BBC hit Poldark returns to capture American hearts

in Fiction by

Can a sexy British rogue who fought on the wrong side of the Revolutionary War recapture the hearts and minds of American viewers?

 

Forty years after a television adaptation was first broadcast, a new version of the historical saga Poldark has arrived on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater. The remake aired in the UK in April–May and regularly attracted 5-7 million viewers, making it a hit on par with Downton Abbey and the 1995 miniseries Pride and Prejudice.

Winston Graham
Winston Graham

Poldark is based on a series of 12 novels by Winston Graham written between 1945 and 2002. Set on the stunningly beautiful coast of Cornwall, the story opens in 1783 as Captain Ross Poldark returns from fighting against the rebels in the Revolutionary War. His homecoming is not quite as he expected, though. Friends and family all assumed he was dead (he comes back with a rather fetching bayonet scar down one cheek), and the sweetheart he left behind, Elizabeth Chynoweth, is now engaged to his cousin, Francis.

What’s more, his home has gone to ruin after his father’s death. He rescues Demelza Carne, a half-feral young woman, from an abusive situation and makes her his housemaid. Romance soon smolders between them. Meanwhile, Poldark is a hero for the little people—poachers and miners—and when he reopens the family copper mine he strives to treat his workers fairly even though rivals and investors are breathing down his neck. But even heroes have feet of clay, and Poldark is known to occasionally indulge his fondness for alcohol, gambling and prostitutes.

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Aidan Turner in makeup

Starring as Ross Poldark is Aidan Turner, who was best known for his part in the UK supernatural drama Being Human until he landed the role of Kili the dwarf in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. Relative unknown Eleanor Tomlinson plays red-headed, strong-willed Demelza, and British character actors fill in many secondary roles. (For instance, you may recognize Ruby Bentall, who plays Ross’s cousin Verity, from Lark Rise to Candleford).

Poldark book 1Demelza book 2The eight-episode first season is based on Graham’s first two novels, Ross Poldark (1945) and Demelza (1946). Season Two of the remake will dramatize the third and fourth novels. BBC veteran Debbie Horsfield is responsible for the adaptation, while Edward Bazalgette and Will McGregor share directing duties. The original BBC adaptation, which ran from 1975 to 1977 and starred Angharad Rees and Robin Ellis (who wrote a memoir about the experience), covered eight of the novels in total.

You might not expect a television show to foster political debate, but Britain’s Chancellor, George Osborne, used Poldark to make a point about the economy. Worried by the increasing popularity of DVD boxed sets of American dramas, he warned that the British entertainment industry needs to catch up. “I’m enjoying Poldark at the moment, but in a couple of weeks it will be over. Where are the BBC dramas that run for eight or nine years? I don’t think we run with our successes enough. … I don’t think the BBC wants to be left behind in this.”

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Aidan Turner on the Cornish coast

The 1970s adaptation of Poldark was one of Masterpiece Theater’s greatest hits. Thanks to a new heartthrob star, strong acting, and gorgeous filming on location, the new version seems likely to win over a whole new audience.

Explore some of the Cornish filming locations on the BBC website.

An American transplant to England, Rebecca Foster is a former library assistant and full-time freelance writer, focusing on book reviewing. After a first degree in English and Religion, she earned an MA in Victorian Literature from the University of Leeds. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK.