DVD review: ‘Poldark,’ a cure for your ‘Downton Abbey’ blues


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Without doing any real research into the matter, I imagine we are going to experience a flurry of articles/lists/promotions on the subject of what to watch now that ‘Downton Abbey’ is, for the moment, done. A Google search of the words ‘what to watch now that ‘Downton Abbey’ is done’ does in fact fetch back some hits.

Given that a wealth of old television is perennially available by DVD or download, there is no lack of candidates for this position, not least because ‘Downton Abbey’ is as much of an expression of a tradition of British television as it is of a British way of life. Indeed, its very success recalls the way that High-Class British Period Dramas of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s invaded the cultural consciousness; some came with literary pedigrees, some were pretty soapy, and all, like ‘Downton Abbey,’ were imported to these shores via ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ (now simplified and complicated as ‘Masterpiece,’ in three flavors: Contemporary, Mystery and Classic). These included ‘The Pallisers’ (adapting six novels by Anthony Trollope), ‘The Forsyte Saga’ (three novels and two ‘interludes’ by John Galsworthy), ‘Jewel in the Crown (Paul Scott’s ‘Raj Quartet’), ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ and, of course, ‘Upstairs Downstairs,’ that proto-’Downton’ drama of relations among and between the served and serving classes in the early 20th century.


One of the most successful of these series was ‘Poldark,’ originally broadcast here in 1977 and 1978 but which I am just now watching for the first time, at a gallop, in a 25-hour, eight-disc DVD set from Acorn Media. (Its two seasons have been available on DVD separately since 2010 but have just been boxed together under that irresistible term, ‘complete.’) Based on a series of novels by Winston Graham and set in Cornwall — England’s far-flung southwestern extremity — in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it is a big box of chocolates that was reportedly so popular in its initial British run that some vicars rescheduled Sunday evening services in order not to compete with it

Starring Robin Ellis as Capt. Ross Poldark and Angharad Rees as Demelza, his spirited spiritual equal, it is, above all, a portrait of a perfect complementary union — though it is not the marriage we are led to expect or that Poldark expects will suit him when he returns home from the American Revolution, after a spell in a French prison camp, to find his father dead, his estate fallen in around the ears of a pair of drunken caretakers and the woman he was engaged to marry (Jill Townsend) now engaged to his weakling wastrel cousin (Clive Francis). With his thick hair and his big boots, his sculpted features and often moody mien, Ross is a champion out of an old picture book, but he’s also a modern man, a free thinker, unconstrained by history or tradition or the belief that he, or anyone, is owed anything that hasn’t been earned, whether money or respect. If he is not always immediately sensible to the injustices around him, once he wakes or is awakened to them, he does the right thing without spite; his sense of duty is not hobbled with reluctance. A man of the people, and a man of his people — the Cornish people, whose welfare he wishes to promote — he will every so often unburden himself of a stirring jeremiad against his bewigged and powdered peers who keep them down. He is something of a traitor to his class, as his class would define it.

Deeply and thoroughly romantic, ‘Poldark’ is not so much a bodice-ripper as a bodice-remover; there is a (perhaps ahistorical?) parity to the sexes here, and Graham and his interpreters have created some strong female characters. The steamy stuff is as steamy as a mid-’70s British production would allow, which, in its suggestiveness and its seriousness, is a lot steamier than most of what passes for hot on contemporary television, and perhaps in contemporary life. And though there are plots and subplots having to do with copper mining, farming, smuggling and systems of finance and justice in Georgian England, amid bursts of action and episodes of rustic comedy, its most important business is seated in the relationships between the characters, in the love or hate, the desire or disdain they bear one another, in changing or steadfast proportions.

The series teems grandly with life, which also means, at times, with death. The expected worst thing does not always materialize, and the unexpected one sometimes does, which keeps things interesting and dynamic. And while many characters may seem at first to run close to type — the dark hero, the honest child of the soil, the weakling spoiled by advantage, the narcissistic beauty, the vain villain — most will at some point surprise you, as real people can.

— Robert Lloyd