Venture Once More–Commentary on Poldark, Ep. 2

images-7Getting my thoughts down on the new episode while they’re still fresh.

The story as a whole is gaining some decent momentum, with Ross taking a more active interest in reviving the family mine–a welcome change from last week’s incessant moping over Elizabeth. While there’s still a fair amount of that, Ross throwing himself wholeheartedly into a new project is as welcome as a breath of Cornish sea air.

Ross and Demelza make an excursion into town

Aidan Turner continues to grow into the part. He’s a younger, more soft-spoken Ross, more inclined to wear his heart on his sleeve, and lacking some of Robin Ellis’s crispness and authority. Nonetheless, he has a good rapport with the miners, and he’s a bit gentler with Demelza than he is in either the books or Poldark 1975. No harm there, as this slightly more cowed, feral, fragile Demelza responds well to gentleness.

Ross, Elizabeth, and their apocryphal dance

I could wish this Ross was less of a susceptible sap where Elizabeth is concerned. Some of this is unavoidable: Elizabeth is always a bit of an Achilles heel for Ross, but nowhere in the books is there a scene where they trade longing or flirtatious looks while dancing, or where he believes that Elizabeth is all set to leave Francis for him and is mortified to discover he’s misread the whole situation (the 1970s series is a different kettle of fish, and I’m no more fond of that plot twist than Graham himself was). I did appreciate Turner’s Ross having a mini-epiphany about his futile Elizabeth fantasies and asking Demelza if he had the words “Half Wit” branded on his forehead. Being less deferential than she, I was tempted to respond, “No, only STAMPED!”

Rolled my eyes a little over the skinny-dipping scene, which has become almost a screen cliche since the 1995 miniseries of Pride & Prejudice. But only a little–because Ross does go swimming in the sea after his one-night stand with Margaret the prostitute. Demelza getting an eyeful, though, is pure series invention.

Demelza, poised on the brink

Like Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson is growing on me as Demelza, despite being much taller and gawkier than Angharad Rees. The Cinderella parallels with her grubbing about in the ashes and sweeping the floor while Jud and Prudie (not as funny or as strangely likable as in the books) lord it over her were a touch obvious. But the scene in which she enters the library and Nampara and sees books, maps, curios, and the spinet was a nice little bit of character development that shows her discovering things she never dreamed she could aspire to. (Demelza eventually teaches herself to play the spinet and becomes an accomplished young woman.)

I was less impressed by the way the show is handling the supporting characters, which I am going to rant about at some length, so be warned. Since one major selling point of the new series has been that it adheres more closely to the books, I was taken aback by them having Basset commit suicide over his bankruptcy–which never happens. In fact, Basset–an occasional ally of Ross–has a significant role in later books, plus he remains financially solvent throughout. So, unless they’re going to bring on a younger Basset (the son and heir), this twist makes little sense beyond providing a moment of shock value and showing how bad the Warleggans are.

Ralph Bates as George Warleggan (Don’t mess with him!)

Apropos of which, George Warleggan is overdoing the Iago shtick of dripping malice and poison in everyone’s ears. While I like the idea of George being present early on–he doesn’t make his onscreen appearance until Episode 6 of the 1975 miniseries–he’s way too obvious in his villainy at this point. You half-expect him to leave a trail of slime wherever he goes. The antipathy between Ross and George has a slower build and burn in the books, plus George doesn’t overplay his hand regarding the Trenwith Poldarks. His open admiration for Elizabeth (contrary to the last episode’s insinuation, George actually wasn’t much of a rake) and his largesse towards Francis have both of them thinking George is their BFF, at least for a while. I also find this George too smooth, foppish, and physically slight–he’s supposed to have a more impressive, muscular physique that recalls his grandfather’s blacksmith origins. This fellow looks as though Turner’s Ross could snap him in half like a twig. So could Ralph Bates, who played George in Poldark 1975.

Verity, on the shelf
Verity, on the shelf

Finally, there was Verity’s doomed romance, which was at once too truncated and too heavy-handed. In the books, Verity and Blamey’s story plays out over several months as she gets to know him and come to terms with his ugly past before deciding to take a chance on a life with him. (There was no whitewashing of his history by claiming his wife struck him first and that she hit her head by accident: a drunken Blamey kicked her while she was pregnant, and she died of her injuries.) Having Verity meet, fall in love with, and be ready to elope with Blamey in one episode makes her look desperate and rather pathetic, instead of strong and mostly sensible.

For that matter, it wasn’t necessary to make all the men in Verity’s family ogres just to show us the oppression of women in 18th century England. Far from being an unpaid, unappreciated drudge ordered around by her selfish father, Verity is a much-loved daughter of the house, on whom everyone depends, because fair, fragile Elizabeth may not be capable of shouldering all the responsibilities of being mistress of Trenwith. Charles isn’t even opposed to Verity getting married, because he knows she hasn’t had many admirers, and he is sorry to deny her when her suitor’s ugly secret becomes known. And really, who wouldn’t have serious reservations about one’s daughter marrying a domestic abuser and ex-con? And for Verity, love and duty have as much to do with her ultimate decision to break with Blamey as opposition from her father and brother.

Clive Francis as Francis Poldark (1975)
Clive Francis as Francis Poldark (1975)

Regarding the latter: Francis is coming off even worse than Charles, condemning Blamey even as he himself knocks Verity to the floor when she tries to stop the duel. But then, pretty much everything is “off” about Francis’s characterization in this new series: he’s been given all the flaws and weaknesses, but none of the book version’s redeeming qualities. While Francis isn’t as dashing or as tough as Ross, neither is he a complete drip and weakling. He can be wry, witty, and even funny in a snarky way (snarkier than Ross, actually). He is also capable of regretting his misdeeds and working to atone for them (this is further down the road in the story, but worth mentioning all the same). None of those qualities are in evidence in Poldark 2015, sad to say. Clive Francis, who played the part in Poldark 1975, was far superior to Kyle Soller in conveying different aspects of the character, even in the first few episodes.

As for technical matters, I’m already over the stock footage of Ross galloping his horse in silhouette along the Cliffs of Alienation. Can’t he just be shown departing one place and arriving at his destination? And the recurring Celtic Theme of Romantic Frustration has gone past plaintive and all the way into whiny (and I say this as someone who likes Celtic music). By its third or fourth iteration in the episode, I was ready to strangle the violin player with his (or her) own strings. I don’t object to a soundtrack or incidental music, but for heaven’s sake, mix it up a bit!

Until next time!

Venture Once More–Commentary on Poldark, Ep. 1

The New Poldark: Return of a Renegade
The New Poldark: Return of a Renegade

This past week shaped up to be much busier than expected, what with reviewing audiobook files for Awakened, preparing for a relative’s birthday celebration this weekend, and keeping my left forefinger clean and bandaged to prevent a systemic infection. Exactly a week ago, I developed a mysterious abscess under my fingernail that required medical attention–I’ll spare readers the grisly details, save to say that they were no fun at all–and a course of antibiotics. Treatment successful–much to my relief. It’s nice to be able to type with ten fingers again!

Consequently, it’s only now that I’ve had enough time to write up some of my Poldark-related thoughts, although a lengthy post on Winston Graham’s novels and their influence on me ran last Tuesday over at the Casablanca Authors blog. Inevitably, my perspective is that of a reader first, though my fondness of the original 1975 series has shaped my opinions as well. Comparisons are inevitable, but in the interests of fairness, I am endeavoring to keep an open mind and give the new series every chance to win me over.

And certainly there is much to admire about it, starting with higher production values that allow for more lavish sets and location shoots. Not all the scenery in Poldark 2015 is purely Cornish–a distinction from Poldark 1975, in which cast and crew spent several weeks in Cornwall, shooting outdoor footage–but the effect is lovely, overall. (Still, I would have preferred more conversations and character interactions, and fewer shots of Ross galloping his horse along the Cliffs of Alienation or Elizabeth gazing out of windows while the Celtic theme of Romantic Longing wailed in the background.)

Demelza and Her Best Friend
Demelza and Her Best Friend

I can also commend the new Poldark‘s decision to adhere more closely to the books. Poldark 1975 was a faithful adaptation, for the most part, but significant liberties were taken at the very beginning and the very end of the series, which apparently incensed Winston Graham. So far, Poldark 2015 sticks more firmly to the plot of the first novel, and wisely introduces the major characters of Demelza Carne (the heroine) and George Warleggan (the hero’s nemesis) much sooner. Demelza’s entrance–as a ragged urchin trying to defend her beloved dog and only friend, Garrick–is particularly welcome.

Angharad Rees as Demelza
Angharad Rees as Demelza

While I loved the fire and spirit of Angharad Rees’s Demelza in Poldark 1975, the writing for the first few episodes conceived of the character as a saucy sex-kitten (the scriptwriters were apparently influenced by Tom Jones), which, frankly, grated at times. Fortunately, later episodes portrayed Demelza more believably as a young woman struggling to find her place in a new social order, which is also truer to Graham’s idea of the character. I have noticed that Eleanor Tomlinson, the new Demelza, has the same coloring as Rees, instead of being dark like the character is in the novels.

Robin Ellis as the first Ross Poldark
Robin Ellis as the first Ross Poldark

Any discussion of casting would have to include Aidan Turner as the hero, Ross Poldark. Robin Ellis, the originator of the role, inhabited the part so completely that the hypercritical Graham was won over, telling Ellis in an inscribed copy of Ross Poldark, “I have never seen you put a foot wrong.” It’s too early to tell whether Turner will nail the character as thoroughly, but he has potential. Certainly, he’s got the brooding, melancholy thing down pat, though he doesn’t convey the same aura of danger that Ellis did. Graham continually describes Ross as “unquiet”–and I always had the sense that an angry Ross was a powder keg that could all too easily be set off by the wrong word or action. Turner doesn’t have that combustible quality…yet. It’ll be interesting to see if he acquires it in the upcoming episdoes.

New--And Unrecognizable--Elizabeth
Heida Reed, as an unrecognizable Elizabeth

So far, my main quibbles are with the supporting characters, who presently lack the individuality they show in the novels and in the 1975 series. I’m reserving most of my judgments until I see more of them–with one exception. The new Elizabeth is a complete misfire for me. While I’m in favor of a more nuanced portrayal of this oft-maligned character, I think turning her into this nice, sweet girl who was pressured by her mother into marrying Ross’s cousin Francis strips her of her ambiguities and complexities. And on a purely physical level, I can’t accept her as a brunette either! In fact, she looks more like the books’ version of Demelza!

Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth
Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth

Graham’s Elizabeth–a cool, elegant blonde–is a much greyer figure: a well-intentioned but deeply conventional young lady who cares for Ross but who also yearns for comfort, security, and a settled existence that Ross may not be able to give her. She regrets having to hurt him but she insists that theirs was a “boy and girl attachment” and that she loves Francis as a grown woman. She is also very much a product of her time: refined, gracious, even a touch bloodless. She would never run merrily along the cliffs, her curls blowing in the wind, or ride ventre-a-terre across the moors to insist that Ross not leave Cornwall. Graham’s Elizabeth would, in fact, dearly love to leave Cornwall herself, and experience the pleasures of London, which would include having her considerable beauty admired by a wider circle of acquaintances. I suspect the changes are intended to increase Elizabeth’s likeability and thus explain Ross’s ongoing obsession with her, even as the more appealing Demelza becomes increasingly entrenched in his life. Unfortunately, in attempting to make Elizabeth more sympathetic, the new series has also made her simpler–and much less interesting.

Nice guyliner, Ross!

And one more decisive thumbs-down on Ross’s famous scar. I realize that Poldark 2015 might have wanted to avoid replicating the diagonal slash across Robin Ellis’s cheek and to create a distinctive look for Aidan Turner. But given how more advanced and sophisticated make-up has become in the last 40 years, couldn’t they have come up with something that didn’t look like New Ross’s mascara was running?

Until next time!

“P” is for “Poldark”: The Pleasures of Summer TV

BeachSummerCan you believe we’re more than halfway through June? And the summer solstice is upon us.

I love spring with its soft colors and mild weather, but summer was probably my favorite season when I was a kid–not least because of the 10 or 11 weeks of vacation after a long school year. While spring makes me think of pastels, summer is all about bright and bold colors and experiences. The aquamarine and turquoise of swimming pools, the emerald and sapphire of the ocean, the scarlet of ripe strawberries, the orange-gold of juicy peaches, the deep coral color inside a conch shell…passers-by may even have noticed that Blue Stockings & Crossed Genres has a new look for the season that contains several of the aforementioned colors.

Summer entertainment tends to be of the bright, colorful, noisy variety too. Beach parties, picnics, barbecues, even the average summer blockbuster (usually laden with spandex-clad heroes and things going “BOOM!”) And summer television, which can range from sports spectaculars (especially in Olympics years) to star-studded and/or lushly romantic miniseries.

The new Poldark, which starts airing this weekend in my neck of the woods, may not qualify as star-studded (yet), but, based on the source material alone, I’d say it definitely meets the criteria for “lushly romantic”: a sweeping costume drama about an 18th century Cornish mining family, boasting high adventure, derring-do, class warfare, a simmering romantic triangle, and wildly beautiful scenery–cliffs, coves, and thundering surf.  I am unabashedly excited about this series, not least because I loved the original novels by Winston Graham and the first miniseries based on them, which was made back in the 1970s. I’ve heard the new version may even adhere more closely to the books–the first series took some dramatic liberties that annoyed the author–but as you can see below, it also shares some eerie similarities when it comes to the lead couple…

Ross and Demelza, Original Version
Ross and Demelza, Original Version
Ross and Demelza, New Version

Graham’s Poldark Saga was a big influence on me as a historical novelist, which I will be blogging about here and elsewhere in coming weeks. I plan to follow the new series closely and post commentary about the episodes after they air. Other Poldark fans, past and/or present, are welcome to stop by and add their tuppence, anytime!