The Poldark “rape” scene: the book and TV adaptations compared

We look back at the controversial scene in both the source text and the 1970s BBC dramatisation and hear from writer Debbie Horsfield and star Aidan Turner about their version

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This week’s episode of Poldark contained a scene that was controversial even before it had aired. It sees Aidan Turner’s Ross arrive at former lover Elizabeth’s (Heida Reed) house Trenwith in the middle of the night, furious at the news that she has agreed to marry his arch enemy George Warleggan. An impassioned conversation ensues during which Ross lays hands on Elizabeth and forces her to kiss him before they eventually end up in bed together.

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The original passage from Poldark creator Winston Graham’s book Warleggan, on which the current series is based, is often referred to as “the rape scene” as is the same moment in the 1970s BBC TV adaptation.

Does it deserve that reputation? And does the way it was handled this time around suggest a more consensual encounter? We look back at how the scene was depicted in both the book and the 1976 television episode and hear from Debbie Horsfield – creator of the new series – Aidan Turner, the star of Poldark, and Andrew Graham, son of the author, about their approach to it and how it turned out.


The source text: Winston Graham’s 1953 novel Warleggan

The scene occurs in Book 3, Chapter 5 of the Winston Graham novel Warleggan, the third in his 12-novel series.

It opens with Poldark breaking into Trenwith through a casement window at night (not dramatically kicking the door open with his foot as Aidan Turner’s Ross does).

He and Elizabeth meet in the hall and he follows her into her bedroom while she is getting a candle (pretty much what happened in the latest TV version). Then they argue. The key part comes at the end of the chapter:

He kissed her. She turned her face away but could not get it far enough around to avoid him.

Her eyes were lit with anger. He’d never seen her like it and he found pleasure in it.

‘This is contemptible! I shouldn’t have believed it of you! To force yourself. To insult me.’

‘I don’t like this marriage to George, Elizabeth. I should be glad of your assurance that you’ll not go through with it.’

‘I love George to distraction and shall marry him next week.’

He caught her again, and this time began to kiss her with intense passion.

She smacked his face so he pinioned her arm.

‘You treat me – like a slut.’

‘It’s time you were so treated.’

‘Let me go Ross! You’re hateful, horrible!’

‘Shall you marry him?’

‘Don’t! I’ll scream! Oh, God, Ross. Please. Tomorrow…’

‘Ross, you can’t intend. Stop! Stop, I tell you.’

But he took no further notice. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.  

What happens next is not described but later in the books Elizabeth remembers the encounter in terms of the “caresses” she receives from Ross that evening. 

It is clear that there are rapes at other moments in Graham’s Poldark novels, and then he calls them rape. He doesn’t use that word this time.


The 1970s TV adaptation

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The controversial instalment of the original series is often called the “rape” episode.

It aired on Sunday 11th January 1976 Ross at 7:25pm on BBC1, episode 15 of series one.

This is the Radio Times billing for the episode which hints at what was to come, calling Ross’s reaction to the news of Elizabeth’s betrothal “unreasoning and obsessive”.

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The following week there is no mention of the incident, beyond the reference to “the strained relationship between Ross and Demelza”.

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The BBC would not make clips available of the moment that Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) and Ross (Robin Ellis) have sex but here is a scene of another row between them to give you a flavour of their stormy relationship.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fDb-S-PYBw

The relevant scene did not appear to cause a huge stir at the time – perhaps reflecting different attitudes in the 1970s. In fact there were no letters about it in Radio Times afterwards, only one correspondence from a reader saying how much he was enjoying the drama.


The 2016 Poldark 

If you have seen it you can make your own mind up.

But this is what the Poldark creative team say…

Screenwriter Debbie Horsfield speaking to RadioTimes.com: 

“One of the first things you learn when you’re adapting a novel is that no two readers imagine a scene the same way! This is even more acute when a scene ends abruptly, as is the case in Book 3 Chapter 5 of Warleggan, when the action cuts out and the rest is left entirely to the reader’s imagination. However, as programme makers, we needed to decide what the audience would actually see! And, as far as possible, to bring to life what the original author intended the scene to depict. We were fortunate to have Winston Graham’s son Andrew as our consultant on the series so we were able to clarify with him what his father’s intentions for this scene were. What you saw onscreen is consistent with what we believe those intentions to have been.”

Aidan Turner:

“It seems consensual, and it just seems right. He goes to talk. He doesn’t go to commit a crime. They talk and it seems like there is still this spark between them, this unfinished business emotionally. Certainly, that’s how Ross feels. He doesn’t force himself upon her. He is emotionally quite inarticulate. I don’t think he quite understands himself. With Elizabeth, he idealised her for so long. He’d have thought about her every day on the battlefields. To come home and not have her, not hold her, not marry her. It was very difficult. He’s absolutely in love with Demelza. Question is, is it possible to be in love with more than one person?”

“He’s heavily flawed. He isn’t just this legend who rides in on a horse and feeds the poor. He seems quite real, very proud. We’d almost call him a control freak. He can be quite mean and callous, and single-minded and selfish. It would be boring to play a character who’s just a do-gooder. He makes mistakes and realises them.”

Andrew Graham:

Perhaps the final word should go to the Graham Estate. Winston Graham died in 2003, however his son Andrew Graham stands by the BBC’s interpretation:

“There is no ‘shock rape’ storyline in the novels. To say so is to misconstrue my father’s text. The BBC has cut nothing and [Poldark production company] Mammoth Screen’s portrayal of these scenes is entirely true to my father’s writing.  

“To be more precise – in the novel Warleggan the point of departure for the relevant scene is indeed consistent with the potential for rape. But what then actually happens is not described but is left entirely to one’s imagination. The only way to judge what my father intended is to read the novels as a whole. Doing so it becomes clear, from earlier scenes as well as from Elizabeth’s immediate reactions and later mixed emotions that what finally happened was consensual sex born of long-term love and longing. It was, as Aidan Turner has put it, ‘unfinished business emotionally’.”


You’ve now read about the different ways in which the controversial scene has been treated – in the original novel, the 1976 TV adaptation and the current BBC series. So what are you thoughts on what was intended by author Winston Graham and how the Aidan Turner drama handled it? What did they get right or wrong? And does the scene deserve its controversial reputation? Let us know in the comments box below.

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Poldark continues on Sunday nights at 9pm