Bernard Trafford: Move over Downton, Poldark is here

Journal columnist Bernard Trafford on the arrival of the BBC's 'new' period drama Poldark

BBC Pictures Poldark

Poldark. Poldarrrrk. The name’s ringing in my ears.

Clearly it’s the new TV sensation. Move over, Downton, with your aristocratic airs and graces, your rebellious randy daughters and lascivious revolutionary chauffeurs. Your stiff upper lips, your stuffed-shirt butler and your domineering Dowagers: all have been supplanted in a bare couple of weeks by an upstart.

And what an upstart: unshaven, hirsute indeed, with a facial scar (heroically won in a messy wartime skirmish) furnishing a rakish air; penniless inheritor of a run-down farm, two lazy retainers and a defunct tin mine; no, Ross Poldark would hardly be thought a catch.

Still, he is a “gennelman” (I’m trying to capture the Cornish accent here). And on Sunday he contrived to set respectable young ladies’ hearts a-quivering at a society ball.

You’d have thought well-bred young fillies of good stock and gentle birth would have been trained to flutter their eye-lashes only at well-heeled, elegantly dressed young men, not a near-bankrupt who looks as if he’s been round the block a few times too many. Dammit, Sir, he doesn’t even like dancing.

Nonetheless, they were all over him (by 19th Century standards) and, when he danced a quadrille with his early and lost love Elizabeth, her eyes glistened and her all-too-obvious pleasure caused scandal.

The show is based on a real book. Somehow, that fact, to me at any rate, illogically confers on it more respectability than a pure TV confection such as Downton Abbey. It’s even been dramatised before.

It was a smash hit in the mid-seventies. I never saw it, because I was always working Sunday nights in the West Country pub where I earned cash during my university vacations. I worked Sundays because Jilly, the barmaid who covered Friday and Saturday nights, would never do Sunday. “Oy gotter stop in and watch Poldarrrk,” she’d whine.

It did the trick for the BBC’s Sunday-night schedule back then, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s been revived now. It’s “period” (always a winner): the scenery and camera-work are beautiful (how marvellous such shows are in High Definition!); and, when the writers can’t think of anything else to create continuity between scenes, they can simply slot in yet another panoramic shot of Ross romantically galloping along a cliff-top. Originality: nul points. Atmosphere and meaningful glances: top marks.

It’s given rise to a media frenzy. Ross Poldark (or, at least, the actor who plays him, Aidan Turner) is filling the pages of newspapers and dominating what the Americans call water-cooler conversation.

Women are swooning over Turner, and even respectable male newspaper columnists (obviously not The Journal’s) are admitting to having a crush on him, worshipping him in the way a young boy might when he meets his sporting idol and writing cringe-making articles about it.

Yet, he does very little. Indeed, all he does is smoulder. This means he talks little, hardly moves and does things with his eyes. These actions (or inactions) alone exude an animal magnetism that, so far in the series, have caused one woman to put her marriage at risk, all the debutantes at the ball to throw themselves at him and Demelza, the grimy urchin rescued from the gutter to become his greasy kitchen-maid, to scrub herself endlessly under the farmyard pump (calling for significant bodily contortions) and spy on him from the cliff-top when he goes skinny-dipping.

I reckon there’s not much to this smouldering thing. I tried a bit myself while we were out doing the weekend shopping. I stood in Northumberland Street and, yes, smouldered. All that happened was that passers-by gave me suspicious looks and hurried on anxiously… until Mrs Trafford intervened (rather sharply, I felt). “Stop making faces and rolling your eyes in that peculiar way,” she ordered. “Just carry those bags home.”

Animal magnetism? She was entirely oblivious. Still waters run deep, though: I’ll just keep smouldering till she notices.


Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.


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