Venture Once More–Poldark 2, Episode 5

With ten episodes allotted for this series, I can only applaud Newdark‘s decision to devote six installments to Warleggan, the fourth book of the Poldark Saga and an undisputed game changer.  Oldark managed to fit it into four episodes fairly efficiently, but had to cut some corners and downplay some emotional beats. Six episodes gives the story more room to breathe.

While Newdark tends to focus strongly, sometimes even claustrophically, on Ross, this week was mostly about another Poldark: the ill-fated Francis, whose death by drowning was foreshadowed as early as Book One. His fate is rendered more tragic by the redemptive arc his character begins in Jeremy Poldark, to the point where many who disliked him last season and in the early books are now genuinely saddened by his loss.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 27/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: **EMBARGOED UNTIL TUESDAY 27TH SEPTEMBER 2016** Francis (KYLE SOLLER) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers

The Good

  1. The Short (Semi)Happy Life of Francis Poldark: Following his failed suicide attempt in Jeremy Poldark, Francis is shown developing a new lease on life: embracing his personal and professional responsibilities. He becomes a devoted family man, a diligent partner in Wheal Grace, a fair-minded magistrate, and a force for good in the county. He even reconciles with Elizabeth and they renew conjugal relations. Things are slightly less rosy in Graham’s novel and Oldark: Francis continues his redemptive journey, but he and Elizabeth tacitly accept that their marriage is over, as far as romance is concerned. They co-habit and co-parent amicably enough, but it’s clear that they are no longer in love. In all three versions, however, Francis has grown closer to Ross and Demelza, sharing a touching scene with the latter, in which he urges her to not to sell herself short and assures her that she is more than capable of keeping her husband’s affections. Kyle Soller’s Francis is less sardonic and mercurial than Clive Francis’s (or Graham’s, for that matter), but his earnestness as Reformed Francis manages to be affecting and effective. The character will be missed, and it was only fitting that the episode concludes with his funeral and the Poldarks mourning the loss of one of their own.
  2. Dwight and Caroline: The doctor and the heiress take it to the next level by finally admitting their attraction and sharing a kiss in a beautiful bluebell wood. I loved Oldark‘s Richard Morant and Judy Geeson in these roles, but Luke Norris and Gabriella Wilde have both grown on me. His Dwight is an appealing beta hero and her Caroline is believably young and touchingly uncertain when she lowers her formidable defenses.
  3. Ross and Elizabeth’s dinner conversation: Straight from the book and more or less faithful to the source. The only thing different is Elizabeth’s claim that she is “happy” to be with Francis. In the novel, she emphasizes her mistake in choosing him over Ross, an admission that has Ross reeling–and perversely, liking her a little less despite his ongoing attraction because a) her choice screwed up a lot of lives, b) her “buyer’s remorse” screwed things up even more, and c) he feels somewhat manipulated by her confession now. It’s not altogether clear whether Newdark‘s Ross feels the same as his book counterpart, but he looked appropriately taken back and not altogether happy over what Elizabeth had said.
  4.  Letting us get to know supporting characters over the course of several episodes, which is an improvement over last season. Weaving in the Hoblyns (Jacka and Rosina), the Carkeeks, Charlie Kempthorne, and other mining/fishing families builds recognition and the sense of community that Nampara should have. Oldark did this well from the get-go; it’s reassuring to see Newdark finally taking a similar approach.
  5. Agatha vs. George: As someone familiar with the whole saga, I’m pleased to see the groundwork being laid for this poisonous enmity that will have huge repercussions down the road. Newdark‘s Agatha feigning deafness so she can hear what George really thinks of her, Ross, and Francis was an interesting twist. It’s not book-canon exactly, but even there, Agatha was no fool, despite her advanced age, and she knew that the loathing between George and herself was entirely mutual.


The Bad

This week, the good outweighed the bad, for the most part, though there were a few things that I thought could have been stronger.

  1. George’s childish spite continues to irritate me, especially since his tirades nearly always follow a set-down from Ross. Petulance is no substitute for the genuine power he manages to wield in the novels and Oldark. Also, I’m so tired of his boxing lessons that I half-wish someone would knock me out so I wouldn’t have to watch them anymore!
  2. While it was enjoyable on one level to watch Francis forbid George the house and access to Francis’s family, Graham’s Francis was a little shrewder about his enmity, playing his cards closer to his chest. In the novel, he and Elizabeth have an interesting conversation that shows he’s begun to suspect George’s partiality for his wife, which has prevented the Warleggans from moving against the Trenwith Poldarks, for now.
  3. As likable as Redeemed Francis has become, I still have my reservations about Newdark‘s conception of him as being in Ross’s shadow. It was never that simple or simplistic in the books. Ross wasn’t the family golden boy, and Francis was actually considered the better catch: the only son of the eldest son and the heir to Trenwith, a far more impressive estate than Nampara. And he had the confidence and arrogance to conduct himself as the favored one. He was jealous and insecure only about Ross’s claim on Elizabeth’s affections, and by Warleggan, he’d become disillusioned enough about his wife to no longer feel threatened by her private conversations with Ross.

For the second episode in a row, nothing tripped my WTF? switch. I wonder how long this streak will continue!

Until next week!

Venture Once More: Poldark 2, Episode 4

Episode 4 wraps up the plot of Jeremy Poldark, leaving the remaining six installments for Warleggan, one of the pivotal novels in the saga. This past weekend, however, I ended up watching the corresponding episodes from Oldark, so the comparisons between the two series are fresher in my mind than usual. While my affection for Oldark remains unabated, not all the advantages are on its side, though I will say that Oldark seems to do a more efficient job, overall, of moving the story along within its allotted 50-minute installments; plus, the Jeremy Poldark episodes–written by Peter Draper–are particularly strong, even though Draper seems never to have met a cliffhanger he didn’t like!

Newdark‘s version of Jeremy Poldark has been a bit hit-or-miss,  and the concluding episode was no exception.


The Good

  1. Verity and her stepfamily: I very much appreciated Newdark showing Verity adapting to married life and trying to befriend the Blamey children, resentful Esther and (thankfully) warm-hearted James. In Oldark,  Captain Blamey essentially disappears into Offscreenlandia after he and Verity wed, though we are told that they are happy and the marriage is eventually fruitful.
  2. Dwight and Caroline’s growing attraction: Miffed Caroline is always entertaining, so I enjoyed the back-and-forth of their letters when she was pointing out that he hadn’t come to see her since the fishbone incident. And the part where she anonymously sends him a cartload of oranges for his scurvy-ridden miners is one of my favorites in the book.
  3. The three-way reconciliation between Ross, Francis, and Blamey: all three of them manning up and attempting to put the past behind them. And coming together at the end for the opening of Wheal Grace.
  4. The birth of Jeremy: I was a little annoyed that Demelza’s rowing herself back to the beach while in labor was undercut by Ross showing up to haul her ashore, but the sight of them with their new son being christened was sweet, as was their romantic exchange on the cliffs at the end.


The Bad

  1. An excess of George: He seemed to be popping up like a jack-in-the-box at various points in the episode, and I found him, in Georgette Heyer’s words, “decidedly de trop.” In addition to seeing more of his silly boxing lessons, he intrudes unnecessarily upon Dwight and Caroline while they’re discussing the oranges and has an equally annoying scene where he seems on the brink of making an indecent proposal to Elizabeth…which never occurs in the books. (Graham’s George, for all his faults, felt a genuine reverence towards Elizabeth and was shrewd enough to play the long game by visiting Trenwith as Geoffrey Charles’s godfather.) About the only time Newdark‘s George didn’t seem out of place was when he was receiving a major beatdown from Ross at the Red Lion Inn. My only regrets: no blood, and Ross doesn’t throw him over the stairs the way he does in the book.
  2. Dear Ms. Horsfield: Just so you know, the sun won’t stop shining and the tide won’t stop coming in if a character other than Ross has a heroic moment. It really would be okay if Dwight was allowed to show his medical expertise and correctly diagnose scurvy among the miners without input from Ross. It would also be okay if Demelza, having gotten herself into trouble by going fishing while pregnant, also managed to get herself out of trouble by successfully rowing ashore. Dwight being competent and Demelza determined does not reflect negatively on Ross in any way. Plus, he gets enough of his own big heroic moments so that he shouldn’t need to intrude on anyone else’s.


Nothing this week was bizarre enough to qualify for WTF? status, though I came to the realization that Oldark seems more efficient about basic storytelling for two reasons:

  1. Fewer transitional scenes: repeated shots of Ross galloping along the cliffs from Point A to Point B aren’t always necessary. He has a horse, so we can assume his mode of transport. Why can’t he just be shown departing and then arriving at his new destination? There’s period detail, and then there’s self-indulgence.
  2. Knowing when to tell rather than show: some of the dullest scenes in Newdark involve Ross’s board meetings, especially when George and/or his minions show up to taunt Ross about the shares Warleggan was acquiring in Wheal Leisure. That happened at least twice in this episode. Oldark covered the same material more briskly and effectively in a single conversation held in Pascoe’s office. Sometimes less really is more.

Until next week!

Venture Once More–Poldark 2, Ep. 3

I’ll be honest and say that I found the third episode of Newdark anticlimactic, after the drama of Ross’s trial. Granted, this is true to the novel: Ross & Demelza come home to new worries and a mountain of debt, which they endeavor to tackle while failing to communicate well with each other. She is hiding an unexpected pregnancy, he is hiding the full extent of their financial woes from her. It makes for realistic but grim viewing. Ross, in particular, spends most of the episode in a sullen  mood that arouses Demelza’s insecurities even before he comes thisclose to making a pass at Elizabeth when the Nampara and Trenwith Poldarks finally reconcile at a harvest celebration.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 13/09/2016 - Programme Name: Poldark - TX: n/a - Episode: episode 3 (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Geoffrey Charles and Francis. Geoffrey Charles, Francis (KYLE SOLLER) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers

The Good

  1. Francis continues to benefit from better writing, and there is genuine warmth and even charm in his scenes with Geoffrey Charles. And he’s genuinely touched when Ross & Demelza accept his olive branch. Kyle Soller’s Francis is earnest and slightly puppyish rather than witty and sardonic like Graham’s Francis, but it’s an improvement over how the character was written last season. Some of those missteps cast a shadow over the present season: it’s hard to reconcile the Francis who’s now eager to find a new mining venture with the one who lost the family mine at cards and was depicted as not knowing how to interact with his own workers.
  2. The Penvenens–uncle and niece–are continuing to grow on me, though I like their Oldark incarnations just as well. And I liked the deepening attraction between Caroline and Dwight when he removed the fishbone from her throat, though I did think the set-up could have been better. In the book, she’s been ailing for several days and has genuine concerns about possibly having contracted the morbid sore throat by the time he comes to call on her. In Newdark, she’s walking around looking perfectly fit and not even sounding hoarse when she mentions her throat pain to Dwight almost in passing. It makes her summoning him look more like a childish whim than a genuine medical crisis.
  3. The harvest festival: in the book, Ross and Demelza come for Christmas at Trenwith, mirroring the first Christmas they spend there as husband and wife. Still, the harvest celebration adds an appealing touch of local color, especially when Francis pulls up the last sheaf of corn for the crying of the neck, an old Cornish custom.


The Bad

  1. George’s boxing lessons: I suspect we’re supposed to find his efforts to become more “macho” amusing, given that he’s been presented as such a ponce. But I personally prefer George to be a menacing figure instead of a ridiculous one. Graham’s George was always capable of holding his own in a fight–but more to the point, he was more likely to engage people to beat up those who crossed him than soil his own hands.
  2. Elizabeth as Demelza’s confidante: I didn’t buy it in the previous episode and I still don’t. In the novels, the two women achieve a tentative truce but they’re never wholly comfortable in each other’s company and in their heart of hearts, they still feel some rivalry even if it never reaches catfight levels. So, having Elizabeth pop up on Nampara land to inquire about Demelza’s pregnancy was annoying–and so was her remembering Demelza when Ross didn’t during their almost-tryst. And Ross eyeballing Elizabeth as she danced at the harvest festival seemed too much a callback to his doing the same to Demelza at the Carters’ wedding last season. It’s as if Horsfield is trying to downplay the differences in temperament and personality between the two women by making Elizabeth into Demelza-Lite (only genteel and with half the Cornishness).
  3. Ross’s incomplete pass: Definitely not his finest hour. I suspect liquor and nostalgia were mostly to blame, but his sheep’s eyes at Elizabeth and his tone-deaf assertion that she could “never play the scullery maid” (unlike Demelza) deserve a boot to the head. In the book, the charged moment between the former sweethearts is subtler–and mutual. They both feel a latent spark, but they manage to pull away before they can act on it. Elizabeth was not the only one to remember that they were married to others.


The WTF?

  1. Continuity was an issue in this episode, more so than in some others, and I’ve heard that PBS cut about 10 minutes from its broadcast, which probably didn’t help. But because Horsfield decided not to include Demelza curing Sir John Trevaunance’s cow, Captain MacNeil’s suggestion  that Demelza take a look at Sir Hugh Bodrugan’s cow makes no sense (and in the novel, it’s Sir Hugh’s prize horse that needs tending).
  2. An excess of cross-cutting: In the last 20 minutes or so, there was way too much shifting back and forth between the harvest celebration at Trenwith, Not-so-dead-Jud’s wake around Nampara, and another harvest party at Killewarren. The scenes felt short, choppy, and disjointed–and the Killewarren party especially seemed like filler. Nothing essential happened there; the real action was upstairs in Caroline’s sickroom when Dwight examined her throat. Maybe Horsfield and Company wanted to get their money’s worth from all the fancy food and drink prepared for the occasion.

All caught up now, so I’ll be back after Episode 4 airs in the US. Until then!

Venture Once More–Poldark, Season 2, Eps. 1 & 2

poldark-series-2-400What with a ton of real-life stuff going on–like replacing the family car–I haven’t had much time for posting lately. But I didn’t forget that the new Poldark began its second season. So, I’m starting up my commentary series, Venture Once More (so named in honor of the American title for Jeremy Poldark when it was first published in the USA). Disclaimer: I’m a lover of Winston Graham’s novels, first and foremost, which shapes my perception of both television incarnations. But you can expect references to all three in my blog entries, so I give you fair warning that there will be SPOILERS.

Overall, I had a decidedly mixed reaction to the two-hour season premiere, which covers Ross’s trial for inciting riot and allowing the hungry miners in his community to carry off the cargo from a shipwreck. The strengths are the same–glossy production values and some appealing performances from the leads–and so are the weaknesses (miscast actors and some head-scratching liberties with the original source material). I’m not automatically opposed to departures from book-canon–those tend to be part and parcel of any adaptation–but for me, those departures have to make sense. And if they don’t, well, I’m going to say as much.

The Good

  1. Better writing for some of the supporting characters. Francis Poldark is the main beneficiary of that. Graham writes a compelling redemptive arc for him in Jeremy Poldark, and the series follows suit and lets Francis “grow a pair,” stand up to Warleggan,  confront his own failures, and contemplate ending his own life. It’s not quite the  tour-de-force it is in the novel or the 1975 Poldark (cleverly nicknamed Oldark on another forum) in which Francis cycles through guilt, remorse, self-loathing, righteous anger, despair, and finally gallows humor when he fails even to kill himself properly (Clive Francis nails it, in my opinion), but it works well enough and Kyle Soller turns in a decent performance and manages to elicit considerable sympathy. I just wish the previous season hadn’t done such a hatchet job on the character in the first place. Francis was flawed enough without making him lose the family mine in a card game or turning him into a whipped puppy whose own father prefers Ross to him (and I admit to gagging a little on the line “Which of us does not secretly adore him?”) I also couldn’t connect to the Francis and  Verity estrangement because Debbie Horsfield demonized the Trenwith men so much that I don’t see the affection between them.
  2. Promising new characters: So far, so good with the Penvenens. Gabrielle Wilde doesn’t have Judy Geeson’s light, ironic touch in the role, but she has potential, and she looks appropriately youthful and self-absorbed, with a hint of something more beneath the surface. I wish they hadn’t messed with her two suitors, though: Dwight and Unwin are supposed to form a contrast with each other, the former being young, earnest, and idealistic, while the latter is middle-aged, stuffy, and a bit dull. Making Unwin a young twit instead of a mature stick-in-the-mud undercuts that.
  3. Demelza’s grief: I like that the new series continues to emphasize her sadness and bereavement. The loss of a child is truly devastating, and the silent signs that Demelza is still remembering and mourning her daughter are very affecting. Eleanor Tomlinson continues to impress in the role. She’s softer and more squashable than Angharad Rees’s Demelza, but she’s managed to make the part her own.

The Bad

  1. The pacing: It seemed to take forever for everyone to get to Bodmin for the trial! I couldn’t believe Demelza was only just leaving Nampara at the 45-minute mark of the first episode! And it made too much of what followed feel rushed and perfunctory, as though they were trying to jam too much into the remaining 15 minutes.
  2. Ross in denial: Head up arse is not a good look for our hero. I was annoyed by his refusal to consider the possibility of things not going well for him at the trial and not taking the time to shoulder his responsibilities and provide for his wife should the worst occur. It made him look immature and petulant.
  3. George: I remain a staunch non-fan of this version of Warleggan–“that upstart poodle,” as Ross describes him. Problem is, Graham’s George isn’t a poodle, he’s a pit-bull. A sleek, well-groomed, well-fed pit-bull, but a fighting breed and potential killer all the same. Jack Farthing, who looks like Hugh Grant’s baby brother, lacks presence in the part, and I’m not just referring to his physical size. Two actors I  admire–Brian Blessed and Ian Holm–aren’t much taller than average (Holm is downright diminutive) but they have a way of pushing beyond their skin to give the impression of taking up more space than they actually occupy.  Similarly, Ralph Bates was shorter than 6′ 3″ Robin Ellis, but he had broad shoulders, a thick neck, a stocky, muscular build, and like Blessed and Holm, enough heft to make himself appear larger. I never doubted that his George and Ellis’s Ross were in the same weight class. Farthing, by contrast, looks slight, even effete, and his studied languor is more suited to Regency romance than Georgian adventure (I hate the anachronistic costumes they put him in, which are about 10 to 20 years ahead of schedule). Graham’s George was driven, ruthless, fiercely ambitious, and more eager to crush Ross than befriend him (George never visits Ross in prison–he prefers to gloat behind the scenes and watch his paid witnesses bring down his enemy for him).  He did plenty of sneering and snarling, but he never minced, drawled, or ponced about like Farthing’s. In fact, he’d have eaten Farthing’s George for a snack, picked his teeth with the bones, then looked around for more.
  4. Ross’s trial: Unbalanced as hell. In the book and Oldark, the trial is a tense, compelling courtroom drama in which both the prosecution and the defense make valid arguments and the verdict could go either way. Ross is allowed to counter the testimony of some of the lying witnesses, Dwight’s earnest account of Ross’s distressed state of mind the night of the wreck works in his friend’s favor, Demelza’s careful pre-trial networking on Ross’s behalf is not curtailed by George’s interference (though she can’t be sure whether she has left a favorable impression on Judge Lister until the trial is over), there is mounting suspense over which side Jud will ultimately choose, and he ends up compromising himself to the extent that his testimony is thrown out. By contrast, Horsfield goes out of her way to make things look as bad as possible for Ross, to the point of inventing a courtroom intrusion by Demelza’s obnoxious father to rail against his daughter’s husband. And Ross’s speech is in his own defense is, frankly, cringeworthy, as is the implication that he alone is responsible for his acquittal. Graham and the Oldark writer responsible for the Jeremy Poldark-related episodes were more even-handed in showing other characters’ heroism, and how delivering Ross from the worst consequences of his reckless actions was a group effort.
  5. Neither Newdark nor Oldark include the judge’s great speech after Ross’s acquittal, in which Lister informs the recent defendant that, in his view,  the verdict owes more to mercy than to reason, and that he should be grateful for the jury’s clemency, go home to his “deserving wife” and thenceforth keep his nose clean! (Although we all know that he won’t.) But I appreciated Graham including the perspective that an honest, upright man might still disapprove of Ross’s actions, or at the very least, the lawless way he carried them out. It adds a measure of balance that Newdark tends to ignore.

The WTF?

  1. Tom Carne: Demelza’s formerly abusive, currently sanctimonious father disappears from the saga after two books. Personally, I don’t miss him, and his appearance at the trial is neither necessary nor logical. Carne is a miner hacking out a living in Illuggan, miles away from Bodmin. How could he afford to take time off from his job to travel all that distance just to spew venom about his son-in-law? Plus, the way he barges into the courtroom to shoot off his mouth seems to show that, unlike Jud, he was not paid by the Warleggans to give false testimony. There was plenty of drama in the original source material without introducing this clumsy, heavy-handed, unnecessary plot contrivance. Apropos of which…
  2. Elizabeth’s meddling: in the books, she neither intercedes with George on Ross’s behalf (a clueless move that doesn’t reflect well on her intelligence) nor goes to Bodmin for the trial. Where, I might add, she accomplishes nothing of use–except for being the improbable witness to Demelza’s pregnancy revelation. Again, no way. Demelza keeps her pregnancy secret from everyone until late in the  book, and she would be far more likely to confide in Verity, rather than Elizabeth, if anyone. I also resent the time devoted to Elizabeth’s invented activities at the expense of Demelza’s canonical attempts to exert whatever influence she might have acquired in the county to help Ross. From the moment she knows her husband is in danger of his life, she goes into rescue mode–talking to their neighbors (and curing their livestock), and finding out everything she can about the case against him. It’s one of my favorite parts in the book, and I’m beyond irked that Newdark makes Demelza’s efforts in that regard so much less effective, especially since I think Tomlinson would be up to the task of playing a stronger Demelza.

So, in summation, I wish Newdark would trust its source material more and rely less on invented melodrama to gin up the excitement.

No new episode tonight–not in the US anyway–which gives me more time to catch up with the ones  that have already aired. Until next time!