In 1976, my friend Donna and I fell in love with the same man. His name was Ross Poldark. He rode a horse, wore tight britches, had smoldering bedroom eyes, a scar on his cheek and, best of all, a troubled soul.
He would visit us each week when Alistair Cooke, the host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theaterprogram, invited us to watch another chapter of the BBC’s Poldark saga. For an hour, we left the twentieth century behind to become engrossed in this thrilling tale, falling in love with the cliffs of Cornwall, England and (sigh) Ross.
So my fangirl heart swelled when it was announced that the first season of the series was being released as a four-DVD set. This was welcome news, indeed.
These episodic tales,culled from Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, examine the life of Captain Ross Poldark. It is 1783 when we first meet him, galloping over the hills on his steed, returning to his native Cornwall from the American wars. His estate and mining business are in ruin, his father has died, and we see from the start it will take a great deal of fortitude to put things right.
The wealthy Warleggan family is a mighty thorn in the captain's side. Their intent is to buy Poldark’s mine but Ross will not hear of it, even though the money would help ease his financial strife. The war with George Warleggan is the underlying, pervasive battle throughout this sweeping, dynastic saga.
Poldark’s romantic life is in ruins too, as he in love with Elizabeth, who, thinking Ross died in battle, married Ross’ cousin Frances. Drowning his sorrows in drink and debauchery, Ross is emotionally wrecked and not at all careful in his liaisons. He brings into his employ Demelza, a feisty urchin girl he discovers stealing food at a country fair. Demelza cleans up nicely and Ross eventually beds and impregnates her.
One thing we learn quickly about Ross is that he is an honorable man. He marries Demelza because it is the right thing to do (much to Elizabeth’s chagrin), takes good care of his employees, going so far as to offer housing to one of his needy miners, and holds on with fierce pride to the family traditions.
Other tales come into play. Poldark’s family and friends provide rich back stories that always jibe with the protagonist’s in some way. The saga is a rich mix of intrigue, romance, mystery and adventure.
The eye for detail is impeccable throughout this production. Great efforts have been taken to make the audience feel as if they have actually been transported to the 18th century. The look and feel of the interiors, the period costumes,the dances, music and furnishings all come together to cultivate the illusion.
Poldark is played to the hilt by veteran British actor Robin Ellis. Ellis captures the heart and soul of this character and I would venture to say, his is one of the most noteworthy performances of the entire Masterpiece Theater series; Poldark is not an easy role to play, by any means. Besides the challenges of portraying a proud, honorable, yet supremely flawed individual, there is a great deal of physicality involved in the role: from riding horses, to navigating the rocky hills of Cornwall, to tramping through waist deep waters of the mines.
Also notable is Anghared Rees as Delmeza who, like Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle, becomes a more refined (albeit no less feisty) woman under Ross’ care.
The only thing missing from this sublime package is a peek into how the magic was conceived. It would have been interesting to get some insight from the actors and producers into the trials of taking on such an ambitious project. What went in to capturing the essence of these characters and the era? Perhaps this will be rectified when the second series is released later this year.