For Mr Darcy it was the wet shirt. For Ross Poldark it was the riding boots. Those boots, that scar and righting of wrongs proved an irresistible package for the millions of female fans who tuned in to the original series of Poldark.
While the drama’s treatment of 18th-century radical politics, Cornish tin mining and inheritance laws doubtless had their devotees, it was the tempestuous romance between Captain Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) and the spirited serving girl Demelza (Angharad Rees) that kept viewers on the edge of their seat over 29 episodes between 1975 and 77.
“Angharad and I had some sessions, I suppose,” says Ellis. “But we more or less kept our clothes on. Winston Graham (author of the Cornish novels from which the series was adapted) used to hate the term ‘bodice ripper’ and I think that by modern standards we were quite decorous. I only took my shirt off once, that I remember. The next day I took my washing into the launderette and the woman who did service washes wagged her finger at me and said, ‘Big mistake.’ So I never took it off again.”
Ellis, who read history at Cambridge and was a founder member of Ian McKellen’s ground-breaking Actors’ Company, had few TV appearances under his belt (he was an undercover cop in Fawlty Towers and the Earl of Essex to Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth I in Elizabeth R) when he landed the title role in Poldark.
“It was a tremendous part,” he recalls, “because Ross Poldark wasn’t just a hero; he made some very silly moves. He was a flawed character who let anger get the better of him and risked himself – and at times his family’s lives – for his principles. But of course that made him all the more interesting to play.”
The first episode drew five million viewers (“It was to our advantage,” Ellis points out, “that there were only three channels available in 1975”) and ratings soon soared. At the height of its popularity, evening church services in Cornwall had to be rescheduled, as the congregations were all at home watching Poldark. Nor was it a local phenomenon; the series was broadcast in more than 40 countries and came second only to Pride and Prejudice in terms of video sales.