Brexit, Corbyn, Anything but History: The Way People Talk About Poldark

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“I fought for our liberty. For our hopes. For our dreams. And I’ll keep on fighting. Whatever the cost.”

These words were first broadcast in 2016. They were spoken by Ross Poldark, shot in extreme close up, interspersed with images of people in period costume running passed explosions whilst ‘Take me to Church’ by Hozier thumped away in the background.

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Ross Poldark, of course, is one of the major protagonists of the ongoing Sunday night BBC drama that shares his surname, which is in turn adapted from a series of novels by Winston Graham first published in the 1940s. These books told the saga of the Cornwall-dwelling Poldark family at the end of the eighteenth century.

But these words never appeared in the Poldark novels. Neither were they ever spoken in a single episode of the current adaptation. They were spoken as part of a specially filmed monologue used to tease the advent of the show’s second season throughout the summer of 2016 before its Autumn premier.

These words are what Gérard Gennette would term ‘paratextual’ to the TV show itself, in that they surround and present the show as a text, and in so doing effect the way we approach and understand it. More specifically, the advert is an ‘epitext’, part of the discussion that takes place well ‘outside’ of the text but informs its reception never-the-less.

And this teaser certainly did that.

Following hot on the heels of Jeremy Corbyn’s dark-horse success in the wake of Labour’s defeat in the 2015 General Election, and coinciding with the troubled summer in which Corbyn was seen as clinging on despite a barrage of unfavourable media attention and endless resignations, this nineteen-word monologue (never uttered in the show itself) did enough to strike a chord with the rhetoric of Corbynism and cast the show’s main focaliser as being in a similar position to the labour leader: each determined to stand up for their principles, and the public good, no matter what.

Now, this mythic portrait proves reductive when even tentatively scrutinising the positions of either Corbyn or Poldark, but it did serve to lend the Cornish hero some of Corbyn’s growing Momentum.

And it either guided, or perhaps pre-empted, the tone of public discourse surrounding the show during its second season.

In the same week that the first episode was broadcast Telegraph journalist Jane Merrick did a ‘one year on’ retrospective on Corbyn’s first year as Labour leader in which she described his Prime Minister’s Question Time performances as looking a bit like Poldark standing in the dock in that week’s episode of the show, charged with plundering and inciting a riot. The article was accompanied by a tweet, which added ‘Jeremy Corbyn, a man more stubborn & unbending than Poldark.’ Suffice to day, it was this claim, rather than the content of the essay as a whole, which garnered the most attention (as was no doubt intended) and a few hours later Merrick had enough cause to tweet that she ‘could’ve written my a whole piece of that asked “Is Jeremy Corbyn a 21st-Century #Poldark?” but I would’ve found too traumatic.’

This comparison was already gaining traction, even before Merrick cashed in on the hashtag to bag a wider readership.

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Soon, in a New Statesman review of the opening episodes, Rachel Cooke complained that the series lacked the revolutionary action promised in the pre-launch publicity, concluding that this promise of unfulfilled action was yet another way in which Poldark was like Jeremy Corbyn.

Elsewhere in the same magazine Adrian Pabst argued that Ross Poldark was ‘Blue Labour’, forced by political turmoil, economic insecurity and a rupture with the Continent to capitalise on popular unrest and lead a backlash against the elites…

Even Criticks (the online review hub for the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies) got in on the action, publishing a compelling review of the second series arguing that Ross had more in common with the most grandstanding of Brexiteers than he did the leader of the Labour party, often taking advantage of revolutionary rhetoric to justify his actions – actions which often involve reckless violence and illegal smuggling. I can’t imagine who would write such a thing.

The comparison persists in conversations surrounding the show, remaining amongst the most common comments made on the show’s hashtag even during the fourth season, which was broadcast last summer:

 

 

In the fourth season, in case you haven’t seen it, Ross becomes an MP and spends a lot of time in London, championing the abolition of slavery, demanding fiscal reform and challenging the injustices of the political system he finds himself increasingly embedded within. Or, as he himself puts it, he ‘sells his soul and becomes a politician.’

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Cue another wave of press coverage, playing up the show’s contemporary resonance through a plethora of prestentivist headlines. Total Politics even brought in a real set of peers to talk about how relatable it all was, and then in one episode Poldark, on screen, in the show, utters the words: ‘Not for the few, but for all.’ This was met with fevered enthusiasm:

When viewers aren’t talking about the extent to which Ross Poldark [a fictional character in a TV show based on a series of novels from the 1940s set in the eighteenth century] either is or isn’t based on Jeremy Corbyn, they’re talking about the show’s perceived Brexit parallels.

Ross mounts a prison rescue, liberating his friend Dr Ennis before punching his way out of a French P.O.W camp, and @DarrenCarson68 tweets ‘Now that’s what I call a hard Brexit.’ More substantively, @RRolinka observes:

Again, press coverage is keen to make much of this. In 2017, the “news” that Heida Reed, the Icelandic actress who plays Elizabeth, was moving to Los Angela to be closer to her husband was reported with headlines like ‘Brexit influence Poldark Star’s Decision to Leave Britain’, ensuring that tweets to these articles appear admits conversations about whether Ross Poldark either should or shouldn’t replace Theresa May in real-life Brexit negotiations.

What people don’t tend to talk about is the very specific and impressively detailed historical contexts in which this story takes place. This is a meticulously rendered show, which has a lot to tell contemporary audiences about social history, eighteenth-century banking and mining practices and, in the most recent series, an awful lot about British political history at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

Speaking recently to Cornwall Live, Poldark’s show-runner Debbie Horsefield deflected questions about whether Ross Poldark was or wasn’t like Jeremy Corbyn, or if the 1790s were really about Brexit, by reasserting the show’s central promise: ‘To make the sometimes impenetrable politics of the eighteenth century the stuff of life and death.’

Writing recently in the Journal of British Cinema and Television, the show’s historical advisor Dr Hannah Grieg stresses this aspect of the show, reminding readers that it was also Winston Graham’s original intention to use these stories to draw attention to  lesser explored aspect of Britain’s social history. Graham, she explains, did a tremendous amount of research before writing these novels, once acknowledging that each novel is ‘a bit like the iceberg: the nine tenths under the water is necessary to support the tenth on show.’

Grieg’s task, as advisor on a 21st-century adaptation of a 20th-century series of novels set in the 18th century is a complex one, and in this article she describes the careful efforts made to retain Graham’s pedagogical intentions whilst also updating his narrative to make it consistent with new knowledge and historiographic shifts that have taken place since the time of original publication.

But these efforts are largely unacknowledged, and there has been little interest in the historical contexts painstakingly represented here, other than as a mirror for discussing issues concerning the viewer’s present day. Grieg even notes that when the current iteration of Poldark was released in 2015 the critic Sarah Dunnant appeared on Radio 4’s Front Row, criticising the show based on her own emotional engagement with the characters but ‘brushing aside’ any attempt to discuss the historical contexts involved.

Why is any of this interesting? What does it matter if all viewers get from a prime-time Sunday night viewer is a ripping yarn and a handful of opportunities to reflect on current affairs? What does it matter if they don’t walk away with a more nuanced understanding of pillaging laws in late eighteenth-century Cornwall?

Jerome de Groot has proposed that historical television drama be approached as a pre-eminent form of ‘public history’, describing such drama as a medium through which contemporary audiences engage with and consume ideas about the past. Grieg echoes this, stressing that ‘the issue is more of how audiences consume the history – or not – while engaging with the drama.’

The reason I’m worried about the way Poldark is consumed (I’m not that worried, just intrigued) is that there doesn’t seem to be any appetite to understand this particular period in history as history. There isn’t even the pedantry over what is or isn’t ‘historically accurate’ that you get with shows like Wolf Hall.

Poldark is always either is a mirror for the present, or a high romance that could just as well be set in Westeros, Middle Earth, or even in Space. And that isn’t because the historical content isn’t there, because it absolutely is. So why is that?

Is it because the dissonance between text and epitexts is so extreme? Is it because there is little correlation between the content of the actual show and the way it is publicised and covered in the press? Or is it something to do with this period in particular?

Perhaps, as Grieg hints, it might be because when it comes to eighteenth-century British history there is no significant related content on the national curriculum?

Why does this keep happening to Poldark?

And what does the tell us about the public’s understanding of the eighteenth century?


 

This blog post is adapted from a provocation delivered on the Pop Enlightenments panel at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Annual Conference, 2019. 

 

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