If I could I’d spend my life standing on a clifftop in a big dress and a shawl, looking out to sea. I absolutely would. Imagine, nothing could ever impinge on my splendid isolation. It would just be me and the waves. And my big dress. Once I tried to go all French Lieutenant’s Woman on the Cobb at Lyme Regis but my skirt kept ballooning, embarrassingly, in the breeze. And someone destroyed the moment by yelling, “Who do you think you are, the French Lieutenant’s Woman?” Er, yes, I did.
I’ve even stood in the very clifftop spot where Mina Harker (in a big dress) observed the sinister ship, the Demeter, as it drifted towards its doom on the rocks at Whitby, just before a black dog leapt to shore to become Dracula. Though Bram Stoker doesn’t record whether Mina was protecting her fish and chips from predatory seagulls at the time, as I was.
Oh, big dresses are so important, so evocative. Poldark (Sunday BBC1) is full of women in big dresses. There’s a lovely shot in this week’s episode where porcelain-pretty Caroline receives bad news by letter and she sinks to her knees in slow motion, her big dress billowing around her.
It’s the romance, you see. A big dress signifies Big Emotions. A big dress on a woman looking out to sea signifies even Bigger Emotions. In Poldark, no one’s lives are cluttered by piffling distractions. Demelza doesn’t have to insist her and Ross’s son, Jeremy, switches off his phone before he goes to bed. She doesn’t have to interrupt Ross as he scrolls through farm machinery websites on his iPad.
These people live in the moment, sleep when it gets dark and get up when it’s light. They live and love right here, right now (or right there, right then). The women roam in their big dresses, fretting about their menfolk, while the men do Manly Things, like fight in wars. Caroline’s beloved husband, Dwight, is in a hellhole French jail. She can’t phone him. She must wait for news, agonising prettily as her heart bursts with love. Always in her big dress.
Oh, but we need romance, don’t we? In times of turmoil – social and political – and violence we have to take refuge somewhere safe and happy. The real world in 2017, as it was when the first incarnation of Poldark was broadcast in the 1970s, sometimes feels like it’s shifting on its axis. We need to be anchored by old-fashioned notions of love and happiness, even fictional love and happiness.
The need to escape into other worlds gentler than our own (at least, in some ways, if you ignore poverty, rudimentary medicine and capital punishment for puny thefts) is thus acutely overwhelming. It’s where television provides such a crucial social and emotional service. We need to get away from dread, grief and fear, if only for the odd hour every week.
There’s peril in Poldark, of course, as there is in Outlander, which finally arrives on mainstream television (Thursday, More4) after building up a significant following on an American cable channel and online since 2013. Here a nurse time-travels from post-Second World War London to the 18th-century strife-torn Highlands, though she often sheds her big dress to have lots of sex.
So yes, there’s danger in both, but it’s an honest kind of danger, if that makes sense, from enemies you can see. There’s hardship, too, but we know that everyone relies on one another to bring out the best in them all.
That’s a good lesson.