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1 August 2018

Poldark is one of the biggest shows in Britain, so why does it get so little attention?

Popular but layered, reflecting on society as well as portraying it, Poldark is arguably what television drama is for.

By James Cooray Smith

On Sunday, the fourth series of Poldark came to an end. It was immediately followed by a huge caption. announcing “POLDARK WILL RETURN”. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The programme was seen by between five and six million viewers most weeks, with its +28-days time-shifted viewers touching seven million. That’s at the height of summer, mostly during a World Cup, and makes it the most watched non-sport, non-soap UK television transmission of the moment, even using a metric that doesn’t include (most) iPlayer figures.

For context, the much discussed The Handmaid’s Tale scores around 1.5 million for Channel 4. The frequently invoked Westworld attracts around 500,000 pairs of eyes for Sky Atlantic, while the same channel’s constantly ballyhooed Game of Thrones’ UK peak is around 3.5 million, although it is usually seen by far fewer than that. If you add all those series average figures together, they don’t quite hit Poldark’s regular audience, but you wouldn’t guess that from the way the series are generally discussed.

It’s been suggested that Poldark attracts less attention because it’s not as worthy as, for example, that dragons vs zombies show. That its concentration on the lives of a community of people, and nature as a family saga, renders it essentially a soap opera and thus not deserving of much attention, no matter how many people are watching.

When the BBC announced Poldark in 2014, it was keen to distance the production from the earlier BBC series of the same name that ran between 1975 and 1977. While the increasingly meaningless term “reboot” was used, the broadcaster was insistent that the series was a new adaptation of Winston Graham’s series of novels that had inspired the earlier version, not a remake of it.

That original, while hugely successful, had borne the brunt of some (largely unfair) scorn in its day. Alastair Cook, who provided introductions to it when it aired in America felt there was little to say about the series in terms of its historical, political or literary content compared to, say, its contemporary I, Claudius. In Britain, Clive James wondered in the Observer if it was a coincidence that Poldark was an anagram of “Old Krap”. If stressing the new series’ literary pedigree rather than its previous incarnation was a bid for respectability, it seems to have failed.

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Winston Graham, though, was not a writer of period fluff, or novels where the people featured are simply those of the writer’s present but in more complicated clothes. He drew on numerous primary sources when conceiving his series (which he began in 1945), including the work of 1780s social and prison reformer John Howard. Incidents in the earliest books are drawn from local folklore where Graham grew up, and his depictions of tin mining are often painfully accurate.

The total lunar eclipse of 1794, and public reactions to it, give the fifth book (The Black Moon) its title. Lord Falmouth and Sir Francis Basset, Cornish worthies whom Poldark is variously allied with and arraigned against over time are real historical figures and some care has been taken to reflect their real interests as politicians. More importantly, the causes with which Poldark gets involved, such as the reformation of poor relief, reflect real developments in the decade. The general election depicted is a real one, that of 1796, and its real causes and issues are portrayed.

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This is not to say that Graham was a John Galsworthy figure (Galsworthy’s similar family saga, about the Forsytes has also been adapted twice for television, and won him the 1932 Nobel prize for literature) but he has more in common with him than not. Both attempted to depict a society at a certain historical moment, teasing out both the unfathomable differences and the surprising comparisons between the age depicted and the age doing the depicting. Dialogue in recent series about foreign trade, rising food prices, increasing social inequities and a divided country feel so relevant to our current decade, they might seem interpolated by the screenwriter, but they’re almost always drawn directly from the books.

Poldark, in any iteration, is a series interested in class. Poldark is a minor member of a storied but increasingly impoverished house. His rival George Warleggan is the grandson of a blacksmith. New money. Warleggan suspects, and he is not wrong, that Poldark’s contempt for him is in part due to his class origins, but himself has far less sympathy with the systematically impoverished than his aristocratic adversary, believing they can work themselves out of a poverty as his family has.

The complications of this, as Poldark then marries beneath him, while George marries Poldark’s cousin-by-marriage and own first-and-lost love Elizabeth, twist through the series, even before both enter parliament. A development that enables the series to play out the great issues of the era through their local consequences and a personal rivalry. They are, of course, on opposite sides of the House. Warleggan, desperate to be part of the establishment, is a Tory Pittite. Poldark a follower of radical Whig Charles James Fox.

Does the easy dismissal of Poldark matter? Does success not speak for itself? Perhaps. But it is hard not to suspect that, like that other much dismissed, ratings-topping drama Call The Midwife, it happens because this is a series run by a female producer and largely (in Poldark’s case solely) written by women writers.

When Poldark comes back next year it will have outlasted the earlier adaptation in several different ways. It’s already overtaken it in terms of years on air and number of episodes produced, but more importantly, the 2019 series will be an adaptation of a book not included in the Seventies version. The 1977 series ended only because the BBC had run out of books to adapt. Graham had written book seven, The Angry Tide, while the series was being made, and it came out the same year the programme was transmitted, in a manner anticipating the fuss over Game of Thrones lapping its source novel series.

An eighth book, The Stranger from the Sea, would not appear until 1981. By then, the BBC had moved on. A daytime repeat of the series at the end of that decade drew record audiences for the time slot, and there was interest in reviving the series. In the end it was ITV who attempted an adaptation of the book, in 1996, but the single drama they made foundered on recasting all the surviving characters from the BBC series.

This was not actually necessary, despite 20 years having passed. The Stranger from the Sea opens a good decade after the end of The Angry Tide, against the background of the Peninsular War, Ross and Demelza are nearing fifty and the younger generation of Poldarks and Warleggans, now adults, take centre stage.

It is this situation that the fifth series of Poldark will grapple with. You can hardly imagine the series’ current stars in grey wigs, let alone elaborate old age makeup. But it might become necessary. Graham wrote an additional four Poldark novels after 1981 taking the story of the Poldarks up to 1820. The last was published in 2002 the year before his death. Curiously, this means the series was written over nearly as twice as long as the already epic thirty-year period it covers.

Perhaps it won’t happen. It has been implied by “senior BBC sources” that the next series of this Poldark will, thanks to cast reluctance to continue, be the last, which would still leave four books unadapted. That would be a terrible shame. Popular but layered, reflecting on society as well as portraying it, Poldark is arguably what television drama is for.

Those seven million people better enjoy it while it lasts. Or be prepared to wait a decade for the cast and their characters’ ages to get back in sync.