Thursday, June 25, 2015

Thoughts on the PBS Premiere of Poldark

As happy as I am to finally see BBC One's rebooted Poldark on American TV via PBS's Masterpiece series, I was disappointed and annoyed to discover that PBS is editing the show, presumably for time.

Poldark debuted this past Sunday night. My friend Joan recorded it and she and I are hosting a party this Sunday to which we're inviting a number of friends to watch both the premiere episode and the second episode back-to-back. My friend Phil and I, however, caught a glimpse last Sunday of the opening scenes of Poldark, episode one. I realized it had been edited as, back in March, which was when Poldark premiered in the United Kingdom, my friend Karen in the UK shared with me this first episode via an mp3 file on the Internet.

So what's been edited? Well, in the stagecoach scene immediately after the opening credits, part of the dialogue between the young woman and Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner) has been cut. In the original version shown in the UK, the young woman, whom we later come to know as Ruth Teague (Harriet Ballard), asks Ross: "How was the war, sir?" To which he replies, "As all wars, ma'am, a waste of good men."

It's a brief exchange, I know, but it tells us much about the character of Ross Poldark and his experiences as a British soldier in America's revolutionary war. How many more small but telling scenes will be cut by PBS? And what a pity that a so-called public broadcaster has to cut its programs to appease its corporate "sponsors."

Still, edited or not, Poldark is Stateside! And remember, there is always the "Poldark collection" DVD which, according to the PBS website, is the "U.K. edition" of the series, meaning all eight original, i.e., complete, episodes of the first series (or season, as they say in the U.S.).


I've made no secret on this blog of my great admiration for Winston Graham's Poldark series of historical novels, upon which the TV series Poldark is based. This admiration dates back to when I read the Poldark novels 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 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.

Above: Winston Graham on the set of the first Poldark with Angharad Rees (Demelza), Robin Ellis (Ross), and Paul Curran (Jud).

The new BBC adaptation, starring Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson (left), premiered earlier 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 – Ross Poldark (1945), Demelza (1946), Jeremy Poldark (1950), Warleggan (1953), The Black Moon (1973), The Four Swans (1976), The Angry Tide (1977), The Stranger from the Sea (1981), The Miller's Dance (1982), The Loving Cup (1984), The Twisted Sword (1990), and Bella Poldark (2002). 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.

Beyond "swashbuckling"

So now that Poldark has premiered here in the U.S., what are the critics saying?

Well, overall, reviews have been positive, although I have to admit that in reading them I've discovered that the majority of American TV critics don't quite know how to take seriously anything set in the eighteenth century! Most seem to fall back on trite tropes such as "swashbuckling," "heaving bodices," and "brooding" to describe situations and characters that, in the case of Poldark, are much more layered and complex.

It's as if these critics' only reference point for an eighteenth/nineteenth century character or setting is a Harlequin romance novel or the artwork that once adorned tins of Quality Street chocolates!

Thankfully, there are critics who go beyond such limiting tropes. Sarah Seltzer, for instance, in her New York Times review, makes a good start in shifting and sorting by offering the following:

Poldark is here to upend your Downton Abbey-formed notions of trans-Atlantic costume dramas. A remake of the treasured show from the 1970s, based on the novels by Winston Graham, Poldark is far from typical fare. The servants are toothless and may have lice, the masters’ estates sit on ruined mining land and the childhood sweethearts are doomed. Brawls, dog-fighting and gambling prove key features of the first episode alone, and no one sits and discusses matters over tea. In short, it’s more Brontë than Austen.

Writing on her blog, Ellen Moody makes a similar observation:

[T]he eighteenth century here is not a world of elegance seen from an upper class Austen-ish point of view, but from below, a grimy, grim, brutal, desperate place of people living mostly a subsidence life, where they are hard to one another.

But best of all is Stephen Brumwell's informed and insightful Wall Street Journal review, one that gets to the heart of the TV series, which is, of course, its source material, the series of novels by master storyteller Winston Graham.

I'll close by sharing (with added images and links) the following excerpt from Brumwell's commentary/review.

Set in Cornwall—the rugged peninsula jutting into the Atlantic at England’s western tip—Poldark opens in 1783 when Captain Ross Poldark returns from America after fighting in the Revolutionary War. He finds his home in decay, his father dead, and his sweetheart Elizabeth betrothed to his cousin Francis. A chance encounter with teenaged urchin Demelza Carne leads to unexpected romance, while his efforts to resurrect the family copper-mine spark a bitter feud with a ruthless banking dynasty, the Warleggans.

Above: Aidan Turner as Ross, the "dark Poldark,"

Thanks to this robust formula, the original Poldark, broadcast on PBS back in 1977 and currently being streamed on Acorn TV, still stands up remarkably well. Although it is too soon to deliver a final verdict in North America, the revamped Poldark has already proved an unqualified success in the U.K., helping the BBC to achieve its highest first-quarter audience share for a decade, with ratings from the opening episodes impressive enough to prompt the commissioning of a second season.

Despite sharing key plots and characters, the rebooted Poldark (scripted by Debbie Horsfield) is distinct from its celebrated predecessor in several respects. It’s far more serious in tone, and places greater emphasis on establishing atmosphere, with screen-time previously devoted to extended dialogue or subsidiary plots instead used for moody close-ups of the leads (Aidan Turner as Ross, and Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza), or lingering views of the Cornish landscape.

Given their marked differences, that two such contrasting interpretations can both succeed testifies to the underlying strength of their common source material, the novels of Winston Graham. With compelling story-lines, well-defined characters, and meticulous research underpinning a convincing evocation of time and place, the Poldark novels form a quarry of raw material that is rich enough to sustain repeated excavation.

The powerful characterizations and strong narrative spine of the Poldark novels have also enabled them to withstand some major alterations at the hands of the scriptwriters. It was only after rereading the first two novels, Ross Poldark (1945) and Demelza (1946)—both now reissued in television tie-in editions—that I realized that some of the most memorable scenes from the original adaptation were wholly invented for the small screen. The latest version, while praised as more faithful to the novels, also deviates from them, axing characters and inserting new sequences.

Of course, both television dramas are adaptations, “based on” the books rather than using them as blueprints. Viewers inspired to pick up the novels will therefore discover a wealth of back-stories missing from the televised versions. The books also contain a strong strand of humor—a trait that featured prominently in the 1970s scripts, but which is largely absent from the latest incarnation.

Taken together, the dozen Poldark novels constitute an impressive body of work. The last was published in 2002, just a year before Graham’s death at age 93. The 29 episodes of the original two-season BBC Poldark drew upon the seven books then written, which spanned the years 1783 to 1799. Despite the show’s phenomenal popularity, Graham resisted pressure to prolong it by churning out fresh installments. Four years passed before the emergence of the eighth novel, The Stranger From the Sea. This jumped forward to 1810, allowing for a shift of focus to a younger generation of characters who propelled the saga to its conclusion in 1820. Should the revived Poldark prosper, there will be no dearth of material to adapt in future seasons.

Although best-known for his Poldark saga, Graham wrote many other books during his long career. Like his contemporary Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989), who also made Cornwall her adopted home, he deftly switched genres—from stories set in the past to modern thrillers—and his ability to inject a darker element of suspense added further depth to the Poldark novels. Rather than aspiring to high-brow “literary” status, both Graham and Du Maurier were born storytellers and unashamedly “popular” authors capable of attracting the attention of Hollywood, and of iconic director Alfred Hitchcock.

When Winston Graham embarked upon his Poldark novels, he was living at Perranporth on Cornwall’s northern coast. His abiding love for the county’s uniquely varied landscape, with its sweeping sandy beaches, rocky coves and granite-studded moors, permeates the Poldark novels so deeply that Cornwall becomes a character in its own right.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Who's Who in the First Episode of PoldarkPoldarked (June 20, 2015).
Poldark Mines a Reliable Literary Source – Robert Lloyd (The Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2015).
Seven Legit Reasons to Watch New PBS Series Poldark – Nina Terrero (Entertainment Weekly, June 21, 2015).
Poldark Rides Again on PBS – Brian Lowry (Variety, June 18, 2015).
PBS' Poldark: An Old 'Masterpiece' Hit Gets a Sumptuous UpdateThe Washington Post via, June 23, 2015).
Another Poldark, and Once Again It's Scything the Fans – Susan King (The Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2015).
What Merits the Remake of TV's Poldark? – Stephen Brumwell (The Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2015).
Review: Poldark on PBS’s ‘Masterpiece’ – Mike Hale (The New York Times, June 19, 2015).
Poldark Season Premiere Recap: Woe v. Luck – Sarah Seltzer (The New York Times, June 21, 2015).
Poldark: Episode 1 – Anibundel (Anibundel: Pop Culturess, June 22, 2015).
Five Differences Between Poldark 2015 and Poldark 1975 – Trystan L. Bass (Frock Flicks, June 19, 2015).
The 1970s Poldark Was Way Darker Than the New One – Meghan O'Keefe (Decider, June 24, 2015).
Poldark: 2015, 1975 and Winston Graham’s Post-WWII Novel, Episode 1 – Ellen Moody (Ellen And Jim Have A Blog, Two, June 24, 2015).
Poldark 2015: Novel Re-conceived as Mining and Feminist Love Story, Episode 2 – Ellen Moody (Ellen And Jim Have A Blog, Two, June 24, 2015).

For more on the TV series Poldark, see the following Wild Reed posts:
Return of the (Cornish) Native
"A Token of Wildness and Intractability"
Ross Poldark: Renegade of Principle
Poldark Rides Again
Poldark: Unfurling in Perfect Form

For more on the Poldark novels, see:
"Hers Would Be the Perpetual Ache of Loss and Loneliness"
Passion, Tide and Time
Time and Remembrance in the Poldark Novels
Demelza Takes a Chance (Part 1)
Demelza Takes a Chance (Part 2)
Captain Blamey Comes A-Calling
Rendezvous in Truro
A Fateful Reunion
Cornwall's – and Winston Graham's – Angry Tide
A Sea Dragon of an Emotion . . . "Causing Half the Trouble of the World, and Half the Joy"
Into the Greenwood
"I Want You to Become a Part of Me – Each to Become a Part of the Other"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The books also contain a strong strand of humor—a trait that featured prominently in the 1970s scripts, but which is largely absent from the latest incarnation.

I don't agree with you on this point. I've only seen the first four episodes of the new adaptation and managed to encounter a good deal of humor. To be honest, I've only seen the first four episodes of the old 70s series and can say the same.