Love it or loathe it (surely not?) Poldark is set to gallop off our screens for good this week, having cemented its place in the national consciousness for years – or even decades – to come. But why? What has made it so popular? What about this particular iteration of Winston Graham’s novels has so captured the public’s imagination?
As an actor in the show, it’s a question I’ve been asked an awful lot over the last five years, and I’ve often trotted out the most obvious, crowd-pleasing answer: that a certain young man’s torso has been impossible to resist (not mine, obviously). But I think the truth – for many of us, at least – is somewhat less superficial.
Of course it helps that the show is beautiful: the people, costumes, hairdos, lighting, landscapes, horses, props – it’s a sumptuous period palette of escapism and Cornish camp just ‘fitty’ for heedless Sunday nights. But it’s also packed to the gunwales with politics and social commentary, if you care to pay attention to anyone still fully clothed.
Season Five alone is thick with arguments for workers’ rights, free education, universal healthcare, racial equality and gender-parity to name a few (a fact unmissed by the right-wing trolls decrying it – predictably enough – as ‘PC gone mad’). NB: Anyone demanding the return of their licence fee because a black woman has joined the cast can probably look away from this article now. And maybe read Kathleen Chater’s Untold Histories instead?
The point is this: that throughout its long life on both page and screen, Poldark has spread a gospel of tolerance and inclusivity, community and love, without compunction. It comes categorised as ‘romance saga’ not simply because of the amorous entanglements of Ross, Demelza and co, but because it is romantic in its very understanding of human beings. Honesty, integrity, compassion, kindness, care – these are qualities celebrated and rewarded in our heroes, time and again. Meanwhile, the villains of the piece wither and die (sometimes literally) under the weight of their own avarice and dishonesty. Put simply – SPOILER ALERT – the good guys win. The bad guys lose. Justice prevails. Always.
And in that sense, the show might more accurately be categorised as ‘fantasy’; it’s drama as wish fulfilment. England (or at least Cornwall) is redrawn in shades of hope and unity– and at a time when the country is arguably more aware of its divisions than ever before, this particular dream of communion feels especially welcome. It serves to remind us that we have more in common than that which divides us, to borrow from the late, great,
Jo Cox MP, whose words, I hope, will outlive the memory of
her brutal murder.
— Official Poldark (@PoldarkTV) August 18, 2019
That word again, there: ‘hope’. It’s a motif that both Winston Graham and Debbie Horsfield (our screenwriter) use as a potent weapon: it is the spur to action in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, it is the glimmer of optimism that engenders change, it is the very basis for the heroism at the heart of this story. Both writers argue, 70 years apart, that hope requires courage – and that to act upon that hope takes even more. An assertion which, in the face of climate disaster and resurgent fascism (to name but two things) feels very much like a truism just now. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,
as the saying goes.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the first novel in the Poldark saga was published in 1945 as Britain emerged from the horrors of the Second World War with notions of a brighter collective future. The progressive social policies pursued by the post-war Labour government (including the expansion of the Welfare State and formation of the NHS) find direct parallels in Winston Graham’s Cornwall – not least in the shape of my character Dr Enys, who insists on treating needier patients free of charge. He (Graham) clearly believes it is the duty of the ‘haves’ to help the ‘have nots’, and while this vision of society might best be described as one-nation Conservatism, there is an inherent sense of civic duty in his work that I think appeals to people right across the political spectrum – especially
in times of hardship.
Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.
So perhaps it’s no coincidence either that the 1970s TV version lit up the nation in the midst of a recession, or that our 2010s version has been beaming out amid the pernicious austerity measures of successive Tory governments. This aggressive dismantling of the social safety net has basically just left us hungry for tales of love and solidarity.
And so I think, really, that’s why people have loved it: because for five years we’ve smuggled something warm and wholesome into an otherwise cold and sickening diet of current affairs. And maybe that’s naïve of me. Forgive me if it is. Maybe you think Poldark is simply frothy, patriarchal ‘fluff’. That’s up to you. But honestly, for me, it’s been a quietly revolutionary treatise on the power – and cost – of maintaining hopefulness, and I think we’ll all miss that. Or at least I hope.
The fifth and final series of Poldark is on BBC iPlayer now, and will
be released on DVD on September 2