Winston Graham, who was born in 1908, was a prolific English writer of novels, also a playwright, and it is for his 12-book series of historical fiction, loosely called the Poldark Novels
, for which he is most famous. Meticulous research, with description of places and people – his notebooks are in the keeping of the Royal Institution of Cornwall – give his Poldark
books a sense of being rooted deep in the Cornish historical landscape in which they are set.
More than that, however, is the way Winston Graham got under the skin of the times: late 18th-century Cornwall, where technological innovation led to advances in mining techniques – tin and copper – that made some people very rich and others very poor. Landowners called the shots, and sent their representatives to parliament to look after their interests, while children went unschooled and their parents were reduced to penury.
Does this sound familiar? There is more, especially in this, season five of the series, which continues to be written by Debbie Horsfield. It departs somewhat from the books and will be the final season. In it, mental health and attitudes towards it come to the fore.
In case you have been living on another planet, the Poldark
series began in 2015 – an earlier series was aired in the 1970s – on BBC One. It rocketed to fame in the first season when Ross Poldark, played by Aidan Turner, took off his shirt in the summer scything scene and audiences fainted from the exposure. Eleanor Tomlinson, who emerges from her role as kitchen maid to becoming a wife, and the one with good sense, is the perfect foil to his antics. This publicity may have done wonders for its ratings, but it had the effect of putting a gloss on the show that makes it easy to accept it as a superficial costume drama romp, with debates about the 'hotness' of its male star. It has even been called 'beloved twaddle' and not a series that men would be apt to enjoy.
Curious this, considering that some of its main issues are: the structure and intricacies of how monopolies operate; the way in which the banking industry benefits the few (three generations to achieve a baronetcy), or how to make a fortune in one easy lesson (cheat and make lies sound like the truth); working conditions and a gig economy; failure to educate youth. One further issue, discussed by Horsfield, who has had personal experience with depression, is that of mental illness.
It is useful to recall that Winston Graham was the author of the book Marnie
, later made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedrin. The book, perhaps, gives more substance to this psychological thriller; however, it suggests that the author was not a stranger to thinking in terms of how men and women are affected by shocking experiences in their lives, and how they struggle to maintain a balance in the face of them.
Jack Farthing, as the hated George Warleggan (rich and always on the make), gives an outstanding performance as a man who is driven by grief at the death of his wife into a madness that medicine at the time treated with a kind of contempt, seeing it as a weakness that needed to be beaten out of the sufferer. This, too, is a contemporary issue, and while we do not attempt to punish the mentally ill, neither do we always offer the necessary assistance that they deserve. Fortunately for Warleggan, a more holistic approach is finally accepted, from the good Dr Enys.
The late 18th century was a time of turmoil, from the American Revolution to the French one on the horizon. The issue of the slave trade is also very much to the forefront in this season, as the series is joined by Kerri McLean, playing Kitty, once a slave and now the wife of the former governor of Honduras, a man who has been causing trouble in the colony with his forward-thinking concerning the equality of all races. Ross Poldark, as an MP from Cornwall, makes it his campaign to support the abolition of slavery, and the arguments in the House – like those raised against any changes in the voting system – are those of men who cannot bear the thought that they should lose any of their power.
Winston Graham based some of his characters on historical figures, and interwove them with the reality of the times and a fictional story of generations of one family in Cornwall. Of course it is a tale, and as such it can be mocked as frivolous, but beneath the surface, like the mines it depicts, are deep, deep veins that constitute the structures of English society, its morals and weaknesses. What it gives the viewer is a glimpse also of its strengths – something to hang on to in contemporary times of upheaval.