The Poldark that you love isn’t the first Poldark. The show is based on a series of historical novels written over a nearly 60-year period by the English author Winston Graham (he also wrote, among other books, Marnie, a thriller that was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1964). And the current Masterpiece series isn’t the first TV version: from 1975-77, the BBC broadcast two seasons in the UK based on the books. The show eventually aired in the US as part of Masterpiece Theatre in 1977 and 1978, and is one of the most popular Masterpiece series ever.
How have period TV show styles changed? Compare the costumes and hairstyles of Poldark characters, old and new.
The titular hero of both series, Ross is a former soldier in the British Army who returns to his native Cornwall after having fought in the American Revolutionary War to find his estate in shambles and his fiancée Elizabeth engaged to his cousin Francis. Reckless, addicted to danger, and a champion of the poor, Ross eventually marries his servant, Demelza, with whom he has three children: Julia (who dies in infancy), Jeremy, and Clowance. Robin Ellis, who played Ross in the 1970s series, returns in the current series as Reverend Halse.
Demelza Poldark, née Carne
After Ross rescues the street urchin Demelza from a beating (at first he thinks she’s a boy), he takes her on as a maid and eventually marries her. Resilient, pragmatic, and patient, she puts up with a lot – and also prevents Ross’s domestic life from falling apart as he gallivants off and neglects his responsibilities. Not that she hasn’t been tempted by the interest of other men… Side note: in the books, Demelza is brunette, while Caroline is a redhead and Elizabeth is blonde.
Elizabeth Warleggan, formerly Poldark, née Chynoweth
The delicate Elizabeth is forever seeking a port in a storm: in love with Ross but thinking him dead in America, she eventually marries his cousin Francis. That marriage produced a son, Geoffrey Charles, but was troubled by Francis’s alcoholism. After Francis’s accidental death, she agrees to marry the venal George Warleggan, again out of necessity rather than love. Upon hearing the news, Ross forces himself on her, perhaps producing an illegitimate child. Lately, to escape the difficulties of her marriage, Elizabeth has taken to dulling her insecurities with laudanum.
Every hero needs his villain, and thus is George to Ross. A pitiless, self-serving industrialist, he competes with Ross over mining concerns, political influence and positions, social circles, and even lovers – he suspects that his supposed heir with Elizabeth may actually be Ross’s child. He despises and envies Ross, especially Ross’s popularity as a man of the people – a concern that puts him into conflict with George.
Ross’s impossibly generous and altruistic friend, Dwight is a doctor who first arrived to study lung disease in Cornwall’s miners. He often treats poor patients free of charge, but is embroiled in drama when he is drawn into an ill-fated affair wit ha miner’s wife. Later, Dwight joins the Navy and is secretly married to the wealthy heiress Caroline Penvenen. He’s currently languishing in a French prison, his ship having been wrecked.
Caroline Enys, née Penvenen
Caroline was engaged to the powerful Unwin Trevaunance but rejected him after falling in love with Dwight. Her uncle Ray forbids the match, thinking Dwight a fortune hunter, but he eventually acquiesces on his deathbed once he finds out that Caroline is happily married to Dwight. She and Demelza have an unexpected but supportive friendship.
Demelza’s youngest brother, Drake first appears on the scene to tell Demelza their father is dying. Religious, but as not devout as his brother Sam or his father, Drake helps Sam build a Methodist congregation. He also falls in love with Morwenna Chynoweth, Elizabeth’s poor but genteel cousin and Geoffrey Charles’s governess. Once again, class differences make the match difficult, as does George’s eagerness to use Morwenna as a bargaining chip for social influence. Kevin McNally, who played Drake in the 1970s, has had perhaps the most long-lived career of anyone from the original series. His most visible role is probably as Gibbs in the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films. He also appeared on Downton Abbey as Mr. Bryant, and is married to Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes).
Elizabeth’s cousin, Morwenna is engaged by George to watch over his stepson Geoffrey Charles. She quickly becomes attracted to Drake, but George has other plans for this young woman. The well-connected Reverend Osborne Whitworth is recently widowed; perhaps Morwenna can be exchanged for a more exalted place in society for the Warleggans.
Reverend Osborne Whitworth
During the 1970s series, Osborne as played by Christopher Biggins was widely considered “the most hated man in England.” Osborne is indeed a detestable character, and we’ve only had a small taste of him so far this season. Fun fact: to play this role in the modern series, Christian Brassington gained more than 30 pounds by eating some 3,500 calories a day. He says he had a lot of ice cream and beer to do it.