PBS' 'Poldark' remake offers love, death and coal mining
LOS ANGELES (AP) On a spring evening in 1977, an unsuspecting American TV audience was about to surrender to 18th-century British soldier Ross Poldark.
"Tonight we begin a new series, called 'Poldark,' based on the novels of Winston Graham," said "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke, advising PBS viewers to "settle in to a spate of loving, dueling, poaching, smuggling, wenching and marrying not to mention banking and copper mining."
The erudite Cooke neatly summed up the historical saga set in England's Cornwall region. Robin Ellis starred as Poldark, back from a battering in the American Revolutionary War to his family's imperiled mining business, with Angharad Rees as Demelza, the street urchin destined for more.
A sensation in Britain, "Poldark" traveled well and prevailed with U.S. viewers in that primitive era before social media and binge-viewing. The affection proved lasting: In a 2007 viewer survey, it scored as one of the favorite "Masterpiece" programs of all time.
Now a seven-part reboot, starting 9 p.m. EDT Sunday on PBS stations (check local listings), will try to woo new and old "Poldark" fans. It's already earned the go-ahead for a second season at home in the U.K., where it successfully aired earlier this year.
Does it have the same war-scarred, handsome hero? Check, with Aidan Turner (Kili in "The Hobbit" film franchise) taking over the title role. The charmingly feisty woman who wins his brooding heart? Check again, as Eleanor Tomlinson ("Death Comes to Pemberley") steps in as Demelza.
Class struggle, broken hearts, fortunes won and lost? All in place, and then some. The sensuality factor has been upped with public TV-tasteful nudity, along with the pace, and this "Poldark" has the advantages of superior cinematography and other technology unavailable to the original.
Another added touch of modernity: Hair weaves are part of those achingly poetic, wind-blown seaside moments, and not just for the actresses.
"Aidan and I got quite competitive about whose hair looked best," Tomlinson said. "He did have a lot of hair extensions in the beginning, which I thought was quite hilarious."
Fans of the first series receive a fine nostalgic bonus, with the elegantly silver-haired Ellis, 73, cast here as a moralizing reverend. (Sadly, the memorable Rees died of pancreatic cancer in 2012, at age 66.)
There was ample reason to bring "Poldark" back to PBS, said Rebecca Eaton, "Masterpiece" executive producer.
"I still feel very strongly that we should be mining new territory, that we need to find stories that have never been done before," she said. But the "Poldark" story offers rich drama, a brave central figure and, crucially, a strong sense of place with Cornwall.
"I often think that wherever our (series) are set is often a character: Highclere Castle (in) 'Downton Abbey' is a character," Eaton said. Same for the Thames Valley, the setting of the linked detective franchises "Morse," ''Inspector Lewis" and "Endeavor."
Any comparisons to "Downton Abbey" are understandable. The hit series will wrap its six-season run next year, and PBS and "Masterpiece" are eager for durable newcomers to fill the looming void.
The stars of "Poldark" say they're delighted to be part of the effort.
For Turner, the drama arrived at the right career moment, in the lull after he'd wrapped work in New Zealand on "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," released last year, and returned to London.
"I thought, 'This is why I love this business.' You can be sitting on your (butt) for months with nothing happening and feel uninspired, and suddenly your life changes and it's all in front of you," Turner said.
He avoided watching any of the original, even in online snippets, so he wouldn't unconsciously borrow from Ellis' performance. Tomlinson said she viewed a few episodes, largely to honor Rees' memory.
Creating a new Demelza is exciting but "there's a lot of pressure when you take on a role that's so loved when another actress did it," she said.
If the ratings hold, Turner said, he could see spending years doing the series alongside theater and film projects. There's certainly a wealth of material from novelist Graham, who published a dozen books from 1945 to 2003 about Poldark and later generations.
"I'd keep finding stuff with this guy," Turner said.