For thousands of BBC listeners and viewers, the Sunday evening of September 11 2016 played witness to not one but two high-stakes trials. First, on long-running agricultural soap opera The Archers, Helen Archer stood up to testify in the face of wholly unjust and apparently insurmountable odds, charged with the attempted murder of her abusive husband: full-time panto villain and part-time shop-manager, Rob Titchener. Then, immediately after, on historical mining-centric soap opera, Poldark, Ross Poldark stood up to testify in the face of apparently unjust and wholly insurmountable odds, charged with plundering and inciting riot at the instigation of his arch nemesis: full-time panto villain and part-time self-made gentleman, George Warleggan. As a regular Archers listener and dyed-in-the-wool Poldark fan, I was struck by the effect of experiencing these trials back-to-back, startled by the many parallels that emerged between the two; parallels which might help explain the lukewarm reception which met Poldark in its second season.
Poldark has a strong sense of its own identity but this conviction isn’t shared by the marketing arm of the BBC and as a result audiences and reviewers often seemed confused. It is trailed as if it’s an 18th-century Ripper Street (an idea recently realised by Tom Hardy’s Taboo), when it is actually an 18th-century Archers, swapping a mandate to educate the audience on the nuances of contemporary agricultural policy with one which instead focuses on mining practices in revolutionary Cornwall. If you know that going in, Poldark is brilliant.
Trailing the show in the run-up to the Labour Leadership election (with a specially filmed monologue to camera in which Aiden Turner fiercely espoused the importance of political liberty) invited unlikely parallels to be drawn between Ross Poldark and Jeremy Corbyn. Both apparently stood up for the little guy, openly challenged the establishment and looked to shake up the status quo in the face of overwhelming institutional pressures. This comparison was later levelled against the show as criticism, with the New Stateman’s Rachel Cooke complaining that like Corbyn the show’s leading man was all talk, lamenting the lack of action so apparent in all the pre-launch publicity.
Cooke’s complaint, though it may be justified, reveals two possible misconceptions. The first is that Ross Poldark is like Jeremy Corbyn, when in fact, with all his elitist-bashing and blatant aversion to paying import and export duties, he’s more like a handsome personification of Leave.EU. He does desperately want to find copper in that mine to support the local population, but at the same time his flair for the revolutionary rhetoric of his own moment is more often used to cover or justify his own bad behaviour. Is illegal smuggling really the best way to take back control?
Indeed, the show is perhaps to be applauded for its willingness to make Ross so unlikable. He’s arrogant, head-strong and he has an addictive personality. His treatment of Demelza and Elizabeth is at times, frankly, abusive and his business decisions are so poor one might speculate that they are motivated entirely by editorial intervention. Surely, this is not what you want from the leading man of an easy-going Sunday-night period drama? And here, I suspect, we see the second misconception surrounding Poldark.
It is easy to imagine how the uninitiated (if indeed such poor unfortunates still exist) might assume that Ross Poldark is the hero of the show’s title. But don’t let the gratuitous photos adorning the cover of the Radio Times fool you; this is not so. Winston Graham’s original series of novels (1945-1953 and 1973-2002) is a family saga, adopting the perspective of multiple Poldarks over several generations. Ross isn’t an 18th-century Jeremy Corbyn, and he isn’t the moral core of the show any more than he is of the books. Season 2 does a far better job of demonstrating that, like Graham’s original novels, this is an ensemble piece. It is the story of family, not an individual. Attention shifts from Ross to Francis and then more often than not to Demelza and Elizabeth. Indeed, even Grandma Poldark takes on a larger role this time round. Ross isn’t the hero. He is to Poldark what David Archer is to The Archers: the obvious patriarch but one of the least interesting characters.
Indeed, Poldark’s soap-opera DNA was front and centre this year and again, like The Archers, it slowed down plot progression to mine great pathos from the every-day. Like The Archers it occasionally brought up bathos instead. And, as I alluded to earlier, like The Archers there’s a discernibly pedagogical and refreshingly revisionist agenda here: to raise the profile of a period of history and a geographical area not often associated with mainstream television. However, it walks a fine line in this regard, constantly threatening audience expectations. Make no mistake, this is not ‘simply’ a representation of life in 18th-century Cornwall. This is a 2016 vision of the 1790s, based on a vision first rendered in the 1940s, that also homages a pre-existing adaptation from the 1970s. Poldark has the potential to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and it falters whenever it loses sight of its own identity and tries to cater to these myriad expectations.
Poldark is not Ripper Street, it isn’t Wolf Hall, and as much as The Sun might insist, neither is it a swash-buckling, bodice-busting sexcapade. Poldark is a family-based soap opera set in an Arden-esque vision of 18th-century Cornwall; a Cornwall which bears as much resemblance to the historical referent as Albert Square does to East London. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of interesting things to be learnt about life in 18th-century Cornwall along the way, the historical details that the show reveals are often rich and fascinating.
To appreciate the extent to which Poldark functions fully-formed as a distinct generic entity you need only try to watch it any other time than a Sunday evening. It simply doesn’t work. Just as The Archers is best enjoyed for 15 minutes every-day, Poldark needs to be viewed on a Sunday evening, a final treat before the working week begins.
Poldark Season Two premiered on BBC One on 4th September 2016. It is now available on DVD.