Consequence of sitting too long indoors fingering coins.” Never has anyone relished the word “fingering” so knowingly. Aunt Agatha, we salute you.

[Poldark] needs – and hugely benefits from – the near-pantomime- villainy of George Warleggan [left]. Actor Jack Farthing has truly become telly's greatest bad guy of the moment, with a demeanour that'll have you screaming for Ross to pam him.

With every fresh word that springs forth from his venomous tongue (also translated to print, as he distributes libellious piece of 'literature' round the county to defame Ross), George becomes more and more evil personified.

Farthing, though, keeps the character just on the right side of believable – you can still see how much he secretly admires Ross and wants to be him. Any time the two men face off – and there's two such encounters here – it's absolute gold.

. . . Matching the beauty of the cast, as always, is the exquisite and moving score and utterly gorgeous costume design and location shooting. Sumptuous in the extreme.

It's not all perfect. Debbie Horsfield's script is a little too on the nose at times, with heavy exposition dumps to remind us of the events of the first series, and how the various character dynamics play out. But we'll forgive that, this being the opening of a new batch of episodes.

To say Poldark is totally my kind of show is an understatement. If I were to think of a series that checked all the boxes that would make it so something I’d love, the PBS Masterpiece drama Poldark is definitely one of those rarities. It has:

• Brooding, handsome and progressive hero in Aidan Turner’s Ross Poldark

• Lush and sweeping cinematography

• An unexpected yet swoon-worthy romance with Eleanor Tomlinson’s Demelza

• Strong, but distinct female leads as seen with the tenacious Demelza, Heida Reed’s Elizabeth and Ruby Bentall’s Verity

• Enough drama to make you leave each episode wondering if you just watched a feature-length film instead

For its first season, Poldark flew mostly under my radar, but during a boring lull in my Labor Day weekend a few weeks ago, I gave it a try, and well, kind of fell in love with the characters and their stories. Much like other PBS Masterpiece series, the structure of these British made period pieces are quite distinctive. Each episode of Poldark, only an hour-long, packs a lot of story in and moves through time at a breakneck pace, which is nicely juxtaposed by the filmmaking of the show. We get these long, sometimes languid, always beautiful, takes that bookend tense and quick dialogue-ridden standoffs between characters – as evident in tonight’s two-hour premiere.

Above: Gabrielle Wilde as Caroline Penvenen.

Above: Kyle Soller as Francis Poldark.

Above: Aunt Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) and Elizabeth (Heida Reed).

Above: Caroline Penvenen (Gabrielle Wilde) and Dwight Enys (Luke Norris).

Above: Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson).

Related Off-site Links:
Sweeping Saga Poldark Returns to PBS – Jayme Deerwester (USA Today, September 23, 2016).
PBS’ Poldark is Back: Flawed Hero, Satisfied Star – Lynn Elber (Associated Press via The Seattle Times, September 22, 2016).
Poldark's Controversial Rape Scene Has Been Scrapped – with the Blessing of Author's Son – Nicola Methven (Mirror, August 23, 2016).
Poldark’ Season 2: Aidan Turner on Ross’s Dark Side & His Changing Relationship with Demelza – Christina Radish (Collider, September 25, 2016).
How to Follow in Poldark's Footsteps in Cornwall, from the Cliffs to the Moors – Nicola Trup (The Independent, September 2, 2016).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Meanwhile in Cornwall
Thoughts on the PBS Premiere of Poldark
Poldark: Unfurling in Perfect Form
Poldark Rides Again
Ross Poldark: Renegade of Principle
"A Token of Wildness and Intractability"
Return of the (Cornish) Native

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