Politics on the small screen: Poldark does parliament
As Ross Poldark becomes a politician, BBC producer Karen Thrussell explains all and real-life peers have their say.
According to screenwriter Debbie Horsfield, Poldark has begun its “political season”. As such fans of BBC One’s brooding drama about the escapades of Ross Poldark have seen the usually rural-based protagonist button up his coat (and shirt) and make his way to Westminster.
The beginning of the fourth series saw a catalyst for change with Pitt the Younger’s announcement to the House that he would be calling an election. This scene in the city until now rarely seen in Poldark saw the winds of change blow through Ross’s native Truro, with his insecure longtime rival George Warleggan joining those jostling for power.
While previous series have made clear Ross’s sense of justice for the common man, they’ve also shown how closely he associates power with corruption. Until the beginning of this Series 4, when shockingly unjust local events – deathly punishment meted out to leaders of riots arising from harsh living conditions – forced his hand.
The series executive producer Karen Thrussell explains: “This catastrophic happening makes him realise that, to have the power to effect any change, he needs to get out of his comfort zone.”
Or, as Ross himself more darkly puts it, “I must sell my soul and become a politician.”
If Ross proved initially reluctant, a far more enthusiastic Westminster wannabe was arriviste Warleggan. When he was ultimately defeated by Ross in the local election, George decided it was ‘prejudice, privilege, ancestry to blame’. How likely would this have been to happen in real life?
“George might have a case for it,” agrees Thrussell. “People didn’t like new money, it wasn’t acceptable until the next century. Landed gentry were perceived as having been in power for so long, it was seen that they could handle it.”
Following his arrival in Westminster, it was clear by episode three that Poldark was going to make dramatic inroads, with his maiden speech challenging Wilberforce’s preoccupation with the abolition of slavery, in favour of a wider-reaching social justice. He battled a House of jeering MPs to shout, “There is suffering closer to home that requires our attention. Where is our compassion for these slaves?”
How realistic an MP is Ross for his time? His kind of character did exist even then, says Thrussell. She expands, “Ross is very forward thinking, like all our favourite characters. We’ll see the abolition of slavery being talked about, people trying to put these things through. Ross is one of these very first agitators.”
The creators of ‘Poldark’ all credit Winston Graham’s original novels for their rich social detail, not least the political authenticity of the drama. Thrussell says: “The Grahams were a very political family, and the author did huge research into what would have been going on at the time, with issues like the welfare state. Ross’s politics are very cool. He visits a poor house, he tries to bring in new laws that did actually happen, like paying people extra money to keep them out of the poor house.” She chuckles. “We didn’t need to work hard to make the stories contemporary. There are so many parallels.”
With so much going on, is ‘Poldark’ a social commentary disguised as an easy-on-the-eye drama? Thrussell says not. “We are always interested in character, as was Winston Graham. It’s very pleasing that Ross is such a good person, and there is a strong moral theme, but it’s the story of the characters we love.”
Peers on Poldark
Even the fearless Ross Poldark admitted to some trepidation on his first foray into the House, something all too memorable for two peers who made similarly youthful debuts, in their case in the House of Lords.
“My biggest surprise on entering the House for the first time in 1969 was how dark the chamber was. It all looked rather sepulchral, exacerbated by the neo-gothic architecture and Pugin interior,” remembers Edward Foljambe, Earl of Liverpool, who took his seat aged 24, in 1969.
“The great men of the day were there, Lord Carrington, Earl Ferrers, Earl St Aldwyn, my future father-in-law The Earl of Gainsborough, and I remember how awe-inspiring it was to be sitting amongst them and hearing their speeches. My strongest memory of the day, though, is how incredibly kind and friendly everyone was.”
For Viscount Astor, whose grandmother Nancy was the first female MP to take her seat, his knee-shaking first day on the benches aged 21 was also alleviated by a singular kindness.
“Manny Shinwell sat down next to me, and said, ‘I’d like to bring you a cup of tea.’ He explained, ‘When I took my seat in the House of Commons, I was very unpopular and everyone hated me. The only person nearly as unpopular was your grandmother and she looked after me, so I thought I’d repay the favour.’”
While Ross Poldark’s maiden speech inevitably rustled feathers in the Commons, for both of these young peers, their intimidating debuts meant instead staying out of trouble and avoiding controversy.
Lord Liverpool recalls “I picked a subject deliberately that I thought no one else would know about,” remembers Astor. “The subsistence of the ferry services in the western isles of Scotland. I thought it was so obscure that I could get away with it.
“Unfortunately, what I failed to realise was that half the Conservative peers have houses on the western isles of Scotland, so eight of them spoke, most with eloquence and expertise.”
“I remember being told you were allowed to speak using notes but that reading speeches was frowned upon,” recalls Liverpool. “This would have been pretty challenging anyway, because of the low level of lighting! Thankfully, times have changed.”
While Ross Poldark may be an idealised character who continually defies his personal interests, and even his patron, in favour of his conscience, real life seemingly exercises similar moral demands.
“The best advice I was given, and which I have always tried to adhere to was, ‘Speak only on subjects that you are knowledgeable about or interest you,’” says Liverpool. “I always kept it in the back of my mind, that when it came down to the wire, one should vote with ones conscience, regardless of party. I believe this ordinance gives credibility.”
Jeremy or Rory?
With so many contemporary parallels, there is one obvious question – is there a real-life Ross Poldark of our time and, if so, who is he or she?
Thrussell shares a telling anecdote from last summer’s filming that went on before the general election. The producer says: “We were on location and we spotted a billboard with ‘Vote Tories’. Somebody had already got to it, crossed out Tories and written ‘Poldark’ instead.”
Screenwiter Horsfield has previously said he’s not quite Corbyn, but Thrussell is more emphatic on Ross’s real-life counterpart, exclaiming, “I wish we had one.”
She continues: “The younger generation have put Corbyn on a pedestal, as they do with Ross Poldark, but he’s not really it. We definitely need one.”
Meanwhile Viscount Astor rather shrugs off the idea that there exist modern-day parliamentary revolutionaries in the mould of Ross Poldark, when compared with those who came before. He reflects by way of personal anecdote:
“My mother spent five years at Bletchley Park decoding. By chance she got sent to Munich, met Unity Mitford and Hitler, took down posters as quickly as Unity put them up, so after three months was arrested and deported.
“Thinking back on previous generations, they had wars, times of extreme heroism, and it does seem as though everything we’ve done since rather pales in insignificance.”
Lord Liverpool also struggles to come up with a modern-day Ross Poldark. Finally, he has an answer, “I asked my wife, and she unhesitatingly said Rory Stewart. Who I am to argue with that?”
Poldark continues on Sunday evenings on BBC One
Photo credit: BBC