A more modest view of Aidan Turner.
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Second helpings: even with its sea vistas and a firm, pink bottom, Poldark fails to shine

The new Poldark looks like a tourist board campaign for Cornwall, only with stagecoaches where there should be surfboards.

When the original Poldark went out in the 1970s, it was said that some Church of England vicars rescheduled their services so as not to have to compete with Ross and Demelza for the loyalty of their congregations. That speaks loudly of how much Britain has changed in the decades since. Hardly anyone goes to church now, and those who do can easily record the stuff they’ll miss. More to the point, it seems pretty unlikely that even a whizzy new version of Poldark (Sundays, 9pm), adapted for the BBC by Debbie Horsfield (Cutting It, True Dare Kiss), will bring in 14 million viewers and have them hanging on its every tricorn hat today. I mean, it’s quite good fun as 18th-century Cornish tin-mining and smuggling dramas go but I wouldn’t miss evensong for it. Whatever will the BBC dish up next? A rebooted Onedin Line? A sexed-up When the Boat Comes In? The mind boggles.

The new Poldark looks like a tourist board campaign for Cornwall, only with stagecoaches where there should be surfboards. On the plus side, you can hear every word, even over the roar of the waves, which will come as a relief to anyone who endured the recent mumblefest that was Jamaica Inn. On the downside, Aidan Turner makes for only a moderately attractive Ross Poldark, back from the American war of independence to reclaim his motley inheritance. At the end of the first episode, a trailer showed his firm, pink bottom cresting the azure sea, an aerial shot that suggested the BBC is hoping for Colin Firth-style traction with the ladies in the matter of Mr Turner. But I can’t say I was in a fever of excitement. He’s too bland, too cut-out-and-keep. Somehow you know in your bones that up close he’d smell not of sweat, horses, woodsmoke and pheromones, but of Badedas and quiet ambition. Yes, Eleanor Tomlinson will do fine as Demelza, the maidservant he’ll soon marry, but his true love, Elizabeth (Heida Reed), has the most laughably non-18th-century teeth I’ve ever seen – incisors that seem all the more ludicrous next to those of Poldark’s servant Jud Paynter (Phil Davis), which look like half-sucked offcuts of liquorice.

The Poldark trailer.

I had higher hopes of In and Out of the Kitchen (Wednesdays, 10pm), a new BBC4 comedy written by and starring Miles Jupp, which aims to take the piss out of Damien Trench, a certain kind of food writer: the kind that stares mournfully at their rosemary bush in the morning frost, thinks a few poetic thoughts about roast chicken and remembrance, and then picks up the phone to their high-powered agent to chase their next TV series. Alas, it falls flatter than your average artisanal spinach-and-ricotta pancake, mainly because its “jokes” feel so familiar. For one thing, Damien’s agent is always being hassled by Salman Rushdie (a gag that might have been lifted straight from W1A). And if it wasn’t bad enough that the agent takes Damien to lunch at a hip new place called Zeitgeist – this is satire by numbers – his client then orders a dish called “fizzy beef”, which turns out to be steak with a bottle of Coke poured over it.

It’s impossible to believe in the relationship between Damien and his partner, Anthony (Justin Edwards). They just aren’t a pair. In the first episode Anthony embarked on a courgette soup diet, of which Damien disapproved on the grounds of its faddishness and the stink it made. “It’s like you’re cooking a pond,” he yelped. There followed much rushing by Anthony to the downstairs loo, which soon became so whiffy that Damien’s builders refused to use it. Now, wind jokes have their place in life but mainly I wondered: why wouldn’t Damien just take over? He’s the cook. And why did the soup smell so awful? Courgettes are unassuming vegetables, gentle and mild. Verisimilitude is vital to comedy, whether we’re talking The League of Gentlemen (however grotesque the people of Royston Vasey are, we still recognise them, on some level) or a show that goes after types who obsess about warm salads and larder staples.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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Why the class of '94 still rules British poetry

The message of the 1990s generation - that seeing clearly is not as simple as we think - comes across powerfully in four new collections.

In 1994, the “New Generation” of poets was intent on bringing about one of those shifts that periodically redefine a culture. Twenty-odd years later, we can see that, imperfect though the project may have been, the baby boomers did change the face of British poetry. The class of ’94 still dominates the field, as this quartet of fine books demonstrates.

Of the four poets under review – one each from the remaining big trade poetry publishers – it is Kathleen Jamie who has arguably shifted ground the most over the decades. She is now equally well known for her insightful, evocative prose about the Scottish environment, in Findings and Sightlines. Like her prize-winning previous collection, The Overhaul, The Bonniest Companie is alive to every detail of plant and creature. Though they also capture skies, stones and animals, its (mostly short) poems work a little like a herbarium, storing these details for us to examine “a rock-pipit’s seed-small notes”, or “every fairmer’s fenceposts/splashed with gold”.

But the excitement of The Bonniest Companie comes in the concentration of its language and the way that concentration reveals its author’s fierce focus. The inclusion by anglophone Scots of entirely Scots poems in English-language books is a contemporary cliché and can be rebarbative. By contrast, Jamie reinvigorates poetic language, using dialect and loanwords alongside standard English to create vivid, springy textures. Colloquial compressions add to the bouncing, tight rhythms. Stepped lines compress the springs yet further.

None of this is drily technical: this joyous book re-creates the livingness it observes. A poem such as “Migratory III” feels tossed and slung between the line ends:

Those swans out there at the centre

of the loch

a dozen or thirteen

moored close together, none adrift –

they’ve only just arrived

an arrow-true, close-flocked,

ocean-crossing skein . . .

If Jamie has broken through to a new and distinct form of northern lyric, her compatriot Don Paterson deepens a long-term project in his 40 Sonnets. In recent books, he has variously translated, written about and anthologised the form. He is a master of strict formal verse, and his virtuoso touch has always embraced both humour and moving metaphysical reflection, as it does again here. The collection includes comic monologue, an onomatopoeic record of white noise, homage, love poetry and elegy.

Most of the 40 poems are in iambic pentameter. This is no longer the automatic choice for the sonnet form, as Paterson knows better than most. Elsewhere, beyond the sonnet, pentameter seems a natural fit for the diction of certain contemporary poets (such as Tony Harrison or Sean O’Brien) who have a particular kind of lapidary authority. For Paterson’s quicksilver intelligence, iambic pentameter provides a less “natural”, more audible music: the form adds to and changes the poem, not only as it is being written but for the reader. We hear and rehear its effects and the well-known sonnets of history echo in Paterson’s poems:

The body is at home in time and space

and loves things, how they come and go,

and such

distances as it might cross or place

between the things it loves and its

own touch.

Characteristically criss-crossed with a metaphysical thought that is also a spatial metaphor, this is an extract from “Souls”, one of several sonnets here that will surely soon enter the anthologies.

Sarah Maguire’s Almost the Equinox is itself an anthology. This generous volume, at almost 150 pages long, interleaves work from her four collections, eschewing the conventional chronological treatment. In its new and satisfying whole, we trace recurring themes. Each of three consecutive poems called “Psoriasis” is taken from a different collection. Connections are often tonal and emotional: a Tunisian migrant’s story juxtaposed with a Warsaw childhood juxtaposed with Ramallah create what Maguire calls “the soft cry of crossed songs”.

She observes the physical world and the definitive failure of human choices with equal clarity. Her tone can be wry: “Your abandoned bottle of Russkaya vodka lies in my icebox,/Cold as a gun . . .” After a while, though, it becomes apparent that wryness is a veil. These are love poems to the world. The “you” that they repeatedly address is not necessarily a lover but the poet’s self; even, perhaps, us. Maguire’s world knits together even when it seems not to: the Middle East and London, the lost birth mother with the adoptive one, absent lover and speaker. As she writes in her title poem, “The tide has turned, the Thames comes inching back,/drowning everything it will reveal again.”

If Maguire’s poetic world is densely furnished, Neil Rollinson’s seems to have had everything unnecessary removed. ­Talking Dead, his fourth collection, is as lucid and direct as anything being written today. Partly that is because he has moved beyond contrivance. Every word is subordinated to its purpose: not the display but a mastery of the writing self.

Rollinson was not part of the “New Generation” promotion but made his debut two years later. Though his poems read with the ease of apparent artlessness, they are absolutely wrought. This book’s title sequence turns the “little death” convention about orgasm inside out: the recently dead speak of the rapture of violent demise. That could be appalling in both taste and tone. But these lyrics are perfectly judged, as when “Talking Dead – The Bed” turns drowning into a dream sequence:

I opened my mouth to breathe,

like I do in dreams,

and the water flowed into me.

The point is not reportage but the resolving logic of a beauty that is found in unexpected places: death, the smell of urine, a child kicking a toadstool.

Rollinson has an impeccable ear. His eye is impeccable, too. And possibly that is the lesson of the 1990s generation: seeing clearly is not so simple as we once thought. 

Fiona Sampson’s collection “The Catch” is newly published by Chatto & Windus

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie is published by Picador (62pp, £9.99)

Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems by Sarah Maguire is published by Chatto & Windus (149pp, £15.99)

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson is published by Faber & Faber (44pp, £14.99)

Talking Dead by Neil Rollinson is published by Jonathan Cape (51pp, £10)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war