For the last five years, every season of Poldark has adapted at least one of Winston Graham’s original novels. For the fifth and final season, however, series creator and head writer Debbie Horsfield was forced to fill in a gap of 11 years between Graham’s book, The Angry Tide, and the next novel,’ The Stranger from the Sea. It’s a challenge she took to, and she explains what she learned in creating this season’s plot in a new interview here.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
This final season of Poldark begins not in Cornwall, but here in America.
Ross Colonel Despard. Ensign Poldark –
Ned I think you’ll find you’re Captain Poldark now! Stitch him up, Enys. His war’s not over yet!
Jace: Cannons explode, bodies fly and soldier Ross Poldark and his British compatriots in the American Revolution struggle to recover from a surprise attack.
Ross When we first knew him, he was
Dwight Headstrong, reckless…
Ross Impatient to right the wrongs of the world…
Dwight By whatever means.
Jace: We’re also introduced to the mercurial Colonel Ned Despard, whose short temper and insatiable thirst for justice will play a big role in moving the plot of this final season forward.
Ned Behave ourselves? Not attempt to clear my name? Ignore the rank corruption which put me here in the first place?
Jace For series creator and executive producer Debbie Horsfield, this fifth season of Poldark was a challenge of a new order. It’s the first season she’s written that isn’t a direct adaptation of one of Winston Graham’s original novels.
Debbie Horsfield: Andrew Graham has agreed that the method his father used was was increasingly to set his fiction against real historical events and to include real historical personages, and so I was very concious that I was in a way trying to follow in his footsteps there.
Jace We spoke with Horsfield about the opportunities within this season of Poldark, what viewers can expect before the series finale, and how it felt to say goodbye to Cornwall one final time.
Jace And this week we are joined by Poldark creator, executive producer and head writer, Debbie Horsfield. Welcome.
Jace There was speculation that the show might feature an 11 year time jump or steamroll through five more books, but instead you crafted a unique narrative for the season that’s removed from the Winston Graham novels. How did you thread the difficult needle that was the final season of Poldark?
Debbie Well it wasn’t completely removed from the Winston Graham novels, because you’re right there is an 11 year time jump between books seven and eight. But in book eight, Winston Graham does drop a lot of clues about things that happened in the in the intervening 11 years. And so as our starting point, I was decided to build on what he had left clues about. But also I guess the main thing was to look at where he left the characters at the end of book seven, and where we joined them again in book eight. And as an example, Ross at the end of book seven is an MP and a mine owner and has an estate in Cornwall, and then at beginning of book eight we see him on a special secret mission for the government in Portugal. So my question was, how did he get from being an MP to basically being a special agent? And there were a few clues that Winston Graham left, but it made me realize there was a lot of detail that we were able to fill in, and so that was my starting point — looking at what was going on in the two years following the end of book seven, so that takes us into the beginning of the 19th century. We are covering 1800 to 1802 and in the style of Winston Graham because he increasingly set his Poldark stories against actual historical events and used real historical characters. So I just began by looking at what was going on politically, culturally, historically and who the big personalities and figures were of that era, and started crafting a story around that.
Jace I mean, I love that entire notion that you’re filling in gaps, which to me is a very clever solution to a complex problem. I mean in terms of the plotting then, how did you set out to sort of track those developments that happened between those novels?
Debbie Well I looked at the clues that Winston Graham had left. So for instance obviously I’ve just described what what Ross’s overall journey was. But there were other clues like Dwight Enys, who you know was a local country doctor and then we we find him at the beginning of book eight, and he’s been summoned to London to treat King George III, and has somehow in the interim become an expert on mental health issues. And so there was another story to to chase through — how did he get to such a kind of eminent position? What were the clues I needed to pick up on? And I discovered Winston Graham mentions that he had decided to follow a more humane approach to treating mental illness instead of the really, really harsh and brutal treatments that were around. And historically there was a Dr. Pinell at an establishment just outside Paris who was dedicated to the more humane treatment. He was a real historical figure and Winston Graham just mentions in passing that Dwight had gone and studied with him for a while. So there again was a clue to to look at you know what his trajectory was.
Sam An’ here’s t’ th’ new century! What do it hold f’r’us?
Dwight The Royal College of Surgeons has invited me to join their ranks.
Caroline And their inaugural dinner in London.
Dwight Which Caroline has declined!
Caroline Horace prefers summer in Cornwall!
Debbie Similarly we learn what happens to some of the other characters Drake and more when are we we find out that they’ve more when a has eventually been able to overcome the trauma of her. Hideous marriage to Reverend Whitworth and is happily married eventually to Drake and they have have a child so it was really just picking up on those on those clues and chasing those storylines through. But I guess the the plotting of it really centred around how how Ross went from MP to special agent and what. Who were the characters that may have informed that journey. It was much easier than I thought it was going to be to try to trace Ross’s journey through that and to have him encounter real historical figures who who would fill in some of the gaps on that story.
Jace The conflation of the personal and the political, as you say, Ross’s transformation from MP to spy, the Napoleonic Wars, the abolition of slavery that seems to be a very Winston Graham proposition.
Debbie Yes, absolutely.
Jace What do you think he’d have made of your decisions here?
Debbie Look none of us can tell for certain. I worked very closely with his son, so his son Andrew is the closest we’re ever going to get to to know, and obviously we can’t know what he would have thought. But Andrew Graham has agreed that the method his father used was was increasingly to set his fiction against real historical events and to include real historical personages. And so I was very conscious that I was in a way trying to follow in his footsteps there.
Jace Was there ever a serious consideration that you might adapt the entirety of the final Poldark novels, starting with The Stranger From the Sea, or was that always going to be logistically impossible?
Debbie I don’t think we were ever going to be able to do 12 books in in five series. But we did realize when we came to a potential series five that we were faced with the issue of either not doing a series five at all, but that seemed a shame because everybody really wanted to do it, all the cast wanted to do it, or trying to, which was never really an option, trying to fit five books into eight episodes. And that was just not a goer. So we decided that the option that would work for everybody was to fill in some of the gaps because that then leaves open the possibility that some way down the line someone may do the rest of the books.
Jace This new season takes place in 1800.
Jace It’s a new century, a time of change and upheaval. Is this sense of looking forward and looking back in keeping with the underlying theme of this final season.
Debbie It is although it’s very it’s really quite forward looking actually because it’s providing the springboard for, which will eventually land Ross where we find him in book eight which is in his new role as a special agent. So in a way series five is about, yes it is certainly about tying up some of the things that that series four had left as loose ends. But there’s a very much a forward-looking sense that you know it is a new century. There are new challenges Ross Demelza. You know our main characters are facing a lot of fresh challenges and. In a way it is not. It’s not really looking backwards very much at all except to find resolution to things that were left hanging at the end of four.
Jace We begin not in 1800, however, but with a flashback to the battlefield of Virginia in 1781. We find a wounded Ross Poldark clinging to life, before he’s saved by Dwight Ennis and Ned Despard.
Ned They had no chance! By the time we arrived, it was all over.
Dwight Any other survivors?
Ned No none. And if you lose this one you’ll have me to answer to.
Dwight I’ll do my best, colonel.
Ned Stay with us, friend. You’re a mad fool but we need mad fools here!
Ross Colonel Despard. Ensign Poldark.
Ned I think you’ll find you’re Captain Poldark now! Stitch him up, Enys. His war’s not over yet!
Jace Why did you choose ultimately to begin the final season here in the past with these three?
Debbie Well I think because we were introducing a major new character in Colonel Edward Despard and we needed to make that link between him and Ross and obviously Dwight was there with with the two of them. And Dwight story also is very very much intertwined with Ned and Ross is so it just seemed an elegant way to remind the viewers of where we all began in Series One, Episode One because everything really that is the springboard for everything that happens in season five.
Jace There’s a sense too that this scene almost bookends the first scene of last year’s season finale which too was a flashback. Was that a deliberate choice in terms of the storytelling?
Debbie We only use flashbacks really inasmuch as they illustrate things that are going on in the present or things that may come to be important in the story.
Jace Where did the idea of using the real life Ned and Kitty Despard come from and are they intended to provide a mirror of sorts for Ross and Demelza?
Debbie Yeah. When I started researching you know the secret societies and thus the potential spying or secret service in the early 19th century, one of the things I discovered was that as I mentioned before the government was really cracking down on any political organizations making a lot of groups illegal even if they were simply set up just to just to seek better working conditions. As an example one of these groups has called the London Corresponding Society which was set up by a couple of workers to improve the lot of the working man but became associated with while in the mind of the government anyway a potential to be a seditious organization. So it was made illegal and I discovered that Colonel Edward Despard had been a member of this and I had no idea who this person was so I started researching him and when I when I researched I realized that he was quite extraordinarily like Ross himself inasmuch as they were both army men. They had both fought in the American War of Independence. They both had a really strong sense of social justice and compassion and care for their fellow men and the really incredible thing was both had married their servants and so I actually asked Andrew Graham, Winston Graham’s son, had his father even been aware of Ned Despard? And Andrew thought he hadn’t, but he certainly agreed that the parallels were really extraordinary and obviously without giving away the story. One of the things I wanted to use the character of Ned for was to in a way put provide a kind of salutary lesson for Ross sort of there but for the grace of God goes Ross as viewers will see as they watch the series. You know there is a while people can look up look it up online I suppose if they really want to but it doesn’t end well for Ned and one wouldn’t want it to end that way for Ross and so Ned provided the really useful parallel of how wrong it could have gone if Ross had continued down a certain road.
Jace That’s to put it mildly.
Jace Before this next question, let’s take a quick break to hear a word from our sponsors…
Jace Ned and Katherine Despard aren’t the only real life figures in this episode. We’ve got foiled assassin James Hadfield spymaster General William Wickham and well-connected magistrate Joseph Merceron, all appear here.
Debbie All real, yes absolutely. All real life characters fascinating characters.
Cary May I present Mr. Ralph Hanson Of the Mosquito Shore Mahogany Company?
George Mosquito Shore…?
Ralph Bay of Honduras, sir. In the West Indies.
George Ah – of course.
Ralph My daughter Cecily.
Jace Does having those historical figures within Poldark ground the action in a palpable way?
Debbie I think it does to an extent because in a sense you know one could be accused of you know of kind of fantasizing or making really extreme stories for the purposes of drama. But when you when you think for instance that on the day that James Hadfield attempted to assassinate the king it was the second assassination attempt that had happened that very day. And you wouldn’t dare make that up except it was actually the truth.
Jace I mean Ned’s return instantly causes change within the plot of the show.
Jace Ross and Demelza are separated due to Ross’s mission to save him. Ross and Dwight seem increasingly at odds over Ned. How would you describe Ned and his ability to say stir up unrest in his wake?
Debbie Well I think what I what I wanted to explore was the potential for a character who whose relationship with Ross we hadn’t really seen before because obviously Ross and Dwight are really close friends. They’re very closely aligned in all of the kind of beliefs and attitudes. I thought it would be interesting to see somebody that Ross actually. Looked up to even blindly so I wouldn’t go so far as to say hero worshipped. But certainly that it was somebody he he admired to the point of being blind to his faults because we haven’t really seen that in Ross before.
Ross Why did he wait so long?
Kitty At first we thought it was a mistake: to be falsely accused, imprisoned without trial? How could this be? Lately it seems as if there are dark forces at work. But Ned, he dislikes to ask for aid or favour.
Ross I recall! So – if I’m not mistook – he asks me to take on the government, the Crown, the Empire, the, the slave trade. Did I omit anything? What is your view?
Demelza That your mind is already made up?
Ross But you agree?
Demelza Dear Lord, Ross, why didn’t I marry an ordinary man?
Ross When do we leave?
Debbie And it was a really interesting area to explore and that puts a lot of stress on Dwight and Ross’s relationship and you learn as that as the story goes on that although Dwight like Ross totally shares Ned’s principles and his his sense of justice Dwight is less blinkered than Ross is and less eager to embrace all of the recklessness that comes with Ned. And you know Ross is pretty reckless himself so to create somebody who even tops that was was a was a pretty good challenge really.
Jace Meanwhile there is a little bit of jealousy going on on Dwight’s part regarding Ned. I love the fact that he visibly bristles when Ross says that Ned saved his life despite the fact that it’s Dwight surgical skills that actually did the trick.
Jace I mean what is happening to their dynamic with the insertion of of Ned?
Debbie Well as you say I think it’s it’s I’m trying to explore what it is like when somebody is blind to someone else’s fault and obviously he has in a sense not deliberately but he has come come between Dwight and Ross who always are on you know have an understanding and are really on the same wavelength. And I think it’s less that Dwight is is jealous of Ned and more that he fears that Ross is going to. Ross is right that the tendencies that Ross has already to be reckless and and to act before he thinks are going to be exacerbated by somebody who is even more reckless. And I think it’s it’s really fear for Ross that that Dwight is is feeling rather than jealousy of that their friendship has been you know his nose has been put out of joint because Ross is closer to Ned. I think it’s much more a case that he’s he’s anxious for Ross’ safety, actually.
Jace He has the temperament of a powder keg.
Debbie Yes right. Yes
Jace Powder kegs can explode, of course. For the history buffs among us that are listening, just how deeply will you be exploring the infamous Despard plot?
Debbie We do explore it and we see the consequences of it in episode six.
Jace I love the party scene in the Great Hall of Trenwith. Our good guys are assembled to raise a glass to Elizabeth, Francis, Aunt Agatha and to all who bear the Poldark name past and present. What was it like writing the scene knowing this might be the final time these characters will appear onscreen together?
Geoffrey Charles A toast. To this house. And to my mother, Elizabeth.
Ross To Elizabeth
All To Elizabeth!
Geoffrey Charles And to my father – and Aunt Agatha – and all who bear the Poldark name – past and present!
All To Poldarks past and present!
Demelza An’ to the king! Soon to be honoured by meeting Sir George!
Drake What’ve th’ king done t’ deserve it?
Debbie Well I try not to think about that. You know when I’m writing scenes you know looking back on season four for instance I can remember the afternoon when I knew that I’d got to the stage of the script where I would be writing Elizabeth’s death and I actually felt really really choked, and emotional because I knew that by the end of the day in fiction terms Elizabeth would be dead. And it’s I think there’s nothing really nothing came close to that but yes it is very. You do have a little lump in the throat. Sometimes when you think this is the last time we’ll have to shoot in this location or this is the last time we’ll we’ll ever have those characters together in one room because you know it has been our lives all of us. I mean for me for seven years and that’s a big chunk of of anyone’s life. And it has been the most amazing journey for us all.
Jace The spirit of Elizabeth Warleggan hangs uneasily over the proceedings of this episode staring down from her portrait or turning up in George’s imagination. Was it intentional to craft a ghost story of sorts here that George and others might be haunted by the past either figuratively or literally?
Debbie Well I think really it’s George’s story. I mean George is the only person that begins to imagine that he sees her obviously Geoffrey Charles it’s his mother that he’s lost and so he is still very affected by that. But really it’s George’s grief that we’re focusing on and that is also part of the Dwight and his mental health story as as the series goes on. But yeah I mean I don’t want to exaggerate the impact that Elizabeth’s loss has on anybody else because to be to be honest pretty much everybody else has processed it and without being too cavalier about it they all they have moved on it’s just Valentine obviously. And and Geoffrey Charles and George who are really still suffering.
Jace It’s interesting because it’s Valentine who shows George the miniature portrait of Elizabeth and that moment is sort of talismanic.
Valentine Papa, look what I found.
George Take it away.
Valentine But papa…
George Take it away!
Jace It begins his descent into madness as he begins to hear and then see his dead wife. I mean what should viewers make of these manifestations of Elizabeth and what should we be asking about George’s sanity at this point in the season?
Debbie Well I took as my my kind of starting point the the clues that Winston Graham wrote about George being quite severely unsettled by Elizabeth’s death. Winston Graham writes that he was so kind of discombobulated by it that he he was on the verge of making a couple of really unsound business decisions that he had to be saved from from by his Uncle Cary and again in The Stranger From The Sea. Ross talks to Geoffrey Charles and said that he was. I mean I’m paraphrasing here but basically to the effect that he was surprised and he was taken aback by how badly George took Elizabeth’s death and that he Ross would never think quite so badly ever of George ever again because of that. So that was my starting point and I I think I wanted to see how that played itself out just exactly how affected George would be and there was also the opportunity I realized of showing a side to George that we hadn’t seen before because obviously George is not a very sympathetic character shall we say. There have been moments little chunks of you know Chinks rather of of vulnerability that we’ve seen but essentially he’s a hard hearted character and I really wanted to dig a little deeper and see because to me personally I think he he genuinely did love Elizabeth it wasn’t simply that she was a trophy to him. So I think when we first meet him he’s in complete denial. He’s acting as if you know it’s business as usual. Literally business as usual. And it’s only as you say when he sees Valentine. Show him the miniature that it’s as if he’s forcibly brought face to face with the thing that he loved and lost and that is when he begins to start to to fall apart. Basically.
Jace How thrilled were you to get Heida Reed to reprise her role as Elizabeth?
Debbie Oh it was great. I mean we talked about it at the end of season four. She had already agreed by the end of Season 4 that if those scenes were included in season 5 that she would come back. I think we all were very sorry that she was no longer in the series. And so there was no question when she heard that’s what the plan was that she agreed to come back.
Jace The Ross and Demelza a bedroom scene starts off with some teasing but becomes serious as Ross affirms, ’Nothing in my life has meaning without you.’
Demelza I pity Geoffrey Charles. The loss of his mother…
Ross He’ll recover – now he’s found a way forward.
Demelza Or at least, a distraction!
Ross Life must go forward. Nothing is constant.
Demelza Except me!
Ross Except you.
Demelza I think p’r’haps you do!
Ross Sometimes you give me grief!
Demelza Sometimes you give the like to me!
Ross But for better or, or for worse – in contentment or in strife – nothing in my life has meaning – without you.
Demelza Nor mine without you!
Ross And no matter what the future brings – and what may come between us – that you can rely on.
Jace Are these two on the most solid footing we’ve seen to date?
Debbie Yeah. And again that was that was something Winston Graham wrote in The Stranger From the Sea that they had had 10 or 11 years of of genuine connection and love and bondedness to each other so that the challenge of course when you realize that is that is the situation for them is to find dramatic situations that don’t pull them apart but have them facing those dramas together. So yes, the answer is they have reached a place where they fully value each other because they’ve obviously had some turbulent times. Up to this point they acknowledge their love and their connection to each other and they are very much a partnership going forward.
Jace What can you broadly tease about what viewers can expect this final season?
Debbie Well there is a lot of, as usual with Poldark, really. There is a lot of there’s a lot of drama and conflict. There are some big surprises. Things happen to some of our major characters that we won’t have seen before. Some of them endure things that will surprise people because we haven’t had a foretaste of that. And as usual there is a lot of adventure a lot of recklessness a lot of Ross diving in and doing things which had he thought about it more clearly, he probably wouldn’t have done and then dragging everybody else in with him. But yes, it’s a it’s a rollercoaster.
Jace Debbie Horsfield, thank you so very much.
Debbie Thank you.
Jace Coming up next on MASTERPIECE Studio, we reflect on the final season of The Durrells in Corfu, which airs for the next five weeks at 8 pm Eastern / 7 PM Central.
Louisa You won’t let him get in the way of the guests, will you.
Gerry The guest. England’s worst solicitor. So bad he’s been sent on holiday.
Louisa But there’ll be more.
Gerry Well they’d better be animal lovers, because I’m going ahead with my plan for a proper zoo here.
Jace: We’ll speak with The Durrells’ executive producer and head writer Simon Nye about putting a bow on his charming historical family comedy in a special bonus episode of the podcast, debuting tomorrow, September 30.
And next Sunday, October 6, we’ll speak with a special Poldark surprise guest — or are they just a figment of our imagination?
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
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