Greedy bankers, women’s rights… The politics in Poldark are as relevant as ever

As Ross heads to Westminster, Poldark screenwriter Debbie Horsfield argues that some things never change

Aidan Turner in Poldark

Writers should never issue spoiler alerts, but here goes: series four of Poldark is the political season – although, actually, that’s an over simplification. There has been a political thread running through every series, just as there is in Winston Graham’s books. The beauty of the novels is that they’re impeccably researched, so the political details add texture and authenticity to the hero’s journey without ever making it feel dull or worthy.

Period dramas can sometimes feel prettified or sanitised but we wanted the Poldark stories to feel as relevant as contemporary ones. We aimed, for instance, to make the struggles of Ross and his shareholders in the copper-smelting co-operative, or the sometimes impenetrable politics of the 18th century, the stuff of life and death.

Underpinning all of this is Ross’s fundamental character – he might not declare that he’s on a mission to make life better for ordinary people, but his actions demonstrate that intent. And in series four, he’s taking it to the next level and heading to London to become an MP.

Why London? The books shine a light on inequality, fairness, the “haves” and the “have nots” – and the determination of the “haves” to keep the wealth to themselves! So far this has been a local issue, largely confined to the Cornwall district around Truro.

In series one, we had a scene in which Demelza told Ross: “You cannot fight all the world, you can only make your small corner a fairer place.” By the end of series three, Ross has begun to realise that this is not enough. If he wants to effect sweeping changes – for example, securing a fixed price for grain so that workers are not exploited by poor harvests and food shortages – he can’t do that within the confines of Truro. He has to go where he can make a bigger difference – and that is in Parliament.

Aidan Turner in Poldark S4 - EP2
Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark (BBC/Mammoth Screen/ Mike Hogan)

He’s not quite the Jeremy Corbyn of his time – although as the French Revolution is part of our backdrop it’s clear his own sympathies are with the common man. He’s frequently called a Jacobin, and is assumed to be a sympathiser with the French Revolution, which is only partly true. He deplores bloodshed and terror but he absolutely signs up for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. At heart he’s simply a man with a little common decency, who hates to see people struggle while others prosper, and tries to redress the balance.

It’s often overlooked that there was a fear during the late 1790s that there might be an English Revolution, following the examples of the American and the French. England was at war with France, there were disastrous harvests, massive food shortages and mounting discontent about the gulf between rich and poor. Prime Minister William Pitt introduced punitive measures to suppress dissent, trade unions, political gatherings and societies – measures that came dangerously close to provoking the very revolution they were designed to prevent.

(BBC)
(BBC)

Ross himself returned from the American War of Independence in series one, and though he fought for the British army it’s clear he had some sympathies with the aims and aspirations of the nation he was fighting against. Certainly, throughout the first three series he is a thorn in the side of the greedy bankers and the wealthy industrialists who place profit ahead of the welfare of their workers.

Winston Graham is a masterly storyteller whose meticulous research creates an authentic backdrop to his narratives, although I’m not sure he tries to make explicit political points in the way that, say, Charles Dickens does. Events such as mine disasters, famine, food riots or punitive justice are used to demonstrate impact at a personal level, rather than as political capital. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions, and in the series we aim to let the viewer do the same. Ross Poldark never becomes a political mouthpiece, though he can be very outspoken and eloquent about his beliefs and aims.

One of the things people asked when I began the adaptation was, “Are you updating it?”. It was clear to me from the outset that no updating was needed. The subjects that Winston Graham was writing about are as relevant now as they were when he first embarked on the saga – and as they were in the era that he writes about. Take his depiction of the banking industry. Who knew that bankers could be greedy, corrupt and out for themselves?

Some of the events we depict in series four remain chillingly real today. For instance, Ross realises that because of food shortages and the price of corn, people can actually be in work and yet still can’t afford to eat. While I was writing series four, I heard a news item that described how in one part of Liverpool, 80 per cent of the people using food banks had jobs but still couldn’t make ends meet. It seems some things don’t change.

Even the arguments over welfare are depressingly relevant. Ross believes it’s in the interests of employers and society to keep people fed, to ensure they’re fit to work because they are not starving. George Warleggan, typically, asks, “Where’s the incentive to work if we’re giving people money?” Another familiar argument.

Of course, despite Ross going to London and being absent from home for long periods, we’re still very focused on Cornwall. Demelza stay behind as Ross’s right arm and oversees everything while he’s fighting it out in Westminster. Is there a political subtext to Winston Graham’s strong female characters?

Certainly he views Demelza – a miner’s daughter whose abusive drunkard father used to beat her – as a survivor, someone who can hold her own in a challenging world. And Ross’s attitude towards her could be seen as unusual for an 18th-century male. He treats her as his equal, consults her, trusts her judgement, and when he’s away in London has no qualms about leaving the mine, the farm and the finances in her hands. As he says to her in series three, “You’re my wife, not my chattel.”

Conversely, some readers and viewers struggle with the character of Elizabeth, because she is very bound by the conventions of her background, her upbringing and her family. To a contemporary audience, some of the decisions she makes seem incomprehensible, cowardly or self-serving. Yet she is simply typical of an era in which women had very little power in their own right, couldn’t legally own property and were regarded as their husband’s possession. Thankfully that’s not an attitude Ross espouses!

Regardless of gender, however, Ross soon discovers that he has to fight to be taken seriously. This is no Mr Ross Goes to Washington. When he gets to that bigger stage he finds that he’s up against MPs who are not interested in changing the world, they’re just interested in improving their own bank balances or spheres of influence. Being a politician proves to be a huge struggle for Ross – but then, it wouldn’t be Poldark if there wasn’t a struggle.

Poldark season four airs on Sundays, 9/8c, Masterpiece on PBS

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