I was an impressionable adolescent in the autumn of 1975 when I first watched Robin Ellis in Poldark galloping across the Cornish moors. It was compulsive Sunday-night viewing, with audiences of 15 million. I had just become interested in the opposite sex and the dark, handsome Ross Poldark, with his billowing white shirts and skin-tight britches, was to my generation what Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy would become for millions in Pride & Prejudice in 1995. Now Poldark is back, and the BBC remake starring Irish actor Aidan Turner promises to be even steamier.
The story opens in 1783. Britain is in the grip of a recession and when we first see Ross Poldark he’s in a tattered red coat with a scar down his cheek. He’s coming home to his beloved Cornwall after a humiliating defeat against the rebels in America’s War of Independence. What should be a happy homecoming turns sour when he discovers his father is dead, the family mines have closed, the house is derelict and his childhood sweetheart is engaged to his cousin.
As soon as you see Aidan Turner it’s obvious why the BBC cast him. With long, dark curls and a five o’clock shadow, he has a touch of Heathcliff about him. “I really didn’t want to look brooding but it’s difficult given the storyline. I also think I look like that naturally. People often think I’m angry when I’m not – it’s just my face when I’m listening.” He certainly doesn’t strike me as being moody. On the contrary, he seemed very smiley given that he’d just got off an overnight flight from New York.
He cheerfully tells me that he was born in the 80s, several years after the first series was made, so he never saw it. But that his parents were big fans, which makes me feel really old.
“I decided not to watch the originals on DVD because I was afraid it would influence me in the wrong way. I had heard Robin Ellis’s performance was so good and I didn’t want to end up mimicking him, so I read the novels instead.”
Winston Graham wrote the Poldark books soon after the Second World War. He acted as an adviser on the first TV adaptation and his son Andrew Graham worked on the new version. “He came to the studio, on location, to the rehearsals. We couldn’t get rid of him,” says Turner. Suddenly his face breaks into a huge grin and he pats my arm: “Just kiddin’ you! Andrew was amazing. I learnt loads about Cornish history from him.”
We discuss how bankers are the bad guys in Poldark, attempting to take the hero’s land and mines away from him. Turner thinks audiences can’t help but see parallels with now. Much of the drama is about the friction between the local gentry and the poor. The revolutions in America and France had just taken place. The Cornish tin and copper mines were closing down because of competition from the Welsh valleys and there’s a constant threat of riots and unrest.
Apart from Robin Ellis, what made Poldark so compelling for me as a girl was how the hero’s complicated love life reflected those class divisions. He is torn between two women: the aristocratic Elizabeth and the daughter of a local miner, a wild redhead called Demelza.
Turner sees Ross Poldark as “a Robin Hood character. He knows that, because of his class, he’s in a position to help the poor and sees it as his responsibility to get the mines and the estate working again. He’s a gentleman but he’s more comfortable down the mine or drinking with the locals than he is at a debutantes’ ball.”