John Hollingworth on his shock Poldark exit: “hopefully it will be devastating”

"It was great to go from a wholesome do-gooder to a sort of badass bandit," says the actor who played Captain Henshawe

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Rest in peace, Captain Henshawe. An action-packed fifth episode of Poldark saw seven men head to France to rescue Dwight Enys… and only six return. 

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As Ross Poldark’s right hand man and head of his mine, Henshawe (played by John Hollingworth) had been a steadfast presence since the first series of Poldark and his departure, amid a storm of French gunfire, was laced with emotion as Enys convinced Ross to leave his friend and race for their ride home. 

The loss of Henshawe may come as a shock to Poldark fans. The character survives the trip in the books, but writer Debbie Horsfield added the tragic twist for the BBC’s adaptation – and the episode is the richer for it. 

We got actor John Hollingworth on the phone before the episode aired for a chat about his shock exit… 

So, when did you find out you were leaving Poldark? 

I was taken for lunch at a very nice restaurant in London by Debbie [Horsfield] and Karen Thrussell the producer. Debbie and I have always got on brilliantly throughout the show so we went for a very nice lunch and they said “yeah we’re going to kill you off”, but it’s going to be a great storyline and the alternative would be having you become an ever more peripheral character.

With so many new and brilliant characters coming in, there was going to be less and less story oxygen for Henshawe to live on. Tristan Sturrock (who plays Zacky Martin) and I have spent a brilliant three years together but if there were both of us around there wouldn’t be much for us to do and we were sort of filling the same space – the solid, dependable, nice Cornish companion .

They said: “Look, I think it’s best if we just release you and say goodbye to the character rather then trying to book me in for a week here and a week there, or a scene here and a scene there.” I was really pleased they did that because they gave me a really great exit story – having been on the periphery of a lot of the stories for three years it was lovely to come to the foreground in such a lovely way.

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Does the character die in the books?

No, there’s another character who we’ve never really featured in our stories who dies. He’s a miner and we’ve not really given him much coverage – a guy called Nick Vigus. He was played by a supporting artist in the first series, he had maybe a scene or two, a line here or there, he was a poacher and got into some trouble, so it would be a bit weird if there was a major story point around that. Debbie thought that narrative-wise it would be great to combine the fact that this miner dies in the books and make it me instead which given the beefed up relationship that Ross and I have got, it would give that a greater payoff. 

How do you think fans will react to Henshawe’s death? 

Well obviously as you know Poldark is really about Captain Henshawe – people go for this guy Aidan who keeps taking his top off, what is that about? But no, I think in the book Henshawe is such an ally of Ross’s, and the way that Debbie has written it, and the way that Aidan and I have got on, it’s been a really lovely warm relationship to play. And if I’ve done my job and people do like the character and know that he’s a real ally of Ross’s and a real supporter of his, hopefully it’ll be devastating.

Did the cast get emotional about your exit?

I was rehearsing a play at the time and I left to come to the read-through with everybody and it was unexpectedly moving. I won’t say who, but when we read the scenes, normally they’re quite dry read-throughs, they’re quite technical. A couple of the actors were crying at how well Debbie had written the scenes. They are brilliantly written, obviously, and a great story in terms of Ross thinking [Henshawe] is dead and then him not being dead – Dwight, ever the pragmatist, trying to get them all saved rather than losing everybody just for the sake of one man. 

Have you watched the episode yet?

I haven’t seen it all but because of the technical nature of all of the dying stuff, I had to go in for ADR – we recorded the extra lines and spent about four hours with a glass of water gurgling and dying. Stephen Woolfenden the director is brilliantly forensic and we were both very keen to get it right, so there was a long gruelling afternoon of getting the death rattle gurgles right.

You got to be a bit of an action hero at the end… 

I probably shouldn’t say this, but it basically felt like Poldark does Musketeers for an episode. It was great to go from a wholesome do-gooder to a sort of badass bandit. 

How involved were you in the gunpowder stunt? 

I burnt my hand doing it! We were in the wars: Aidan knackered his hand fighting, I burnt my hand holding the charge. The guys we worked with are absolutely as safety-conscious as possible, but at the end they have to give you a choice – “we need a tight shot, do you want a stunt guy to come in and hold it?” – and as an actor I always back myself and go “I’d rather it was me than someone else”. I just left it a fraction too long, but with full warning from them so the responsibility was all my own.

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What will you miss most about being on the show?

It’s been a lovely family, and I’ll miss all the people I spend most of my time with – Aidan, Eleanor, Tristan, Jack, Luke – we’ve all spent an awful lot of time together. We all sort of knew [each other] before. I’d done Being Human with Aidan years ago, I was at drama school with Kyle in the same year, I knew Jack because we share an agent and we’ve both done Da Vinci’s Demons, I knew Luke from National Youth Theatre. I didn’t know Eleanor at all, I didn’t know Heida, but it’s been great to get to know them all and just have a load of shared memories. We’ve just got on so well. We all went out for a ceildh for [Eleanor’s] birthday the other week in Clapham. We went to a church hall and there were probably only 40 people there and 20 of those were the cast of Poldark. And there were these 20 people, five of whom had seen the show, two of whom were actually fans, who were basically in a scene from Poldark having a big knees up. 

Certainly come September it’ll be really weird not to be rocking up in Cornwall on some dark coast to start again. I’ll definitely miss it, it’s been a lovely gift of a job for three years. 

Will you keep watching?

Yeah, you know, I actually will which I don’t think I can say for anything else I’ve been in. 

What else have you got coming up?

I’ve just got back from doing a Thomas Vinterberg film called Kursk which is about the 2001 submarine disaster. I’ve had a lovely fortnight with Colin Firth – he plays Commodore David Russell who’s a real person who we met and spent time with, and I play his lieutenant. I’ve also done a couple of episodes of Doc Martin playing a character called Sam Bradman who has some flirty scenes with Louisa. It was nice to come back to Cornwall and not play Cornish. And I’ve just been doing a radio play with David Tennant – a brilliant Chekhov play called Wild Honey. He and I play love rivals – David Tennant steals my wife. And interestingly he confirmed himself as a celebrity Poldark fan because he’s good friends with Christian Brassington (who play Osbourne Whitworth). 

Is he hoping to get a guest role? 

Can you imagine?! We started the rumour here. It did sound like he’s got a fairly busy rest of the year, I don’t think we need to worry about David Tennant. 

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Poldark continues next Sunday at 9pm on BBC1. Have you listened to our Poldark podcast? Click play below to hear John Hollingworth introduce our latest episode… (Click here if you can’t see the player)