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With Chris Packham, filming “The Books That Made Britain – The Cornish Coast”

Poldark returns to our screens tonight and I can’t wait. For me, it’s proper Sunday night telly – there’s the sweeping shots of stunning landscapes, a cracking tale with great characters, stories of Cornwall’s fascinating mining heritage and the struggles of those involved in the industry, Cornish music and dance and yes, ok, the odd scything or bathing scenes don’t hurt either. And according to the BBC, in the second series it’s “1790 and there is riot and revolution in the air. Ross Poldark must once again fight for his freedom when George Warleggan tries desperately to steal his mine and have him hanged as a revolutionary. Can Demelza save Ross from himself?” Mining and villains aside, Ross had me at hello so I’m in – for the long haul of however many of the Poldark books celebrated screenwriter Debbie Horsfield is prepared to adapt.


Aidan Turner as Captain Ross Poldark on this month’s cover of “Cornwall Today”

Of course there have been criticisms; you don’t often see buildings made of Cotswold stone in Cornwall, and the actors playing the lead roles aren’t Cornish, but the production company, Mammoth Screen, went to great lengths to ensure authenticity when working on locations, with dialects, and with cultural aspects of the television adaptation. You can even see the Grand Bard of Cornwall, Merv Davey, playing the Cornish double-chantered bagpipes, and his wife, Cornish dance expert Alison Davey, co-ordinating the dance scenes in both series.

And it’s hard to argue with its success – at its peak, series one was drawing close to 10 million viewers, and the boost to Cornish tourism from international sales is now being felt. According to Visit Cornwall, there are now any number of Poldark “experiences” you can try out; perhaps kayaking around St Agnes Head, or horse riding on the Bodmin Moor “Poldark Trail”, visiting Poldark Mine on the Lizard peninsula or walking through “Poldark Land”, which is the new name for the filming locations across the Duchy which feature in the TV adaptation. You can buy the books, the DVDs, the colouring books, mugs with Ross and Demelza’s mugs on them (sorry Ross and Demelza), an “official Poldark merchandise safety letter opener with Ross on Horse”, key rings (“Ross on Horse” or “Ross on the Harbour”), there’s even an – ahem – “Sexy Ross Poldark in Cornwall” t-shirt available. The less said about that the better…

But it’s clear that, with their typical entrepreneurial spirit, the people of Cornwall have made the most of the opportunities to encourage visitors to engage with the Poldark zeitgeist. And the Poldark fans are something to be reckoned with. Recently I was asked to be a contributor for a new BBC One South West programme, “The Books That Made Britain: The Cornish Coast”. The show is part of a national series, and the episode focussing on Cornwall features the works of various authors including Daphne du Maurier, Jack Clemo and the author of the Poldark series, Winston Graham. We filmed at Botallack in West Cornwall, near where my Cornish ancestors lived and worked before they emigrated to Australia to mine copper and gold in the 1800s.


Chris Packham and Sally Bell filming at Botallack, West Penwith, Cornwall

I was being interviewed by the TV presenter, naturalist, wildlife expert and campaigner, Chris Packham, about the influence the Poldark books had had on me and my decision to move to Cornwall from Australia ten years ago. Chris was charming and professional, interesting and interested in my connection with the Duchy. We sat on the cliffs looking down to the engine houses of The Crowns while kestrels flew in the background and Atlantic waves crashed obligingly. The next day I innocently tweeted a photo of Chris and me, making reference to the fact that we’d done some filming about the Poldark books.

The response was extraordinary. My twitter numbers tripled overnight with dozens of retweets and hundreds of likes all because of a simple Poldark hashtag. I’m sure the fact that the very popular host of the show retweeted it to his thousands of followers also contributed to this but it was nonetheless an extraordinary response to what I thought had been a pretty low-key event. Thrillingly, I even had a “like” from Robin Ellis, the original Ross Poldark in the 1970s adaptation, who also had a role in the new series. I now understand the passion that Poldark fans have for both the books and the TV programmes; I can’t even begin to imagine how the actors’ lives have changed as a result of the interest in their characters. And with twelve books in Winston Graham’s series and a third series in the TV adaptation just announced, the fans have got a lot more to look forward to.

My experience of Poldark began when I made my first family history research trip to Cornwall 15 years ago. A friend suggested that I might like the books – or the original 1970s TV adaptation, but when I got back to Australia, the VHS (yes readers, it was a long time ago) series was too expensive and I couldn’t find the books anywhere. Until a day when I was again, researching family history, this time in a small mining village in country Victoria near to where my Cornish family had settled. I was browsing in an antique shop, but couldn’t find anything I was interested in and was about to walk out. Just then, it was almost as if an unknown voice said, “Look up!” I turned, looked up, and there at the top of a dusty old bookshelf were the first 10 Poldark books. I bought all of them, and they’ve now made their way with me to the South West.  Reading them gave me a sense of connection to not just the story and the characters but even more importantly to the landscape where my family had come from.  And who knows what made me look up in that shop… maybe it was Winston Graham’s spirit calling out to me, or maybe I’ve been swept away with the romanticism of his novels, either way I’m looking forward to Sunday nights in September.


At a glance:

“Poldark” returns to BBC One on 4 September, 2016.

“The Books That Made Britain: The Cornish Coast” will be shown on BBC One South West on 16 October, 2016.

Cornish Mining World Heritage Site www.cornish-mining.org

Botallack www.nationaltrust.org.uk/botallack

Visit Cornwall www.visitcornwall.com

Poldark on the BBC www.bbc.co.uk/programmes

Mammoth Screen www.mammothscreen.com/mammoth-productions/poldark/


© Sally Bell 2016

Originally published in Cornwall Today