Reposting: The Politics of ‘Poldark’


The smouldering cast of 2015’s BBC adaptation of ‘Poldark’

This post about the Politics of Poldark has proved consistently popular. Please note, this was originally written and posted in May 2015 after Season One and doesn’t deal with any later events in the show 

As with a great many of these sorts of things, I came to the 2015 adaptation of Winston Graham’s ‘Poldark’ novels late (i.e. after they had finished airing and we got them on DVD). I was not keen at first. “Oh good – another BBC costume drama about poncey aristos doing their best Colin Firth-impression” is not a phrase I’m likely to utter. However, I was delighted to be proved wrong. From early in the first episode, I was entranced. Not – in the way that apparently the middle aged cohort of Sunday night fantasists obsessed with Aidan Turner’s pecs are – but by the choice of subject at this particular juncture in political history. Brave does not begin to cover it. We’ve all heard the BBC criticised for bias – in Scotland for a pro-union stance, in England for its slavish adherence to Tory policy or for being the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’. I’ve always taken a neutral stance on this alleged bias – firstly, I’m sceptical that an organisation as Byzantine and disparate as the BBC is capable of maintaining a coherent party line (I struggle with believing in organisations to be that organised.) And, also, because I think if you’re being attacked for bias from all sides, then you’re probably on the right lines. But make no mistake – ‘Poldark’ is brave. In an age of austerity, with food bank usage topping 1 million people, ( for the nation’s broadcaster to produce an adaptation centred on a man of noble birth concerned with the survival of his workers to the extent that he will take on starving miners as farm hands and use his societal position to raise capital to put his people back to work is pretty ballsy.

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

The point of business is not just to make money is like a refrain for Ross Poldark and he outrages his contemporaries with this standpoint. He stands up for poachers and petitions not only the court for clemency, but also the owner of the pheasants, because of the context of the boy poacher’s circumstances. He is acutely aware of the hardships of subsistence living in his period for normal people. Poldark even tries to form what amounts to a Fairtrade workers’ collective to gain a fair price for the tin mined in the region. “I’m disgusted by my class,” he tells the lovely Demelza (another waif saved from a poor home life by Poldark at a time he can ill-afford to pay for another mouth to feed), “not all of them, but most.” In short, the character of Poldark is like a socialist hero of another age – one who actually believes that by working together we can all get richer. At a time when the top 1% are stretching away from the other 99% across the developed world, I can scarcely think of a more suitable hero than a man who is willing to see poverty and hardship as the result of circumstance rather than sloth and ingratitude and well done to the BBC (and Mammoth Screen who have undertaken the lavish production) for daring to offer the nation a compassionate hero – even if he does spends too long topless scything and staring out of the window in moody contemplation.

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark - a socialist hero?

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark – a socialist hero?

Revisiting… Mallrats (1995)

With Kevin Smith have recently taken to Twitter to confirm a sequel to this slacker comedy of the mid-90s, currently titled MallBrats, now seemed like an excellent opportunity to revisit the original for the second in a series of posts Revisiting works worthy of reconsideration.

Mallrats - Returning to the Mall at a cinema near you.

Mallrats – Returning to the Mall at a cinema near you.

The story follows a day in the life of two listless buddies in an unnamed American suburb, Brodie (played by Jason Lee in his first starring role after a career as a skate boarder) and TS – Jeremy London (before the legal difficulties).

The movie opens with these two “heroes” being dumped by their respective partners – Renee (Shannon Doherty in spikey form throwing off the Beverly Hills 90210 shackles) ditching Brodie for his total lack of drive or ambition and addiction to Sega ice hockey games (retro!) and Brandi (the picturesque Claire Forlani) ditching TS because his sage wisdom has lead to a girl dying in a freak swimming pool accident. The loveable idiots retreat to the mall where they indulge in sulking, introspection, discussion of the practicalities of comic book character sex and retail therapy.

Full disclosure: I’m a Kevin Smith fan. There are not many people I can actually write that about and I’m not blind to his faults – as a filmmaker or in any other area of his public life, but truth be told, I’ve drunk the Kevin Smith Kool Aid.

I am embarrassed to admit how many hours I have spent listening to him and Scott Mosier on Smodcast, or Smith and Ralph Garman on Hollywood Babble On, or Smith with guests on the Fat Man on Batman podcast or… You get the idea. I sincerely believe, that there is an argument to be made that Smith is, in fact, one of the most creative and important directors working today, for, for example, having shifted the expectation of how much ‘inside baseball’ you share with the audience, but that’s another article for another time.

But, one of the reasons for my fan-dom is that I have a penchant for art that tells stories and creates universes out of multiple parts. Knowing that the Rick Darris who Rene cheated on TS with is the same Darris who tells the ‘Finger Cuffs’ story in Chasing Amy is an ‘Easter Egg’ for the viewer which pleases. This is true in the Parlabane-era work of Christopher Brookmyre too, in writing, and I think is a gift for the careful audience member.

Either way, what is undeniable is that the movie was panned on release – Smith has spoken about this too in other sources. However, he has also said that he has lost count of the amount of people who say that Mallrats was their introduction to his work – the gateway drug to his other work like Chasing Amy or the other View Askew titles and this was certainly true for me. Like a great many people, I was introduced to this flick by friends (friends who bore a striking resemblance to Jay and Silent Bob (or maybe Cheech and Chong) truth be told) on home video and fell in love.

Rewatching it now, Mallrats definitely has the feel of an updated teen comedy like Porky’s for the Gen X’ers. Smith has written about this at some length (you can read the thoughts of the man himself here: and, on this level, the film really starts to make a lot of sense. In the credits, Smith thanks the two Johns – Landis and Hughes for inspiring and entertaining him as a teenager and it is clear that Mallrats was his attempt to make that kind of a film. But, you can see why it might not have connected with an audience that was – in that year alone – enjoying Get Shorty, and released in the year of Empire Records, Dangerous Minds and The Usual Suspects – the tone just didn’t fit for the times.

However, it has now found its niche and these days, is – I think – regarded with affection. I’m fairly certain that American Pie, the whole of Judd Apatow’s career and, even The Inbetweeners would not exist without Mallrats. Now, there’s a claim to juggle with.

It has some jokes that are still pretty solid within the genre – the carpet store in the mall called Rug Munchers, the intertextual references to The Godfather, Batman (Michael Keaton, not Christian ‘The Gruffalo’ Bale) and Jaws, as well as Smith’s usual litany of fast paced, whip smart characters all pondering at pace like dime store Sartres. The stink palm and the chocolate covered pretzels scarred a generation. There is also a great turn from Ben Affleck as the sleazy store manager. Affleck plays the unsympathetic role with a strutting insouciance and you realise what a big man he is when he goes toe-to-toe with Lee.

Interestingly, Affleck is also key to one of the scenes that does jar the viewer 20 years on. The scene where he attacks Lee in a corridor and explains his nefarious plan for Doherty has a gritty realism which actually makes the punches stark and aggressive. It really takes the audience aback, especially as mere moments before there have been comedic punches and kicks to the groin galore. It’s a shift which is uncomfortable.

There are other gripes, Jason Mewes is not as comfortable an actor here as he would go on to be, and some of the scenes have strange moments and pauses which I can’t help but think an editor as accomplished as Smith would now remove, but these are minor quibbles.

Smith has confirmed via Twitter, Instagram and the like, that the bulk of the cast have agreed to return, which is a huge boost. He’s also spoken about including the man of, like, 7 voices, Ralph Garman in the movie which is a massive boost for those of us who have marvelled at his dynamic performances and fury fuelled diatribes as point man on the tremendous Hollywood Babble On. The man will be a huge addition to the ensemble.

Mallrats shines on as movie which, if you have seen it, lives with you. I don’t know if it’s the simplistic tale of lovers spurned and returned or because no movie with a three-nippled fortune teller can be all bad, but it has a sweetness which resonates and which means that 20 years on, I think we’d all like to see what happened to Brodie, TS et al.

But, before you see the sequel, go back to mall – it’s worth it.

Train Ride

The 17:15 had one seat left. Tattered, and coloured in the paint factory explosion beloved of rail company liveries, it was tucked against the wall with an embarrassed air.

Tinny music leaked from cheap headphones seeping from behind her; an old woman tutted. A mother could be heard explaining why the train hadn’t moved. Two men in expensive suits spoke in incongruous accents about West Ham’s defeat.

Her shoes were off, balancing on the hardened edge of the seat. The must rose through her tights and she took off her glasses and massaged her temples in a clichéd pose.

She looked at the window. The smear of forehead grease, the nicks and scratches of countless tree branch scrapes and dashes. There was mould around the loosening putty of the frame and a creeping fog of condensation between the two glass sheets in need of replacement.

She scrabbled through the detritus of her bag for a book and she clutched at the bag as it nearly slipped, threatening to scatter tampons, lipstick, pocket book and purse onto the floor.

She heard the automatic door and began shuffling her feel, trying to tuck them back into her slip-ons.

He was tall. Tall, like he had to duck to move through the door, tall.

He raised an eyebrow of permission.

She opened her book at the same moment as the bells pinged. There was the three ring blast of closing doors and the train began to chug out of the station. She was self conscious now. He had wonderful eyes. She opened the chubby novel and shifted in her seat. She chanced a glance up from her page and saw this he was reading his newspaper, casually folded in on itself.

‘If it’s the Daily Mail, I’m giving up on men once and for all and visiting Sapphic island, that’s all there is to it’ she thought.

The newspaper was a curve ball. She had hoped for The Guardian – at best – at worst The Independent, if one really must take a newspaper fashioned in a dolls house. Obviously no one took The Times now it only came in comic size. But the International Herald Tribune was a surprising selection. American? Possibly.

The train ambled on. The motion not soothing enough for sleep, nor uncomfortable enough for complaint. She looked out the window. Darkness had drawn in whilst she’d been indulging her taste for amateur media analysis and now she was back to the harshness of her reflection, backlit by the firefly strength bulbs of the carriage.

She knew that he was watching her. Is it an animalistic, danger signal left over from prehistory that makes us sense being watched? Whatever, he was watching her so it would pay to check that her nose was clean and that her blouse hadn’t unwittingly fallen open.

She shuffled her eyes to the left and met his eyes in the reflection. They glistened even in the smudged reflection of the South Central service window.  She risked a look directly across at him. He still held her gaze. Smiled.

It was a good smile. Well judged. Not sleazy or louche nor honed and practiced to the point of confidence. His teeth were white enough to be attractive without speaking of masses of expensive cosmetic dental treatments and evenly spaced enough to be right, but not so regulation as to speak of teenage anguish and slurred sibilance.

She held his eye for a flirtatious fraction too long and went back to her book. When next she peeked up, he was sunk in his crossword. Yet she knew he was looking up too. A mating dance of apprentice peacocks. She wanted to fan herself like Elizabeth Bennett and be witty and coy, yet seductive at the same time. But wit, coyness and Jane Austen never feature highly on public transport so she, once again, returned to the novel.

As the adenoidal voice of the announcer gibbered the imminent arrival of the train into South Ruislip, she realized with horror that he was preparing to get up. He was fishing for his battered briefcase and pedantically clipped the lid back onto his fountain pen.

He caught her eye, stood and ducked as he moved through the panting of the automated door to wait for egress. Continuing on to West Ruislip, and the end of the line, she went back to her novel. From across the carriage, she watched the tall man bob his head as he walked briskly along the platform.

Idly, she reached across for the orphaned Herald Tribune which lay lazily folded on his still warm seat. She wondered how well he’d got on with the crossword. She frowned. He wasn’t as methodical as she’d have liked. Words were in the boxes but no clues had been scored through to denote completion. Very ill disciplined.

In the boxes, block capitals spaced evenly between horizontal and vertical, were the words:


Revisiting… Dream On

Revisiting… A new series of posts revisiting film and television shows worthy of attention

Revisiting… Dream On (1990)

As HBO was setting out to prove that it was not just television, (“It’s Not TV – It’s HBO”) the station that went on to dramatically shift the landscape of American media culture over the succeeding quarter of a century, commissioned Dream On as its earliest original series.

John Landis – best known for directing movies like The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London – asked Universal if he could take advantage of their catalogue of old movies it didn’t really know what to do with. They agreed and, in an entrepreneurial mood, David Crane and Martha Kaufman were hired to produce a show that could utilise these clips – Dream On was the result.

The series follows the ups and downs in the life of book editor Martin Tupper, played by Brian Benben. His life is variously disrupted, supported, scuppered and generally beset by his ex-wife Judith (Wendie Malick who you may recognise from another American sitcom Just Shoot Me where she played the predatory sex-crazed former model Nina Van Horn), his teenage son Jeremy (Chris Demetral), his charismatic talk show host best friend Eddie played by Dorien Wilson and his acerbic secretary Toby (played with fine bulldog force by Denny Dillon).

The show now stands out for the way in which it both set and broke established norms of television sitcoms. On the one hand, the dating disasters of a recently divorced single man in New York was hardly ground-breaking topical comedy and Benben spends a lot of time mugging for the camera in order to allow the clips to be fed into the screen time, like a live-action collection of Family Guy cut aways.

On the other, HBO pushed the fact that it was allowed to do things that the networks couldn’t – Look: nudity! – which also meant they could address issues outwith the perimeter of ordinary television fare – open about sex, for example, and willing to do an entire episode centred around Martin taking an AIDs test; pretty close to the knuckle 25 years ago. Four years later, Crane and Kaufman were responsible for the behemoth that was Friends, not a story line I can imagine attaching to the casual liaisons of Joey Tribbiani.

Dream On is not laugh out loud funny, it has to be admitted. Benben is a likeable lead – although whiny – but this aspect is addressed by the writers too. The classic movie clips are used to punctuate the emotional beats of the scenes, which can get wearying for the viewers.

But there is charm: in the performances and in the chance to see the forgotten oeuvre of Ronald Reagan, and to realise how much B-movie schlock Lee Marvin made. The show has dated too – there are a lot of pastel colours and the shoulder pads are a wonder of quarter century old engineering.

But, it has a classic opening sequence, “” which is actually the origin of the classic static opening for all later HBO shows and if, like me, you watched it as a child on late night Channel 4 in the UK, there is nostalgia for a time when kids were sat in front of the TV and told to be seen and not heard. A bit like the narrative of Martin himself, come to think about it.