Poldark returns: Poverty and illiteracy are the big issues of the day

Responsible landlords, poverty-fighting politicians and advocates for literacy. Poldark is back and it has a social message for the here and now.

Unemployment, low wages, food shortages – no, this isn’t Project Fear’s prediction for post-Brexit Britain but the big issues of Cornwall in the year 1800. The fifth and final series of Poldark sees Ross and Demelza, played by Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson, plan to lift locals out of poverty – one in his role as an MP, the other through opening a school.

Together the impulsive, righteous, buccaneering hero and his determined, principled partner have grown into their roles as community leaders keeping locals afloat in tough times. And they may have lessons that could help us tackle the same problems today.

Poldark has always been about a lot more than a Cornish glamour couple scything their way into our hearts on Sunday nights. From the start Turner was drawn by the part Ross Poldark played in his community.

“Of course the story is set in 1800, but the role of education as a means of taking people out of poverty remains crucial to this day.”

“People need him,” Turner told The Big Issue ahead of the first season. “He’s strong by nature. He doesn’t make any secret of that.

“There isn’t a voice like Ross’s around, somebody who can be a working-class hero and a gentrified figure – the guy who can show up at a ball and schmooze with all the rich folk and is equally down with the proletariat.”

Five years on, not much has changed. He is the right leader for his times, and could be the right leader for our own. Turner has also always been aware that Poldark recognises the responsibility he has as a landowner and landlord.

“That’s one of the many attributes of Ross that I adore. But he’s not just that benevolent character. He’s a massive contradiction. He looks out for his friends but at the same time he can be selfish and arrogant and can cut off his nose to spite his face. He’s real and that’s how I connected with him.”

While business rivals chase a quick buck, the Poldarks put people before profit. They promote according to talent not social class and commune with friends from all backgrounds.

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The fifth series opens in a new century. Yet optimism is still hard to find in Cornwall in 1800 and the problems experienced by local workers stack on top of each other.

Demelza knows the hardship people are facing only too well, having grown up in poverty. And she also knows a tried-and-tested route out.

Tomlinson says: “As we go into this series, the Cornish people are struggling to survive, there are food shortages, lack of pay and mine closures, and Demelza is often at the forefront trying to help people where she can.

“She tries to set up a school with Morwenna [Ellise Chappell] at the helm as teacher. Demelza is always thinking about enriching the lives of the people in Cornwall and she realises the importance of reading and writing and of an education, so she takes on that challenge within the community and while she is met with great hostility, in the end she triumphs.”

Poldark writer Debbie Horsfield adds: “In series five, thinking back on her own rise from kitchen maid to gentlewoman, Demelza reflects that the true difference between ‘commoners’ and ‘gentry’ is learning. In other words, education, because without it, she notes that ‘no one can rise above their station’.

“Witnessing the plight of the uneducated poor, often at the mercy of unscrupulous employers or a hostile economic climate, Demelza realises it is impossible for them to access better jobs and opportunities without literacy and numeracy skills.”

As libraries continue to close in 2019, this is a battle many of us are still fighting. And it is something close to our hearts at The Big Issue.

For Horsfield, the modern-day parallels to the politics of Poldark have always been clear – from greedy bankers and mercenary business owners to political conspiracies.

“Of course the story is set in 1800,” says Horsfield, “but the role of education as a means of taking people out of poverty remains crucial to this day.”

Poldark airs on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One