From “The Big Issue”
By Adrian Lobb
Class warrior. Social justice champion. Aidan Turner on why Poldark is much more than a toned torso…
For the first time during our interview, Aidan Turner has gone shy. His arms cross his chest (more on those arms later), he hugs himself and sounds bashful and slightly baffled. Yes, we’re talking about that scene [pictured below]. The moment that, as Ross Poldark, the 33-year-old Dubliner scythed his way into millions of hearts.
“It just made sense for the scene,” he says now, of his topless scything, which became the most talked about television moment of the year. “I am convinced it was my idea. It was ridiculously hot. Why would he wear a shirt? This is ridiculous. He wouldn’t wear a shirt. It was hot, it would rip, it would be stupid.”
Turner was already a cult favourite thanks to his role as vampire Mitchell in Being Human. He’d previously impressed a small but loyal audience as pre-Raphaelite playboy Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Desperate Romantics, and his role as ‘hot dwarf’ Kili in The Hobbit films won further fans across the world.
But Poldark has catapulted him onto the A-list, to the point at which Turner is now favourite, ahead of Idris Elba, Tom Hiddleston and James Norton, to be the next James Bond when Daniel Craig decides to give back the keys to the Aston Martin. “I’m not talking about Bond, I will get in so much trouble,” he grins, when the subject inevitably arises.
The attention on his body was new for Turner, whose dad would call to let him know he was in the papers again. If it was Turner’s torso that won acclaim during series one, sitting across a desk at the production company offices in Fitzrovia, it is his guns that catch the eye. Such muscles. He squirms, talking about his workout routine and his recent experience of being objectified, continually playing with his arm muscles, as though he can’t quite believe them himself.
“I work with dialect coaches to get his accent right and physically I want him to look a certain way,” he says. “He was down the mines, he was on his horse – it didn’t make sense for him to look another way.
“And now I need to keep in shape for the show or I won’t fit the costume. I can’t put on a pound. Literally. It is no fun. Seven months of no pasties and loads of press-ups.”
Despite appearing mildly exasperated by the attention, he adds a teaser: “Who says I’m not going topless again this year?”
But Ross Poldark is so much more than a pin-up, so much more than a horse-riding, land-tilling, tin-mining man of action. Most of all, he is a community leader.
Ross is someone willing to get his hands dirty, to graft, and to exhaust every avenue in the quest to build a better life for the people he lives alongside. He might be a decorated and damaged war hero, and come from a family of considerable means, but he’s also a man of the people.
The television we watch both reflects and reacts to the social and economic world we are living in. Just as The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet became the fantasy president for so many in America during the dark days of George W Bush, so, when the UK economy crashed, we initially took shelter, en masse, in the escapism and nostalgia of Downton Abbey.
- Aidan Turner: “I don’t think I’m dashing”
But when the time came for hard graft, it’s no coincidence the shows that have grabbed the public attention feature central characters willing to get amongst it. Game of Thrones has evolved from fantasy escapism to something far more hardcore. The show has hardened. Key surviving characters, from Arya and Sansa Stark to Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister, have overcome so much horror.
In Happy Valley, surely writer Sally Wainwright’s greatest achievement to date, Sarah Lancashire’s central performance as Catherine Cawood is so visceral. This is a woman dealing with so much, so relentlessly, with such stoicism. She wears an air of resignation – something needs to be done, and no one else is going to do it.
So it is with Poldark. Aidan Turner galloped on to our screens at a time when our political leaders were, literally, a class apart. But although he has privileges – not least being male and from a moneyed background, even if his idiot cousin had squandered most of the family silver by the time he returned from the American War of Independence – Poldark is a battler. He also reaches across class boundaries both at work and at home, helps workers with their housing issues and promotes according to talent not background. Is he the leader we’ve been needing in these difficult last few years?
I think there are clear parallels. Do you go people before profit?“I think there are clear parallels. Do you go people before profit?” he says, when we suggest Poldark as a perfect show for tough times.
“It is so much easier for them to shut down these mines and move the smelting companies out of Cornwall to the West Indies or Wales, which they were doing at the time. Because it is cheaper. It is a quicker buck.
“But if you invest in Cornwall and you build the smelting companies there, and you get more gun-powder – which is expensive – and you start creating bigger quarries, the whole floor lifts. Everyone has a job. Everything soars.
“But it wouldn’t happen quick enough for some people.”
Long-term investment to build communities? Lifting the quality of life for everyone, so people share the benefits from natural resources and working the land? Putting people first? You’ve got our vote, Aidan.
“Ha. Ross for President! Poldark for Prime Minister!
“But that is Ross’ agenda. It is his incentive. But how does he explain it to the banker, investor or landowner who has invested in his company? They want to see their dividend in five years, which makes sense from their point of view, but everyone else has to suffer.
“You might not make money for 20 years doing it Ross’ way – but fuck it, who cares? There will be jobs for 100 years. Isn’t that the right way to do it?
“It does make sense but there are these snakes in the grass he has to convince.”
As we prepare to follow Ross’ court case and more trials of the heart in series two, writer Debbie Horsfield is deep into series three. The cast has already gathered for the read-through of episode one.
Only big hits have a series commissioned before the previous one has aired, and Horsfield, whose TV breakthrough came writing Making Out from 1989-91 – a drama following the lives of Manchester factory workers battling through a tough recession – says the timing of the series, and the political parallels, are a factor in Poldark’s progress.
Winston Graham began writing the books in the immediate post-Second World War period, a time of austerity and rebuilding. He set his tale of Ross and Demelza against a backdrop of great political and historical turbulence. “You never get the sense he is writing political statements with a capital P but he is writing about the impact of events on actual people,” says Horsfield, who promises Ross will be every bit as reckless, headstrong and bolshy in the new episodes.
“What surprised me was that we didn’t have to work too hard to make it relevant to a contemporary audience.
A lot of the concerns and the issues have tremendous contemporary relevance“A lot of the concerns and the issues have tremendous contemporary relevance. Take your pick – anything from greedy bankers trying to control the lives of anybody in their power, industry going to the wall because owners are only interested in making profits and are not interested in the welfare of the workers. That doesn’t really need updating. And then you have a character like Ross who isn’t driven by mercenary motives. He isn’t driven by the pursuit of wealth – he rather despises that.
“It made me realise that there was no need to look for modern references. They are already there.”
Horsfield cites the first series airing in the build up to the 2015 general election as another key component of the scale of its success.
“We didn’t know when it would be broadcast but it happened to be in the run up to the election,” she says. “I think the character of Ross Poldark strikes a chord with people because he is not out for himself. He has friends from all backgrounds, in contrast with a lot of people from the gentry. He has friends who are workers and miners, and he has a sense of personal responsibility, a fundamental decency and fairness.
“As a character he is very engaging and appealing. And in a run up to the general election, there are a lot of people saying, ‘Here is someone I could vote for.’”
Turner admits he felt jaded and burnt out after a year of solid work when he began series two. “It took a while to get back into the role,” he recalls. And it can be a slog. Filming in severe winds meant that part of the mine building blew off a cliff and Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson (Demelza) often found themselves unable to hear each other during intense dialogue scenes. “We tried to not make it look like a crappy panto,” he grins.
As work begins on series three, the rested and refreshed lead actor is ready to immerse himself once again. “It is a fact that I am probably Ross Poldark more than I am Aidan Turner through those six or seven months when filming,” he says.
“And it can affect me. He is real, he is flawed. But that’s when he feels like a real man, not this iconic Robin Hood figure. Fundamentally, he is a dude who mucks up. And maybe that’s why we love him.”
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