Aidan Turner has had some strange moments in shops during the past couple of months. Turner, who as smouldering, anguished, damaged Ross Poldark has crested the creamy Cornish tide of Poldark mania that’s swept the country since the series began, has seen himself on an awful lot of newspaper front pages – half-naked and holding a scythe.
Yes, that picture, where a grinning, ab-tastic Turner is ankle deep in a meadow as a make-up artist paints out his tattoo, has become the signifying photo of the television year, and it’s only April.
Turner laughs long and loud: “It was quite odd to walk into a newsagent and see myself holding a scythe with a peculiar smile on my face.”
He claims not to read any press about himself or the show, which ends on Sunday but returns with a second series next year. So he’s clearly unaware that his hair has its own Twitter account, that there are artfully posed and hilarious photos of Playmobil figures of him skinny-dipping, never mind home-made fan videos, the supposed Poldark-inspired bump in Cornish property prices and Chancellor George Osborne declaring himself a devotee in RT.
Based on the novels of Winston Graham, Poldark has become a mega-hit, with audiences averaging more than eight million (the first episode got a total of 9.4m). But more than that, it’s become a cultural phenomenon that’s inveigled its way into the fabric of Britain to become an across-the-board populist touchstone. Broadsheet newspapers carry cartoons featuring the characters, news of the series’ recommissioning made headlines in papers and on television, and the First Great Western rail company is happily sending out emails to passengers, inviting them to visit “Poldark country”.
But no, Aidan Turner, its 31-year-old Irish star, the man whose online presence turned a Twitter Q&A session with the hashtag #AskPoldark into a leering fiasco (“Don’t you think it would have been more practi- cal to take off your shirt whilst you were unloading fish tonight?”) keeps well away from the heart-throb stuff.
“I don’t read any press. I make it a thing. The odd time I might drop into the Mammoth offices [Poldark’s production company] in London, they might show me a column or something to make me laugh. But I don’t feed it, you know. I think I could easily get addicted to googling myself if I did start doing it, so I just stay out of that entirely. It’s better not to know, sometimes.”
Turner is able to remove himself quite neatly from the maelstrom that’s swirled around the drama centred on 18th century Cornish copper mining and the central love affair between landowner Ross Poldark and his kitchen maid, later wife, Demelza (played by Eleanor Tomlinson) by the simple expedient of living in Dublin. So he doesn’t get mobbed in the streets? “Nah, we don’t do the whole mob thing over here. It’s fairly calm and relaxed, there’s no mania. Not that I can see.”
Turner, who first came to the attention of UK TV audiences as a routinely semi-naked Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the rollicking 2009 drama about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists, Desperate Romantics, found fame as unhappy vampire Mitchell in BBC3’s Being Human before he filmed Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy.
But Poldark, Debbie Horsfield’s dramatisation, and the second television adaptation since the beloved mid-70s Robin Ellis/Angharad Rees version, has made him a bona fide star. And heart-throb (sorry Aidan, but it’s true). He won’t let any of this nonsense go to his head, and when actors say that it’s tempting to roll your eyes. But Turner is genial and charming, and no one who works with him has anything but glowing things to say about him, so it’s not difficult to believe him when he says, “I just get on with it, you know. I’m still working, reading scripts and meeting people. When you’re on TV you might get stopped in the street the odd time, but I suppose it’s how you handle it yourself. If you want your life to change, it can change, but if you don’t want it to change there are ways you can hold on to all of those things that matter.”
Yet life has changed for everyone involved in Poldark. Not only is there the prospect of it running for years – Graham wrote 12 novels in the series – but also they’re in the middle of a frenzy.
Horsfield adapted Graham’s novels and had her first inkling that the production team had hit gold with a special advance screening of the first episode in Cornwall. “I was nervous. I was thinking, are they really going to get this or have we not done the stories and the place justice. But they absolutely loved it and I began to think maybe we are on to something here.”
Oddly, in her very long and wide television experience (she’s written, among many other dramas, Making Out and Cutting It), the momentum just kept growing after that first episode. “I’m used to a lot of pre-publicity about a show but you don’t get much after that. With Poldark there have been four or five things in the papers every day. I’ve never known anything like it. There’s a new Poldark story every day, sometimes on the most tenuous grounds.”
Both Horsfield’s and my favourite was a story on the BBC News website wondering if the sight of a sexy, sweaty Turner had sparked an interest in scything. As it’s not scything season, said the experts, it’s hard to tell. But then Turner was doing it wrong anyway, according to one – you shouldn’t get that sweaty when scything. Thus, magnificently, missing the point.
Of course the casting of Turner was crucial, but everyone involved says he was at the top of their very short list of one right from the start. Horsfield wrote his name in her notebook when it came to casting. “I’d seen Aidan in Desperate Romantics and Being Human where he had certain traits, that kind of rebel/ outsider element, the damaged person who’s at odds with the whole world.” And he looks good with his shirt off, too, of course, I throw in. Horsfield laughs. “Yes, that’s a bonus.”
By coincidence Damien Timmer, a managing director of Mammoth Screen and one of the drama’s executive producers (he’s also the man behind Lewis, Endeavour and Poirot), had quietly been talking to Turner’s agent about his client’s availability. Timmer and the rest of the Poldark team are a little dazed by the tumult and attention, though he witnessed at first hand the Turner chemistry when he rehearsed with actresses auditioning for the roles of Demelza and Ross’s lost love Elizabeth.
“I remember when [fellow executive produer] Karen Thrussell, Debbie and I were leaving the room and digging each other in the ribs because it was just better than we ever thought it would be. Aidan has that integrity in the way he plays Ross, he commits to it so completely, he is Ross in all of his complex brooding.” And there’s the shirtlessness, too.
“Yes, yes, the shirtlessness! But honestly, we were pretty innocent about the shirt taking-off stuff [I scoff at this point]. No, really, Ross does it in the book, he goes swimming, he washes himself clean. And he’s a farmer, and it’s very hot in Cornwall! Besides, we didn’t audition him with his clothes off.”
Of course the shadow of the beloved BBC version of Poldark initially hung heavy. (Everyone’s forgotten an ill-fated HTV film from 1996 of Graham’s The Stranger from the Sea starring a very young and unknown Ioan Gruffudd as Jeremy Poldark, Ross and Demelza’s son. Even I’d forgotten about it, and I wrote a location piece from Bodmin for RT.)
But Poldark works in 2015 as it did in 1975. Thrussell says, “Ross is brilliant – he’s so fair and he’s a born, if reluctant, leader. Someone that we are, at this moment, looking for. And we’ve got greedy bankers, just like George Warleggan [Poldark’s smarmy villain].”
Apart from casting the 1970s Ross, Robin Ellis, as nasty judge Reverend Halse, the 2015 Poldark stayed well away from its forerunner, and filmed in new locations (Church Cove, Charlestown, Porthgwarra), which, incidentally, are now being staked out by Poldark-lovers, doubtless much to the delight of the Visit Cornwall tourist board, which offered a prize of a “Poldark-inspired holiday” on its website.
A copper mine was crucial, so, says Timmer, the production team spruced up an existing, though derelict, building. “We had to repurpose the mine and rebuild its exterior. We had to make it a working mine so we added wooden bits and added some digital trickery.”
But as the finale approaches, an instalment awash with sadness and topped by an actual cliffhanger on a real cliff, eyes are on series two, which covers books three and four in Graham’s series. Horsfield has already written five episodes; she had to get started long before any recommission. Filming begins in September and though Horsfield can’t go into any spoiling detail, she promises: “Ross is reckless and forever getting stuck in, without being a crusading character, but he can’t bear to see unfairness and inequality even when there’s nothing in it for him. So he brings himself to the brink of disaster, and Demelza, a forceful and powerful character in her own right, is taken along with him.”