Poldark review: A jamboree of toxic masculinity

Britain’s most beloved twaddle returns for its final hurrah

Ed Cumming@EdCumming
Sunday 14 July 2019 17:19
Poldark season 5 trailer

Brung out thar carffin lat thur moarners come: this is the last series of Poldark (BBC1). Spare a thought for the real thirsty housewives of Cornwall, who have spent the past four years thronging the headlands in the hope of glimpsing Aidan Turner’s celebrated solar plexus. No more. The postcard sellers must be weeping into their winkles. Has any series done so much to revive interest in a single county? For five series, Poldark has been a televisual Eden Project, displaying exotic species, including several specimens from the Antipodes, in a clear, easy-to-understand format. Here’s the hero, here’s his floozy, here’s the baddie, revolving around each other in an endless three-body dynamic that occasionally drags bystanders to their doom.

I have seen quite a lot of Poldark, although I couldn’t say I had truly watched much. I find it washes over me, experienced more as a kind of ambience than a coherent narrative. It rains, people die, lovers embrace, a few arrogant men do their best to trash the lives of the largely blameless women around them. The more I think about the programme, the more it reveals itself as a jamboree of toxic masculinity. Maybe there are some viewers who still care deeply about the specifics of who does what to who, but who are they kidding? It’s pure windswept melodrama.

The producers and directors know this, which is why they spend as much time as possible on shots of the landscape and the weather, and so they should. Here’s the sea, lapping as Ross (Turner) rows his jolly boat up to the beach. Here’s the sea, lying enormously under a nectarine sunset. Here’s a rocky hillside in blustery drizzle. Marvellous.

It also explains why the writer, Debbie Horsfield, decided to deviate from the template set out by Winston Graham’s novels. Series four took us up to the end of the seventh book, but the eighth leaps forward a decade to a time when Ross is working as a government agent in Portugal. Realising that Poldark’s appeal might be mitigated by their hero scampering round drinking port and eating custard tarts, the producers keep things West Country.

One advantage to this is that they can deviate from the books and include new quasi-historical plotlines. Enter Colonel Ned Despard (Vincent Regan), an old military comrade of Ross’s. More specifically, enter Mrs Kitty Despard (Kerri McLean), here to plead for Ross’s help, like Princess Leia at the start of A New Hope. Ned has been banged up in gaol on trumped-up charges over some mahogany shenanigans in Honduras. She is from the Caribbean, a woman of colour, which creates about as much of a stir among the Cornish locals as it would today. Luckily, she and Demelza bond over their shared scullery backgrounds. With almost comic inevitability, George Tregallan (Jack Farthing, whose acting has come on nicely since we both appeared in a Year 7 production of Richard of Bordeaux) gets caught up with Ned’s antagonists.

Finale seasons can suffer from being laps of honour, which these new plot elements help to mitigate against. The irony is that Poldark need not have worried: it has always been a lap of honour, shameless twaddle chocker with troublesome characters and absurd plots, and all the more lovable for it. We will see its like again, but clap it in anyway.

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