Poldark, the popular BBC TV series from the 1970s, has just been remade with 31-year-old Irish star Aidan Turner in the lead. A swashbuckling tale of romance and adventure, the new series has been a massive ratings success in the U.K. and is sure win Turner a legion of new fans here when it begins broadcast on June 21. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to Turner about playing the ultimate romantic leading man.
Poldark has everything: romance, shirtlessness, thwarted love, mortal enemies, handsome leads, high adventure and the ridiculously sexy fashions of the 1780s.
If you love the sheer escapism Game of Thrones but could do without all the murder and mayhem then Poldark is probably the summer show for you. Set in the strikingly gorgeous seaside county of Cornwall in England, Poldark follows its curly haired hero Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) as he returns from Revolutionary America with just the shirt on his back as he sets about reviving his family’s fortunes and also the fortunes of his ailing seaside community.
Opening in 1783 as England is facing a period of falling wages, rising goods prices and civil unrest that could have been ripped from the headlines of our own era, the show reflects this timely awareness.
As the dishy scoundrel Ross Poldark, Turner is ideally cast. It’s why English viewers started swooning the minute they saw him riding along the beach on his trusty steed. In fact when he took off his shirt to mow a field of grass in the show Twitter went into a near meltdown with fans’ overheated reactions.
Poldark has been a massive hit in other words, and there’s no doubt it will be in the U.S. too when it begins broadcast on June 21 on PBS.
As the show opens we meet the dashing lead as he returns from fighting overseas to discover that the world he used to know in England has dramatically changed. His family estate is in ruins, his father has passed away and his teenage sweetheart is now engaged to a rival.
Things suck, in other words, but we never doubt our plucky hero’s ability to turn things around for the better. Sure enough Poldark quickly sets about righting what’s gone awry, until he discovers something that even he can’t fix: Elizabeth Chenoweth (Heida Reed), his former fiancée, is now engaged to his cousin Francis (Kyle Soller).
Turner is a graduate of Dublin’s famed Gaiety School of Acting, which also trained his current girlfriend (and rumored fiancée), actress Sarah Greene, when the pair were still teenagers.
Add to that, he’s a former ballroom dancing star who represented Ireland for 10 years (before the expense of the discipline forced his parents to pull the plug) and you get to see he’s that rare thing, an all around star. But what encouraged him to play the romantic lead in this revival, when the ‘70s era Poldark is still worshipped by its fans?
“So many things if I’m telling the truth.” Turner tells the Irish Voice. “I got the offer to do it on the same day I received all the books and the scripts. The story and the themes really stand the test of time, and that’s clear when you read the novels on which the series is based.”
Even before you get to how great Ross Poldark is and how great he is to play, there were so many elements that were already in place, Turner says.
“It was an easy decision to be honest. I got the offer in the morning and I said yes by the afternoon really. It was a job I couldn’t really turn down.”
Turner said yes a few months after coming back from New Zealand where he had been shooting The Hobbit, his biggest role before Poldark came along.
“I really wanted to get my teeth into something big. The Hobbit was amazing but the acting days were few and far between. There was a lot of, ‘Here hold this sword and stand there.’ Or, ‘Kill that orc,’” Turner says.
“It was nice to have dialogue and get up on a horse and go galloping, you know? There were a lot of vital elements come together in the choosing of it.”
Poldark is layered, Turner says. He’s not just this benevolent saintly character, a Robin Hood type of guy who’s out there helping the poor and never putting a foot wrong.
“He’s real and he suffers like everyone else does. He’s stubborn, he has a pretty high disregard for authority, and he drinks a lot of brandy. He’s just a normal guy and doesn’t really understand what love is all about. He feels more comfortable on a battlefield instructing soldiers than telling Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) that he loves her.”
When he comes back from fighting in the Revolutionary War in the U.S. he’s obviously changed a lot. Where once he unquestioningly went to balls to see society girls debut, with their fathers carting them around like chattel in the hope of getting them hitched, now he sees how fickle it all is.
“He also sees the massive divide between the rich and the poor and he can’t get his head around it. It’s not just playing a stock character. There’s a lot of truth in what Ross does and a lot of integrity,” Turner says.
Was he stunned by the scale of the success of the show in the U.K., where it had become a public phenomenon?
“I’m quite surprised if I’m honest. I knew what we were making was really good because the team behind it are really strong, and we also had a decent budget too so it looks amazing,” Turner replies.
“But I didn’t expect it to be the hit that it was to be honest. It’s been re-commissioned for a second series so it’s lovely to walk on set knowing the first series was a hit. It’s a good time to be Ross Poldark.”
The ‘70s version of the show was a massive hit too, but Turner says he wasn’t intimidated by its legend.
“I didn’t watch the original series. I just didn’t do it. I wanted to find this character myself and see what I could do with it. Once you know something it’s hard to unknow it, and I didn’t want to steal from really good actors.”
As leading roles go it doesn’t get more romantic. Turner knows this and admits it was part of the appeal.
“It was great to play that kind of character and be in this genre. They don’t come around that often and you can really indulge in the romanticism of it. It’s far from a dark, depressing crime show. Instead you can just embrace this genre and really go for it.”
In clumsier hands it would be remarkably easy to take Poldark’s story and make it cheesy and unbearable to watch, but the truth is that’s it’s wonderfully escapist storytelling, and a show that’s sure to appeal to a much larger demographic and its success seems assured here.
Meanwhile, Turner was also cast in the film version of Sebastian Barry’s bestseller The Secret Scripture, directed by Jim Sheridan.
“I would have taken any job on The Secret Scripture just to work with Jim Sheridan,” Turner confesses.
“As an actor it was one of my lifetime goals just to get a job in something he was directing. I wanted to see what he was like with actors on set because he can manage to get the most amazing performances out of them. When the opportunity to work with him came up I jumped at it.”
Tom Vaughan Lawlor also stars alongside an all-star cast that includes Jack Reynor, Eric Bana, Rooney Mara and Vanessa Redgrave.
“The experience was brilliant and Jim didn’t disappoint. He has an energy about him, he cracks into things and he knows what he’s at. He feels the emotion himself. You can feel it from him because he’s feeling it too. It works,” Turner says.
Poldark will debut on PBS on June 21.