If you look beyond the bodice-ripping and family feuds, the BBC’s ‘Poldark’ delves into a fascinating period of Cornwall’s mining past. Boyd Tonkin looks at the real quarrying dynasties in a region that was once at the cutting edge of capitalism
Anyone who watches Poldark for a treatise on Cornish industrial history is clearly barking up the wrong tree – or, maybe, peering down the wrong shaft. The second BBC adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels has already secured a sweating, straining place in prime-time costume-drama folklore that promises to eclipse even the spiky courtship of Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice – almost 20 years ago.
Ask fans to divert their gaze from the unfastened gowns and naked torsos to those fascinating examples of Cornish beam engines in the background and you risk sounding like the country-pursuits writer who reviewed Lady Chatterley’s Lover for Field and Stream magazine.
He found that “this pictorial account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is full of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers”. However, “one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour those sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion the book cannot take the place of JR Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.”
That reviewer, by the way, was Ed Zern: a noted wit, with tongue securely wedged in cheek. Tricorn hat tipped to the droll Mr Zern, we can still hope that Debbie Horsfield’s dramatisation might stir a flutter of historical curiosity about the past of its lovely locations. Late 18th-century mining history has seldom looked so picturesque or felt more suspenseful, even if the stand-offs of feuding Poldarks and nouveau-riche Warleggans serve mainly as a mood-altering counterpoint to the romance.
Professor Steven Fielding – director of the Centre for British Politics at Nottingham University – points in a recent article to the radical context of the original books: “The first Poldark novel was published in 1945, the year Britain elected a Labour government intent on building a more egalitarian society. Graham’s work was shaped by that context.”
Fielding even sees the maid-marrying hero as “a kind of 18th-century Robin Hood” whose “romantic life echoes his ambiguous place in the social order”. Yet Ross “was not quite a socialist. The hero was instead a One Nation figure, a man of elevated birth who considered he had responsibilities to look after his tenants and workers.”
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