We last saw Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) atop a windswept cliff, arrested for looting a wrecked ship, inciting a riot and murdering his rival’s cousin. Season two opens without missing a beat (there’s a story so far preview available on BBC iPlayer if you want to jog your memory) as Ross is dragged away from his beloved Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) to appear before the magistrate (apparently having made time to stop off at the barber’s for a quick trim along the way). He’s quickly released on bail but faces trial, under threat of the hangman’s noose. As Ross portentously predicts: ‘There’s a storm coming’.
I have to admit I’ve never read Winston Graham’s Poldark novels or seen the popular ‘70s TV adaptation, so I came to the first season without weight of comparison or expectation. As cozy Sunday night costume drama goes, I thought it was successful, the historical backdrop of the declining Cornish mining industry serving to fuel the real story – the romance and rivalries between a set of engaging and conveniently attractive central characters. As we kick off season two, nothing much seems to have changed, except perhaps a shift in mood.
There’s a convincing sense of foreboding as Ross buries himself in his work at the mine (cue obligatory shirtless shot) and exorcises his frustrations by aggressively chopping firewood; a classic costume drama trope if there ever was one. He’s stubborn, refusing to accept help, employ legal council or even listen to reason. Instead it’s left to his nearest and dearest to try and save his neck.
Because of this, it’s the surrounding characters that dominate. Demelza, feisty as ever, defies Ross’s wishes as she attempts to influence the outcome. Elizabeth (Heida Reed) schemes to do the same. Even estranged cousin Francis (Kyle Soller) tries to heal the wounds of season one, despite dropping heavy-handed hints about his own precarious state of mind and, contrarily, refusing to forgive his sister her transgressions. George Warleggen (Jack Farthing) continues as a fantastic pantomime villain, manipulative and without scruples. I particularly enjoyed his attempt to blacken Ross’s reputation by penning a defamatory pamphlet – a nice nod to the power of the printing press at the time – but I’d like to see some hint of human complexity from him as the series progresses. All of them provide us with a bit more depth than Ross himself.
Still, Aiden Turner has done a great job of inhabiting this new incarnation of Ross Poldark and he continues to glower moodily, his pride getting him even deeper into trouble. We do get moments of reflection – a single, simple shot as Ross contemplates the Cornish coastline the night before he’s imprisoned conveys more about what he’s prepared to lose for his principles than any of his actions. And Ross Poldark is a man of action. Of course, there’s galloping. Lots of galloping.
That stunning Cornish scenery continues to steal the show, but there’s a noticeable change in tone. Instead of glorious sunshine we’ve got stormy skies and turbulent seas, an obvious metaphor for what’s to come. This series was filmed during the winter months and the light, or lack of, gives a decidedly more ominous feel.
We get humour and light relief too, with the introduction of new characters, Caroline Penvenan (Gabriella Wilde), niece of wealthy landowner Ray Penvenan (John Nettles) and her ambitious but ineffectual intended, Unwin Trevanaunce (Hugh Skinner). Caroline promises to be an interesting addition – clever, modern and flirtatious, she’s bound to cause trouble. That’s something that the creators of Poldark have done well, giving us female characters that often outshine the men, while knowingly operating within the confines of an eighteenth century patriarchal society. Caroline clearly knows her worth and promises to bring a new dynamic.
But what of the history? We witness the ongoing decline of the Cornish mining industry as Ross’s Wheal Leisure mine continues to fail, symptomatic of a cycle of bust and boom that plagued the south west through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, resulting in the deindustrialisation of a region that was once prosperous. And there’s one brief nod to the French Revolution that suggests there’ll be more on that to come, but no one watches Poldark for a history lesson. We’re here for the romance and there’s plenty of that, with intrigue and drama along the way and a shocking cliffhanger ending that will make sure people tune in for the next instalment.
There’s nothing new here. The creators have a tried and tested formula that works and season two looks set to continue Poldark’s reinvention with panache. Much has been made of the scheduling clash with ITV’s new big budget historical Victoria (review here), also screening in the prestige Sunday 9pm slot, but Poldark’s wild, passionate sensibility is a nice counter to the claustrophobic, political world of Victoria. I think there’s room for both. The team at Mammoth Screen, the production company behind both shows, clearly have an eye for what makes satisfying Sunday night drama, and with a third season already confirmed, it looks like the BBC are betting on Poldark.
Poldark screens on BBC One on Sundays at 9pm from 4 September and is available on iPlayer.