So, Poldark is back and, as I write, it is being “trounced” (© Daily Mail) by ITV’s Victoria in the ratings. This is hardly surprising, for all that I predict the numbers will shift once Rufus Sewell’s Lord Melbourne exits the action. Now that Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) are a couple, there’s so little tension in the thing, sexual or otherwise. Set in an age when “putrid throat” will claim the life of a child faster than you can say clotted cream, and a man may be hanged for throwing horse shit at his local MP, the series is nevertheless a drearily 21st-century confection. Ross, with his determination to fight for the ordinary Cornishman and his fondness for real ale and folk music, is just a very sexy version of Jeremy Corbyn. Demelza, meanwhile, sounds as if she’s taken to reading – can she read? – Elle Decoration. After their brief stay in that debauched metropolis, Bodmin, she told Ross she had not cared for the place. How much nicer to be at home, with candles burning and every room full of the scent of “new-picked violets”.
Debbie Horsfield’s script is so plodding, her main concession to period being to begin every other sentence with the word “’tis”. She tried her best to bring an element of suspense to Ross’s trial for riot, theft and assaulting an officer of the crown – nasty George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) had paid various witnesses to testify against his rival – but because we knew with absolute certainty that he wasn’t heading for the gallows, his exoneration by a jury fell on the courtroom with all the drama of a loud burp. Plus, it made no sense. The judge had more or less instructed them to convict.
Later, back at their ramshackle (by which I mean bijou) cottage, Poldark and Demelza indulged in a little playful verbal S&M come bedtime. “Listen to your lord and master!” he said (I paraphrase). Honestly! This is Ross Poldark we’re talking about, a figure of the 18th century created in the 1970s. At the very least, he would have bent her over backwards on a hostess trolley.
Still, this is nothing. Compared to The Collection on Amazon Prime, Poldark might have been written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Dear God, what a stench this “hotly anticipated” show gives off. Set in a Parisian fashion house after the Second World War – think The House of Eliott with shorter hemlines, boys and an awful lot more cash – it stars Richard Coyle as Paul Sabine, a businessman who may or may not have been a collaborator, and Tom Riley as his brother Claude, who is a “genius” when it comes to epaulettes and shawl collars, but a disaster when it comes to propriety (that is to say, he will trawl gay bars late at night). I think it wants to be a little bit camp, but in fact it’s just very, very stupid. Frances de la Tour’s ghastly turn as the Sabines’ maman is without doubt the most unsubtle performance I’ve ever seen – and I once went to a show at Blackpool Pleasure Beach (though it has some stiff competition here, notably from Sarah Parish as a hard-to-please customer called Marjorie Stutter).
I read that the costume designers Chattoune & Fab – they once worked on a Chanel show! – created the 30 frocks that comprise Claude Sabine’s supposedly revelatory couture collection in this series, as well as the 1,200 outfits worn by the cast. To which all I can say is: what a waste of time and money.
If viewers want fashion, they’ll flick through Vogue. Midnight-blue shantung is no substitute for decent writing, a darling little hat with a veil no replacement for depth, flair and conviction, all of which seem, here, to have been shoved to the back of the wardrobe along with all those horrible utility coats and dresses made from blackout curtains.
A good writer could make a drama set in the womenswear department of Marks & Spencer richly gripping. But Oliver Goldstick, who has worked previously on series such as Lipstick Jungle, Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives, has made this a show-by-numbers. It reminds me of the paper dolls that used to appear on the back page of Bunty. On the page, they looked, to this frock-loving girl, so alluring, so chic. But then, cut out, they were just flimsy things, destined only for the bin.
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation