‘Poldark,’ a period-romance series, has already swept across the U.K. On June 21, the 18th-century story and its oft-shirtless star, Aidan Turner, are scheduled to set Americans swooning
By CARYN JAMES
Updated June 12, 2015 4:10 p.m. ET
When “Poldark” began airing in the U.K. this spring, the reaction to the series about a dashing 18th-century mine owner in Cornwall came fast. The sight of Ross Poldark scything a field shirtless caused a Twitter explosion. The hero, who is often without his shirt, evoked headlines such as “Move Over Mr. Darcy” and articles that referred to “the Ross Poldark swoon-fest.” A ratings smash, the show so penetrated the culture that in Parliament one member flatteringly compared Prime Minister David Cameron with the fictional hero. “Like Poldark, the Prime Minister rode into Cornwall, not on a horse but on a bus,” she said, to knowing laughter. The seven-part series will begin in the U.S. on PBS’ Masterpiece, which produced it with the BBC, on June 21.
Aidan Turner, the 31-year-old Irish-born actor who stars in the show, recalls getting an unexpected package from the third production partner, Mammoth Productions. It contained the scripts, the novels they are based on, and a note saying “We’d like you to play Ross Poldark.” He reacted as most people would. “I thought, ‘What’s Poldark, for a start?’ So I went to Google,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, this is quite a big deal.’ ”
This “Poldark” is a new version of the 1970s series, an international hit that was one of Masterpiece’s first major successes, back when it was called Masterpiece Theatre. Today’s version is based directly on novels by Winston Graham, about a man who returns from fighting for the British during the American Revolution, only to find more defeats: His fiancée, thinking he was dead, has become engaged to his cousin. His father has died, leaving him debts and a nearly bankrupt copper mine.
Today’s “Poldark” remains an unabashedly old-fashioned melodrama, full of changing fortunes and romance. Ross, the brooding hero with a wartime scar on his cheek, rallies when he meets and quickly marries Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), once his kitchen maid. “He must be deranged,” says his former fiancée’s snobbish mother. Ross and Demelza are well-matched, though. As Mr. Turner and Ms. Tomlinson stand in each other’s arms overlooking the sea, their his-and-hers tousled curls blow in the breeze. (Any resemblance to that other period melodrama, “Outlander,” is superficial. “Outlander” has time travel, and is set about 50 years earlier, and in another country.)
“Something so cinematic and visual—the Cornwall setting, the fancy estates and cottages—for our audience, that’s catnip,” says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece. “That and the love triangle made it a no-brainer” for Masterpiece to join the production, even before a lead actor was lined up.
Mr. Turner had gained some recognition in Britain for his role as a scruffily handsome vampire in the series “Being Human.” But then he almost disappeared. He spent nearly two years in New Zealand playing the supporting part of Kili in the “Hobbit” movies, one of the chorus of dwarves. That long shoot meant he wasn’t free to take leading roles. Soon after, he was offered “Poldark,” because the Mammoth executives knew his work from “Being Human.”
Beyond the swoon factor, “Poldark” deals with themes of class and social justice, as Ross tries to save the copper mine not just for himself but for the workers. Ms. Eaton sees him as a counterpoint to anti-heroes, like Tony Soprano and Walter White, who have come to dominate television. “From the moment Ross Poldark comes riding into town, he’s a hero. He has epic bad moments, he’s challenged, he risks himself for other people. I think there’s a hunger for that,” she says, pointing to recent Masterpiece hits that have followed the pattern. “ ‘Downton Abbey’ is a good-news story in spite of tragedies, with moral people trying to do good, and ‘Sherlock’ is a brainy hero.”
Mr. Turner is more focused on Poldark’s layers, including his roguish side. “Ross is a hero, but he’s not this saintly character,” he says. “He has a healthy disregard for the law. He’s a drinker and he’s moody and he’s rebellious.”
When the frenzy about his toned body began, Mr. Turner says, “I thought, ‘This is getting a bit hysterical, and I don’t want it to detract from the show.’ And at the same time it was fun. People said, ‘Oh, do you feel objectified?’ ” He gives a cheerful, dismissive laugh. “No! Not for this genre we’re in. It makes sense that Ross should look that way.”
“Poldark” has already been renewed for a second season, but the job leaves him time for other projects. Mr. Turner has finished work on “The Secret Scripture,” a drama with Rooney Mara, directed by Jim Sheridan, and is shooting an independent film in New York with Matthew Broderick.
There was at least one negative note among the British reactions: Scything experts criticized Mr. Turner’s technique, as he swung the tool energetically, working up a sweat. There was a scything adviser on set that day, whose advice was rejected, Mr. Turner says. He demonstrates the proper technique, which looks like a tiny golf putt. For dramatic purposes, he decided Ross was taking his aggression out on the field. “When we were shooting, in my peripheral vision I could see him shaking his head,” Mr. Turner says of the adviser. “He was so disappointed.”