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What're you doin' doon there on the floo-er, Ross?

Bored by the Beeb? Run out of HBO boxed-sets?  The Bee continues its quest for simpler telly from a bygone age.  This week, Philip Reeve has been watching: POLDARK!

Ah, Sunday evenings in the 1970s; Cliff Michelmore's Holiday programme, and then, if you were lucky, Poldark.  This was the first bit of grown-up telly I remember watching, and terribly grown up it seemed too, with characters dying and going bankrupt and lots of love and stuff.  But it was set in my then-favourite period (late 18th/early 19th century - I was an odd child) and so the outfits and atmosphere carried me through all the bits I didn't really understand.  Better still, it was set in Cornwall, so for fifty minutes a week I'd be whisked away from dismal old Brighton to storm-wracked smugglers' coves and wild granite cliff tops.

Anyway, so much for nostalgia: how would Poldark stand up when viewed again in the 21st century, thanks to the miracle of DVDs?

 Robin Ellis, Angharad Rees, and Cornwall
Surprisingly well, as it turns out.  Based on Winston Graham's series of novels (which are also pretty good) it's basically a grand historical soap-opera: a kind of period-costume Dallas with tin mines instead of oil wells.  Robin Ellis plays Ross Poldark, a minor Cornish landowner returning to his run-down ancestral farm after fighting in the American War of Independence.  He's a fine hero; mercurial, stubborn, sometimes rash, sometimes plain wrong, one of the gentry but a man of the people too, ruthless in his business dealings, but often risking all to save local smugglers and poachers from transportation or the gallows. He is, in fact, an 18th century man with a whiff of the 1970s about him (and he sports a short, brown leather riding coat which I'm sure is historically accurate, but wouldn't have looked out of place on the King's Road).

Elizabeth Poldark
Anyway, he comes home to find that all is not well with the Poldark lands.  His house is a tumbledown wreck inhabited by two filthy, drunk and very funny servants, Judd and Prudy, while his fiance, Elizabeth (Jill Townsend), has given up waiting for him and married his drippy cousin Francis.  His continuing passion for her, and his attempts to win her back, drive much of the first series, although they're slightly undermined by the fact that she looks like a cross between a young Margaret Thatcher and one of those plastic dollies with the crocheted skirts which my house-proud aunties hid their toilet-rolls under.

Then one day, as you do, he saves an androgynous ginger waif from being beaten to death for pasty-theft at a local fishmarket.  She turns out to be Demelza, played by lovely, lovely Angharad Rees, who becomes his housekeeper, lover and eventually his wife, her humble background and peculiar 'Cornish' vowel-sounds startling the local gentry and driving a series of BBC regional accent coaches to drink, madness and suicide*.  Bickering, doubting each other, falling in and out of love, Ross and Demelza are still one of the most memorable and oddly convincing couples I've ever seen on TV.

Oh, I doan' know, Ross, what
sorta accent be this, then?
Indeed, 'oddly convincing' pretty much sums up Poldark.  It should be pure periwig-cheese, but it works, dammit.  Made in the days before TV producers liked to 'film-look' everything and the pictures became more important than the words, it makes little attempt at realism.  The outdoor scenes are filmed on fine Cornish locations, but as soon as the characters step indoors we are in overlit studio sets that owe more to theatre than the movies.  And do you know what?  It doesn't matter at all.  Because the actors are good, and the story unfolds in long scenes; there is time for whole conversations, and the programme-makers assume a certain amount of patience and intelligence on the part of the audience - an assumption which seems rare these days outside of HBO.

The stories are gripping, involving Ross in smuggling, duels, law-suits, bitter rivalries. even raids on revolutionary France.  It also treats business as something important and worth telling stories about.  Robin Ellis is terrific, and I assume the only reason he's not better known is that he was so memorable in Poldark that he got hopelessly typecast.  Angharad Rees is every bit as good.  Ralph Bates, who arrives in the second series as the scheming George Warleggan, is a simply magnificent villain.  Even Christopher Biggins is a revelation, playing a particularly repellant vicar.

Only two things disappointed me.  Firstly, the DVDs which are currently available have been re-edited (perhaps for US TV?) so that on each disc three or four fifty minute episodes have been run together into one movie of unwieldy length; you have to edit them into watchable chunks yourself, which involves much mucking about in the menu, and I missed the cliff-hanger endings and that cut to sea bursting on Cornish rocks while the credits roll.

Secondly, I spent the whole time waiting for Demelza (she of the uncertain West Country accent) to say, "What're you doin' doon there on the floo-er, Ross?"  This became a sort of catch-phrase in my family when Poldark was first on, but either it's been edited out or, more likely, it was just something we made up while doing Angharad Rees impressions, because she never actually says it.  Ah, how our fickle memories play us false...

*This is not true.


andrew_greenwood512 said...

Nice one Mr Reeve. I'm probably not going to get around to watching it again though!!

Cary Watson said...

Like you, this was one my early "adult programming" TV experiences. I enjoyed immensely, and one scene has always stuck in my memory: some nasty character is at the dinner table with Poldark and has the most spectacular choking fit I've ever seen on film. I guess that's the sort of thing that sticks in the teenage brain.

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