A chat with Robin Ellis, the man who was Poldark
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A few weeks back, I wrote about ‘Poldark,’ a BBC series from the mid-1970s that had recently been released in a complete-set package on DVD (by Acorn Media), as a cure for ‘Downton Abbey’ withdrawal. A tale of romance and class war, of tradition and nonconformity in Cornwall before and after the turn of the 18th century, it’s hugely romantic, highly intelligent and continually suspenseful.
Coincidentally, Robin Ellis, who played the proud, dashing and sometimes thick-headed Capt. Ross Poldark and lives now in the South of France, was in Los Angeles not long after to tour to promote a cookbook he’d written, (Skyhorse Publishing). (His 1978 memoir of the series, ‘Making Poldark’ is also about to be republished in an expanded form.)
We met over breakfast to talk about the series that in 2007 American fans of ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ voted their seventh favorite ever, but whose debut, recalled Ellis, was not universally well received at home.
Robin Ellis: Do you know Clive James? Wonderful writer poet and a provocative TV critic at the time. His review on the Sunday after the first program came at the end of three columns reviewing something else at great length, and read, ‘And, oh yes — there is ‘Poldark,’ which I notice is an anagram for Old Krap. I rest my case.’
No critics were taking it seriously?
The press had a different attitude to ‘Poldark’ in Britain as opposed to America. In Britain it was a Sunday night comfort television series, of which there are many. It got fairly good reviews, I think, and the audience built over a period of two months from 5 to about 15 million. So it was a success it terms of the public, a big success, but it never had the cachet of a ‘Downton Abbey.’ It wasn’t one of those must-see programs.
Were you aware of the books beforehand?
No. I suppose I must have heard of Winston Graham. He was a very considerable storyteller. He wrote ‘Marnie,’ which Hitchcock made into a film. His high writing time was maybe 20 years before, but then this revived it, and he wrote another eight Poldark books. The last one he wrote at the age of 92. It’s called ‘Bella Poldark,’ and it’s about Ross’s youngest daughter and it’s really good. Graham fell in love with Bella as he had fallen in love with Demelza [the series’ heroine, played by Angharad Rees], and it revived his juices. She ends up playing Ophelia at the Old Vic! It’s absolutely wonderful. I mean, that’s an author having fun, at the age of 92. He wrote the first Poldark book in 1945, and attempt after attempt was made to make a film. But because it was four books originally, I think they just thought, ‘This is too difficult to compress into one two-hour movie.’ And eventually in 1975 the BBC picked it up and went ahead.
Had you done anything like it before? I’d not done a popular series, but I’d done quite a lot of classic serials. I played Bel Ami in ‘Bel Ami,’ a five-part BBC2 series; I played Edward in ‘Sense and Sensibility’; I did Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’; I did ‘Elizabeth R,’ with Glenda Jackson. Until ‘Poldark’ I hadn’t really hit the BBC1 screens particularly hard, but I had done about 60 televisions by then, including the first episode of ‘Fawlty Towers.’ I was at Cambridge with John Cleese, and for some reason , I don’t know why, he remembered being in a production with me.
Had you done Footlights?
No, I was what was known as on the straight side of things at Cambridge, the ADC [Amateur Dramatic Club] and Marlowe Society. Cleese was a couple of years older. There was a Footlights show, originally called ‘A Clump of Plinths,’ which turned into ‘Cambridge Circus,’ which went to the West End and eventually went to Broadway. And from that I think emerged Monty Python; it was a rich period for satire and then for surreal satire.
Were people stopping you on the street then when you were doing ‘Poldark’?
In the end. I had my 15 minutes of fame. Angharad and I went to Spain at one point because it was very popular there; I mean, there were two channels: one was the Parliament, and we were on the other, so there really was nothing else to watch. And there were 2,000 people at the airport when we arrived in Madrid; we were recognized in cars on the motorway. I always say that when we went back to Heathrow there was nobody there at all, but in Britain, yeah, I was recognized for a number of years. On one occasion in London there was a group of Irish schoolgirls at the Aldwych Theatre seeing a show and I was seeing the show, and in the end I had to hide in one of the corridors because they were chasing me all over the theater.
The series is full of romance and skullduggery, but it’s also politically radical in its way; Ross is gentry but also a man of the people and of principle, willing to set himself against entrenched economic interests, including his own.
He kicks against the establishment — of which he was a member, in fact, and that certainly was fun to do. Because that was my own instinct. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of an establishment, although I went through a conventional education. I went to an English public school, which in American terms is a private school, and then I went to Cambridge. I was all set up for a very conventional life.
When you’re playing a character like this, do you put the same work into it as you would if you were doing Shakespeare?
The only difference is the time you have. We had six days of rehearsal for each episode, two days in the studio and one day off, a nine-day turnaround. It was like doing a play, really, because in those days it was done on five cameras in a studio between 7:30 and 10 at night. That’s why in the first episode, I wish somebody had said, ‘OK, Robin, calm down. It’s going well,’ because I was coming in there, really banging it out.
You were used to theater.
I’d spent three years with the Actors’ Company with Ian McKellan, having a wonderful time, being very out front, very theatrical. Which helped with ‘Poldark,’ I think, as long as I learned to contain the energy. Dear Ralph Bates [who played villain George Warlaggan] had to tell me, when I was pacing up and down the studio before a scene, ‘It’s only a play. Don’t worry so much.’ I was really, really, really committed; I was 33 or so, and I was muscled up to do it.
The Actors Company was an unusual group.
It started from an idea by Ian and Edward Petherbridge, who was the original Guildenstern in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’ Everybody was talking about directors’ theater, but when do the actors have a say? And Ian being Ian was at the forefront of that kind of thinking. They talked about having a company where the actors chose the plays, chose the designers, etc., and let the professionals do their own thing. Ian approached the Arts Council, the funding body in Britain, to ask whether they would fund an idea like this, and as long as he was going to, as they thought, front the company, they agreed. That was in 1972. And he and Edward chose a company of 17; the principle was that we were all equal, we got paid the same, 50 pounds a week each. And we had meetings — they went on for five hours, it was extraordinary. In the end the meetings were the thing and the acting was a dawdle, frankly — going onstage was almost incidental. We were given six months to survive, and I think the company lasted four or five years; I was in it for three. We did a five-week season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1974, and it was a fantastic experience. We opened ‘King Lear’ there on a Sunday afternoon, and all the costumes and sets were being delayed on the high seas — and so we just went on like this [indicating street clothes], and Robert Eddison, who was playing Lear, had a caftan on, and we just played the words. It was really powerful.
You have great chemistry with Angharad Rees.
It was really extraordinary; we just hit it off. She’s an interesting woman. Her father was a psychiatrist and ended up as head of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the United Kingdom. A very bright woman, and naturally sort of vivacious and talented. And with an edge, a sort of natural edge. Demelza in the books is dark-haired, I think; Angharad had a little battle to retain her red hair, which worked tremendously well in contrast to Jill Townsend’s Elizabeth, who is the classic English rose blond. But Angharad and I just hit it off temperamentally, and we just sparked off each other, and liked each other a great deal.
After I wrote about ‘Poldark,’ a friend wrote and said that she and her husband originally had Demelza picked out as a name for their first daughter, but it wound up they were having twins and couldn’t think of another name to go with it.
Well that happened a lot — I mean, there are a lot of 30-year-old men named Ross in England. But also a lot of dogs and cats too. Poldark’s a made-up name — a sort of Cornish-like name. Have you ever been to Cornwall? It’s lovely. It’s very nice now, very nice restaurants and hotels, so there’s employment there now. But it was very difficult for years and years, just the china clay mines and the tin mines, all the ‘Poldark’ stuff. For years it was almost cut off from the mainland; it is attached, but the Cornish do have that sense of being a Celtic fringe, as it were, that line of Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, against the English—- the common enemy. It just offers itself up for television filming — it’s a very wonderful, dramatic, not brutal but a tough landscape, especially where we filmed the first series, right down Land’s End.
It’s become an alternative for people to going to France or Spain or Italy on holiday; the middle class can have a nice holiday there. And for a time ‘Poldark’ played a part in that development.
Was there ‘Poldark’ tourism?
Oh, yes. There was a Poldark mine, there is still a Poldark mine that you can go down; I don’t think it’s the mine we went down to film. We went down 200 feet and they used to go down 2,000 feet. Even going down 200 feet I couldn’t see my hand. That life — they crawled underneath the sea. That’s a terrible life.
Did the series affect the direction of your career?
It did. It didn’t lead to a big film career, but it’s affected my life ever since — I call them Poldark perks. Voice-overs, which I went into at the end of the ‘70s, ‘Poldark’ played its part, because initially it was very difficult to get into that, and people just wanted to be in the same room with me. You know that syndrome of, ‘Well, let’s get him in — it won’t cost us much, and we’ll just see what he’s really like.’ I was in people’s consciousness. And I got ‘The Europeans,’ the film with Lee Remick, because the casting director was a ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ fan who had seen ‘Poldark,’ which was pretty current at the time. A lot of things came as a direct result of it.
Do you continue to act?
Very rarely now. But actors never retire. The last thing I did was Swedish, one of the Swedish ‘Wallanders.’ I played an American professor who kills his wife. It was an entirely nice experience. But that was a while ago now. I don’t really miss it. Who knows? Something might happen and I’ll come back. But it’s difficult: Casting directors, they’re all very young now — time moves on — and I think I would have to do theater in order to start a career again, to get some credibility. But I’ve been very well employed otherwise.
Why do you think viewers reacted so strongly to ‘Poldark’?
I always say that it goes back to the original writer, Winston Graham, who writes stories with very strong characters. They’re set in an historic context, but their everyday worries are people’s everyday worries and problems — maybe enhanced by the exotic-ness of the 18th century but nevertheless identifiable. And he writes them so believably that people identify over the generations. I mean, this series was done 40 years ago, and it’s still loved today in spite of the slightly creaky technical stuff. It has that universal appeal. Everybody loves being told a good story.
What’s it meant to have had that character in your life?
I feel honored, really. It’s quite rare for actors to have a role that positive as in their career at the right time; I just was incredibly lucky, really. People say, ‘Well, you’ll be typecast,’ but in a sense one is always typecast because if you’re any good in anything, there is part of you in a role. You’re playing variations on a theme, in a sense.
What is it that make him so attractive?
I think someone who leads and takes risks is attractive, because not everybody’s prepared to do that.
— Robert Lloyd
Top: Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark. Photo credit: Forbes Collins.
Bottom: Robin Ellis today. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler.