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18 August 2019

The current series of Poldark is a sequel, a prequel and an adaptation of real events

By James Cooray Smith

This article contains spoilers for the events of 1803.

One way in which television adaptations of novels are judged is by invoking a not-quite-conceptualised idea of how “faithful” they are to the source text. That’s a criterion that isn’t applicable to many recent television series, thanks to the trend for “exploded” adaptations, which eschew narrative fidelity in favour of importing atmosphere or broad concerns rather than story or plot.

So The Man in the High Castle takes its setting, an America divided between Nazi and Japanese zones following a 1944 Axis victory, from Philip K Dick’s 1962 novel. But some of the major characters, such as Rufus Sewell’s Obergruppenfuhrer Smith, are original to the programme. Hours go by without anything from the book happening, then suddenly there’s a whole scene transcribed from it without missing a word. High Castle isn’t the only series to adopt this approach; The Handmaid’s Tale operates in a similar way, while the imminent Watchmen looks to extend comics the same treatment.

The relationship between books and television has long been more complicated than many assume. John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey books are mostly novelisations of television scripts, but the DVDs of the series proclaim “Based on John Mortimer’s Best-Selling Books”. Culturally we assume that books must have come first.

But Game of Thrones (2011-19) outpaced the novel series on which it was based, making it an adaptation that turns into something else. The original Poldark (1975-77), adapted from a Winston Graham’s novel series that began in 1945 but didn’t finish until 2012, did something similar. The 1975 series had adapted the first four books, written from 1945 to 1953. The 1977 series adapted the long delayed fifth book The Black Moon (1973), the publication of which had prompted BBC interest in an adaptation; The Four Swans (1976) which was written to tie into the TV series; and a seventh novel, The Angry Tide, written in parallel with the 1977 series, reaching shops as the same events unfolded on television. Five more books followed it, the first in 1981, but by then the TV show had ended.

So running out of material is not an issue faced by the BBC in its current attempt at the novels, and yet the current series (BBC One, Sundays) finds itself in an even more interesting position. I assumed that series five would adapt The Stranger from the Sea, the first book not covered by the earlier BBC series. It doesn’t: that book is set a decade after The Angry Tide and presumably no one wanted to force the cast into grey wigs. Instead, series five is a sort of Poldark 7.5, an original-to-screen story picking up almost immediately after the last scene of series four, which faithfully replicated the end of The Angry Tide almost word for word.

While writer/producer Debbie Horsfield has greater freedom than on the preceding series, she also presumably won’t develop story or characters in ways that preclude adaptations of the later books. This is officially the last series of Poldark, but getting the cast back together to revisit their characters later in life is an enticing prospect BBC One would be foolish to rule out. It’s also something that was attempted, and then abandoned, with the 1975 cast in 1996.

For the moment, though, Horsfield is writing something that is both sequel to the adaptations she’s already written, and prequel to the rest of the novels.

Prequels have a strange dramaturgy of their own. To have any creative value they need to be surprising, moving characters to where they need to be in unobvious ways. It’s hard to get right. This series, for example, shows Geoffrey Charles Poldark considering careers. This isn’t particularly exciting, and is even less so if you know the next book means he must choose the army, because it shows him fighting in the Peninsular War (1807-14).

Horsfield has made matters even more complex for herself by including historical figures, principally the Irish-born Colonel Edward Despard (who turns out to have been Ross’s commanding officer in America) and his Jamaican wife Catherine. In some ways this is an entirely delicious trap for the kind of racist who objects to non-white characters in period drama, while pretending they do so in defence of historical fact. In others it seems an appropriate addition to a series that combines the domestic and political. In which context, George Warleggan going mad in the same decade as the King after whom he was named ties together the family and political stories being told rather well.

Despard is an intriguing figure: one of the last men in England to be sentenced to hanging, drawing and quartering for treason, he had once been an establishment hero, and it was broadly his actions that meant what became British Honduras (today’s Belize) remained within the British Empire. Yet his increasing radicalism as governor, including a tendency to use the king’s authority to free slaves, led to his being recalled to London where he may or may not have become involved in a plot to assassinate the king. Prosecuted by Attorney General Spencer Perceval, later prime minister and himself a convinced abolitionist, Despard was convicted on flimsy evidence, and despite a show-stopping appearance as a character witness by Nelson.

Even given current interest in him, it’s likely that Poldark is likely the only way he could be one of the protagonists of a major drama series, particularly one that can routinely command six million viewers when scheduled after The Antiques Roadshow. As those viewers follow Despard to the gallows, they are following a different kind of adaptation. Horsfield is at least as compelled to follow the line of real events as she is Graham’s novels, and she can no more save Ned Despard from history than she could save Elizabeth Warleggan from fiction.

Equally inescapable is Poldark’s own history. The Reverend Osborne Whitworth was played in 1977 by Christopher Biggins, and Christian Brassington, who played the part last year, seemed to have been told “Do it like Biggins”. Strikingly, Poldark (2015) is paced so identically to Poldark (1975) that the cliffhanger of episode eight of the 2015 series is resolved in the first scene of episode nine of the 1975 run. So much for the idea television has grown faster paced over the last 40 years.

In truth, many things have changed less than it appears. Ivanhoe (1958-59) starring Roger Moore isn’t an adaptation of Walter Scott’s novel. It takes some of its characters and concepts and turns them into a format for an action-adventure series which could run as long as the producers liked. As a process, that’s far more like these fractured adaptations of “peak TV” than most will admit.

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