Review: Poldark

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★★★☆☆

Three Stars

Get my 2016 Poldark calendar on pre-order. I shall start the new year with him windswept and galloping across Bodmin Moor. In February he can be rolling up his sleeves and glistening with delicious sweat down the copper mine. May seems like an appropriate month for skinny dipping in Porthgwarra’s bizarrely tropical waters. And in July, just in time for my birthday, I will be regaled with him wielding his scythe in the fields, all chiselled chest and baby-oil gleam. Swoon.

Poldark, as you may have gathered, is a very visual show. Between sublime scenic shots of Cornwall and jaw-dropping close-ups of the protagonist’s torso, it’s certainly a feast for the eyes. The man behind the sensual scar is Aidan Turner, who apart from being the star of my fervid dreams, has also featured in The Hobbit trilogy and BBC Three’s Being Human. His leading-man looks have proven a resounding success with viewers: a recent Twitter Q&A rapidly descended into a deluge of innuendo-ridden proposals. Naturally, the BBC has grabbed onto him with both hands, with Turner rumoured to have already signed a contract for five more years as the brooding heartthrob.

The character of Poldark has appeared on our screens before. He had his first airing on the BBC in 1975, with much the same premise as today. An officer in the British army, Poldark has been away fighting in the American War of Independence. He returns to discover that his father has died in his absence, and his lover, Elizabeth, is due to wed his cousin, Francis.

He resolves that the best way to deal with these problems is by taking his shirt off, cracking out a cheeky grin, and tossing back his thick, dark locks. Side note: there is so much enviable hair in this show. As if Poldark’s swishy black mop wasn’t enough, there’s also Demelza’s luscious auburn cascade and Elizabeth’s veritable mane of ringlets to contend with. Soz Francis, but if you want to play with the big boys, you’d better at least muster some sort of fringe.

Yet let it be noted that for all the gratuitous shots of Aidan Turner’s slicked-up torso, Poldark’s authority in the realm is in no way undermined by his smouldering looks. In Poldark land (aka 18th century Cornwall), old white men in funny wigs very much rule the roost. The sole preoccupation of the female characters, on the other hand, is to be the object of Ross’s affection. So are you Team Elizabeth or Team Demelza? As Ross lurches between them, the two heroines (his former sweetheart and his hired help, respectively) are pitted against each other for the audience’s support. I refuse to take sides.

Personally, my favorite character is Verity, Francis’s sister, who is hurtling at breakneck speed towards spinsterhood. Compassionate but reserved, her whirlwind affair with hot-tempered Captain Blamey came to a swift halt when her family learnt of his reputation. I’m hoping before the end of the series, Verity gets the happiness she deserves.

But oh, to be Ross Poldark’s ‘serving wench’! He only plucked you from urchinhood to sweep his floors and cook his tea, but then he makes you his wife and you get to do the same job for free. In return, he’ll buy you a book and help you practice your letters, because you’re a pitifully illiterate waif, and also he really cares about class inequality and stuff. When people ask him if he loves you, he’ll tell them the two of you ‘get on’. He might even concede that you’re pretty too, ‘in a way’. And when he finds out that baby Poldark is rapidly germinating under your bodice, in a sultry murmur he’ll say the words that every woman longs to hear – ‘you’ve redeemed me’. Cheers for that, Ross. I bet Demelza’s beginning to wish she’d unbuttoned that dress herself!

In the latest episode, the ladyfication process has begun for Ross’s former servant. The poor girl must learn, Pygmalion-style, how to do civilised things like walking in a straight line, instead of splaying her feet out sideways like the grotesquely gauche peasant she is. Society is at first shocked and appalled by the idea of this blithe little parvenu shacking up with Cornwall’s lushest bachelor. But then your girl Demelza saunters in for Christmas dinner looking insanely hot in a festive scarlet number, throws major shade at spiteful, spurned Ruth Teague, and sings a little folk ditty while everyone stares at her so intently you can tell they’re really thinking hard about stuff. Boom. All those harp lessons were for naught, Elizabeth. Nada.

That said, I can’t help feeling sorry for Liz. None of this is her fault and she’s clearly still hankering after a piece of the Poldark. But instead of draping herself across his bedsheets, she’s stuck in a loveless marriage to Ross’s incompetent cousin, Francis, who somehow thinks it’s appropriate to mither her for sex approximately tow minutes after she’s given birth. Ross still loves her back – evidently so – although he’s clearly finding some consolation in the arms of ‘people’s hero’ Demelza. None of this would have happened if you’d written poor Lizzie a letter, Ross. Even a hasty note. Just saying.

Irritatingly, all these interesting romantic bits of Poldark are frequently sidelined for some Important Business Plotline Which Probably Reflects Our World Today. The bankers are ruthless. The greedy mine owners won’t pay their workers a living wage. No-one will invest in Ross’s startup. These aspects of the show feel more like a distraction than genuinely engaging intrigues. It’s the love story which is really the main attraction here.

And let’s be honest: Poldark isn’t exactly a genre-defining period drama. The acting is a little patchy, the writing somewhat stunted and the plot development predictable. But I’m more than willing to give the show some credit. It’s an enjoyable, seductive romp with a broad appeal and some truly stunning locations. And most gratifying of all? Poldark makes sterile Sunday evenings spent watching Call the Midwife seem like a mercifully distant memory.

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