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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser