Hit costume drama Poldark is back our screens with its winning mix of feisty females, brooding landscapes – and its ruggedly handsome lead actor. ALASTAIR McKAY buffs up on the show’s muscular appeal and ponders the nature of the Sunday night period hunk.
Just what is it about the Sunday period hunk drama Poldark that makes it the epitome of Post-Feminist Crumpet TV?
This is a question for the ages, and it has baffled generations of scholars, not least Clive James, who greeted the previous version of the series with the much-quoted observation that Poldark was “aptly branded with a title which turns out to be an anagram of Old Krap.” Less noted, perhaps because it wouldn’t work so well in a game of drunk Scrabble, is the start of James’s one sentence review, in which he observed that the 1975 adaptation of the Winston Graham novels was “a wall of corn from Cornwall”.
The obvious answer to the crumpet question is that Poldark’s appeal is based on the casting of Aidan Turner as the smouldering torso who returns from war to mine tin and ride horses and marry a wretch because his plump-lipped beloved is no longer available. And that is partially true, for Turner is the very image of a post-feminist period hunk, being fit in both senses of the word, and hairy. (Poldark’s hair has its own Twitter account, and it’s not all about the stuff on his head).
Poldark, or rather Turner, is not so much a man as a piece of sexy furniture, half-Chippendale, half-racehorse, and 100% objectifiable. It is surely a sign of true gender equality that Turner’s admission, in a recent Radio Times interview, that he returned to filming a few pounds overweight became national news: “I think they had to split the back of the waistcoat,” he said. Titter ye not: which of us has not wanted to cleave the rear of Poldark’s weskit?
But, actually, as toned and tonsorial and Tango-tanned as he is, Turner is merely a custodian, a piece of meat wrapped in a fantasy vest. The previous Poldark, Robin Ellis – who guested as a magistrate in the current series, having previously struggled to escape from his character’s penetrative virility – once noted: “As you know, there aren’t many words. Most of the time you are just part of Cornwall, part of the landscape. When there are lines, they tend to be rather idiotic.”
Harsh, perhaps, on the novels of Winston Graham, which cast Poldark as a paragon of decency in a troubled world. There is some complexity in the current adaptation, notably the question of whether Poldark rapes Elizabeth, ignoring her repeated protestations of “You will not dare”.
Graham considered himself to be “an instinctive feminist” – a level of commitment to gender equality which might not pass muster today – and it’s notable that Alfred Hitchcock considered the rape scene in his adaptation of Graham’s novel Marnie to be central to his 1964 psycho-sexual thriller. (Critics did too, which is one reason Marnie is not well-regarded).
But should historical figures in popular fiction be bound by contemporary mores? Or, to put it another way, would Poldark be more interesting if his moral flaws were more pronounced? That, of course, would violate one of the basic tenets of Sunday period hunkery, which contends that the hero – whether it is a figure from TV’s old testament, like Captain James Onedin in The Onedin Line, or a new testament apostle such as Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice – should conform to accepted standards of decency while sheltering beneath a carapace of emotional inscrutability.
Post-Feminism is a flexible ideology, particularly when it comes to crumpet, so it’s worth establishing a few ground rules. The first commandment of this burgeoning televisual genre is that it should be Just Literary Enough. Mostly, this means heavy metal hair and a horse, and a cavalier attitude towards niceties. Since this is essentially a fantasy game, it is worth referring to the guidelines for writers toiling in the Mills and Boon (Historical) category.
Roughly paraphrasing (with calloused, manly hands), the requirements are: dynamic characters with relatable conflicts, historical research (though not at the expense of romance) and a central relationship to drive the story. Plus sensuality.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Poldark to a Mills and Boon. There is, for example, quite a lot of mining in Poldark, and it does get in the way of the romance and the horsemanship.
There is no second commandment. But, as a rule, Sunday Night Crumpet works best when it includes a sudden plunge into voyeurism. The most famous of these moments is the bit in Pride and Prejudice where Mr Darcy has a swim, a scene included by screenwriter Andrew Davies to show that his characters had “bodies as well as brains and wit and irony.” In the script, Mr Darcy is naked rather than merely being a contestant in a wet blouse competition, though a full-frontal flash might have been quite a test of Sunday evening mores.
Like history, historical drama never stands still. It responds to, and shapes our prejudices. It questions our pride. Now, there are any number of personal fitness plans designed to turn blubbery men into preening Poldarks. It is not as easy as it looks. These days, a man must be toned as well as taciturn. He will need a scythe, for the final irony of Post-Feminist Crumpet TV is that whatever men have sewn, they now must reap.
Source: BBC Arts