On a spring evening in 1977, an unsuspecting American TV audience was about to surrender to 18th-century British soldier Ross Poldark.
“Tonight we begin a new series, called Poldark, based on the novels of Winston Graham,” said Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke, advising PBS viewers to “settle in to a spate of loving, dueling, poaching, smuggling, wenching and marrying — not to mention banking and copper mining.”
Robin Ellis starred as Poldark, back from a battering in the American Revolutionary War to his family’s imperiled mining business, with Angharad Rees as Demelza, the street urchin destined for more.
A sensation in Britain, Poldark also prevailed with U.S. viewers in that primitive era before social media and binge-viewing. The affection proved lasting: In a 2007 viewer survey, it scored as one of the favorite Masterpiece programs of all time.
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Now a seven-part reboot, starting at 9 p.m. Sunday on PBS, will try to woo new and old fans. It’s already earned the go-ahead for a second season at home in the U.K., where it aired earlier this year.
Aidan Turner (Kili in The Hobbit film franchise) is taking over the title role. The charmingly feisty woman who wins his brooding heart? Eleanor Tomlinson (Death Comes to Pemberley) steps in as Demelza, a street urchin destined for more.
Class struggle, broken hearts, fortunes won and lost? All in place, and then some. The sensuality factor has been upped with public TV-tasteful nudity, along with the pace, and this Poldark has the advantages of superior cinematography and other technology unavailable to the original.
Another added touch of modernity: Hair weaves.
“Aidan and I got quite competitive about whose hair looked best,” Tomlinson said. “He did have a lot of hair extensions in the beginning, which I thought was quite hilarious.”
There was ample reason to bring Poldark back to PBS, said Rebecca Eaton, Masterpiece executive producer.
“I still feel very strongly that we should be mining new territory, that we need to find stories that have never been done before,” she said. But the Poldark story offers rich drama, a brave central figure and, crucially, a strong sense of place with Cornwall.
“I often think that wherever our [series] are set is often a character: Highclere Castle [in] Downton Abbey is a character,” Eaton said. Same for the Thames Valley, the setting of the linked detective franchises Morse, Inspector Lewis and Endeavor.
Any comparisons to Downton Abbey are understandable. The hit series will wrap its six-season run next year, and PBS and Masterpiece are eager for durable newcomers to fill the looming void.
The stars of Poldark say they’re delighted to be part of the effort.
“I thought, ‘This is why I love this business,’” Turner said. “You can be sitting on your [butt] for months with nothing happening and feel uninspired, and suddenly your life changes and it’s all in front of you,” Turner said.
Creating a new Demelza is exciting, but “there’s a lot of pressure when you take on a role that’s so loved when another actress did it,” Tomlinson said.
The Associated Press