When the epic romantic TV series “Poldark” premiered this spring in England, its success took even the producers by surprise.
“The truth is you never know what’s going to strike a chord with the viewing public,” said executive producer Debbie Horsfield, who adapted Winston Graham’s popular novels set in 18th century Cornwall about the complex Ross Poldark and the two women in his life. “We even sparked an interest in scything.”
The eight-part series opened Sunday in the United States on PBS’ “Masterpiece” and was greeted with largely positive reviews. Irish actor Aidan Turner has the title role.
“Aidan plays Ross so amazingly,” said Horsfield. “And as a character, Ross is very charismatic and very appealing.”
Longtime “Masterpiece” fans are familiar with “Poldark.” The original 1975 series, which starred the magnetic Robin Ellis, captured the hearts of U.S. audiences when it aired decades ago on the PBS showcase.
“It’s a known title for those who have watched ‘Masterpiece’'' said “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton, adding it was a “no-brainer” to do the new version. “The nature of the story of a dashing hero and a love triangle is appealing to younger viewers too.”
Horsfield had never seen the original before being approached to write a new adaptation. She took the first two “Poldark” novels with her on vacation to read (Graham wrote 12).
“I think probably it took about three pages to realize they were fantastic stories and I wanted to do the adaptations.”
Horsfield deliberately didn’t revisit the series while writing the eight scripts. “The ‘70s series had a whole team of writers. I didn’t want to be influenced by the choices they made. The only thing I was a little bit intimidated about was doing justice to the books because the books are tremendous,” she said.
Turner, who played the dwarf Kili in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” film trilogy, was Horsfield’s only choice for the role. She had seen him play poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the 2009 series “Desperate Romantics” and as a vampire in the 2009-11 “Being Human.”
“In both of those he was playing an outsider, rather damaged characters who were on the outskirts of society, a rebel,” said Horsfield.
Turner recalled the morning when he received a knock at the door of his home in England.
“It was a FedEx guy with two Winston Graham novels and eight scripts with a little note that said we would like to offer you the part of Poldark,” he said. “I thought, ‘Brilliant, what was Poldark?’ I went straight to the laptop and Googled ‘Poldark.’''
Just as Horsfield, he decided not to watch the old series. “By all accounts, I heard that Robin Ellis and the series were really good. I was just afraid, like every actor, that I might sort of emulate him. It would be safer if I didn’t watch. The scripts are strong, and I just went for it.”
Turner loved playing Poldark’s massive contradictions. “He’s a real character. He’s not this benevolently saint character. He’s stubborn and doesn’t befriend the people he should. He’s confused in love and he’s temperamental. He has a healthy disrespect for authority.”
Ellis has been a strong supporter of the new series since it was announced, and he even appears in the third and sixth episodes of the show as a nemesis of Poldark, Rev. Halse. (Ellis describes Turner as “the real McCoy.”) The actor is also returning for the second season of “Poldark,” which begins production in September.
“It was quite an extraordinary moment when we had the two Poldarks together,” said Horsfield.
“Robin was amazing,” said Turner. “He was totally supportive and lovely.”
Ellis, who lives in France and is a well-known cookbook author, noted how different it was to do the series four decades ago. “We rehearsed for six days,” said Ellis. “And then we went into the studio and did it virtually from 7:30 a.m to 10 p.m. with five [video] cameras on set. Every so often we would go to Cornwall for two weeks to shoot the exteriors.”
A lot was made in the British press of Turner’s shirtless sequences in “Poldark,” which showcased his muscular physique.
Such was not the case for Ellis.
“When I was playing it, I did take my shirt off once,” said Ellis, laughing. “I took it off to wash in a scene and the next day I took my washing across the road to the launderette that I normally used. The lady who did my washing was Eastern European. She looked at me, wagged her finger and said, ‘Big mistake.’ I never took my shirt off again.”
‘Poldark’ on ‘Masterpiece’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)