Jack Farthing’s Sir George Warleggan is the obvious villain in Poldark, and he brings his share of villainy to this final season of the series. But for Farthing, Sir George’s complicated response to personal trauma has lent his portrayal a surprising human layer that the actor reveals in a new interview.
Jace Lacob I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
Despite his recent knighthood, — the attainment of the elevated social status he’s struggled so long to achieve — Sir George Warleggan hasn’t had the easiest widowerhood.
George Your mother would be most aggrieved to think of you neglecting your studies.
Valentine But, I haven’t…
George Am I not correct, dear?
Elizabeth We certainly want no dunces here!
Jace In his grief-stricken mind, Sir George isn’t a widower. Elizabeth seems to be alive and well, offering loving commentary that only he can hear. Which, of course, leads George’s Uncle Cary to forcibly imprison his nephew in his home, under the care of a doctor with, er, dubious methods of medical remedy.
Dr. Penrose These will relieve the melancholic congestion of the brain. Blistering will draw out the noxious humours. Bleeding will expunge the mephitic matter rioting in the bloodstream. And this decoction of lachryma papaveris will subdue the animal spirits which have seized the patient in their grip.
Jace Naturally, Sir George escapes, and the bereaved banker roams the Cornish countryside in his nightgown, chancing upon his suspiciously-curly haired first child and his worst enemy behaving like father and son.
Valentine May I visit you again?
Ross If you like.
Jace Poldark star Jack Farthing knows George has never been the most beloved element of this series. But as he explains in a new interview here, George’s innate complications are part of the reason his character works so well.
Jace And this week we are joined by Poldark star Jack Farthing. Welcome.
Jack Hi. Thanks for having me.
Jace Season five of Poldark is a rare beast in that it’s not directly based on one of Winston Graham’s novels, but is a creation of writer Debbie Horsfield who’s sort of set it between two novels. What did you make of the final season and how does it feel like a different beast to what’s come before?
Jack Yeah I think you’re right. I think it definitely does feel like a different beast I think. I mean you know Debbie and Winston I think have kind of become one over the years. I think Winston Graham’s son Andrew Graham would be the first to say that I think what she’s done in terms of stepping into his head and into his pen has been you know amazing. And so you know I think it’s very much within his frames of reference and within his world and within his aims and ambitions for the characters. But it has got Debbie Horsfield’s something else. And I think what it’s allowed everyone who makes the show to do is to bring it into now I guess and add a few extra things that people might add when they’re making a show now. It allowed Debbie to be creative in a different way. And it’s allowed her to stretch the characters more than Winston Graham perhaps did
Jace Season four ended rather traumatically for George Warleggan with the death of Elizabeth. His words to Ross in this week’s episode make it seem as though he does harbor some responsibility for her premature death.
George I believe we’ve exhausted this subject. Why would I wish to revisit it?
Ross Because we both know it’s what his mother would want.
George Oh we both know, do we? What do you know of my wife? You were nothing to her. An irrelevance. And to me.
Ross So that night – when you said “See what we have brought her to?” What did you mean?
George That we had been the death of her. Between your inability to let her go, and my unfounded suspicions, we hounded her to an early grave. I take my share of the blame. Take yours.
Jack Does he feel an innate sense of guilt that he and Ross “hounded her to an early grave”?
Jack I think he does as much as he’s loath to admit it. You know I think I think the blame moves around. But yeah in that particular scene he is pushed into an admission that he might otherwise never have made. It’s a really interesting scene and it was an interesting one to kind of wrestle with when we were playing it because it’s one of those trigger moments. But yeah I think he does feel guilt. I think there’s stuff still to come which you won’t have seen yet where that’s probably made a bit more explicit but I think he’s not blind to the fact that he bears some responsibility.
Jace And there is a lot contained within that small confrontation scene with Ross. These two men will never be friends. But is there a sense that perhaps they’ve finally grown up in a way.
Jack I think there’s definitely been some growing up. Yeah I think they’ve been growing up over the years. But I think this year particularly they have for sure. And I think there is definitely something that I was interested in. But you know with the idea that they do now share something inescapable which is grief the loss of Elizabeth you know Ross is grieving in a different way to George but he’s grieving and they loved this woman deeply in their own different ways. And she’s now gone and they share that whether they like it or not. And I think Ross in a way is almost more prepared to admit that than George is. But there’s no doubt that their relationship has a different flavor this year and that will continue as the series goes on you’ll see. I think there’s lot of surprising stuff between them as well as lots of stuff that we’ve kind of come to expect.
Jace At first George seems to exude a rather eerie calm given that he’s lost his wife but it quickly becomes clear that he’s suffering immensely internally. What did you make of his inward reaction to Elizabeth’s death and is it in keeping with George’s larger issues with control, to put it mildly?
Jack Yes I think you’ve totally hit the nail on the head to be honest. I think I thought a lot about this. You know there’s a way we have a man who has built a life around him that is very tightly organized constructed held in place and his power comes from his control of the environment around him. And when that is taken away I think he wobbles in every sense. I mean it felt totally in keeping really with who he is. he’s pretending his whole life is pretending. And you know I think those kind of people are very close to the edge. And when something as seismic is as you know the loss of a loved one hits then the effects I think can be dramatic. And you know this wasn’t a time when you would you know like we do now share your feelings talk about how you feel about things you know that wasn’t the kind of therapy that we are privileged to have these days. So I think people were very highly carbonated bottles. And he is a particularly carbonated one.
Jace You mentioned triggers earlier Valentine brings Georgia and miniature portrait of Elizabeth to which he reacts viscerally.
Valentine Papa, look what I found.
George Take it away.
Valentine But papa…
George Take it away!
Jace Does this single moment somehow trigger his descent into what we’ll call madness?
Jack It’s a question that we were wrestling with and Debbie and I spoke lots. About this journey that he goes on in his grief and the short answer is yes. Debbie clearly wanted to find some moments that were too much, that tipped him over the edge. It’s what we were saying before about control. George I think up until that moment where Valentine brings him the picture has been living in a very tightly controlled aftermath where pictures of Elizabeth covered up people on allowed to mention her name and he’s just blindly walking through the rest of his life getting on with his work being as prolific as ever. But you know obviously avoiding and denying suddenly then his son brings him the image of his face that he’s been avoiding. And it sort of you know strikes through him in a way that he was totally totally blindsided by it. You know the last thing he’s expecting his mind is somewhere else. And so yeah that we did see that as a kind of trigger and in as I stood before as well that scene with Ross later is a kind of trigger. And I think Debbie in particular liked the idea that we were coming in and out of George’s kind of complicated grief that he was on the one hand able to conduct himself normally. But then on the other hand he was equally likely just to slip into something much much more complicated.
Jace As Sir George loses his grip on reality he begins to experience both auditory and visual hallucinations of Elizabeth. What did you make of these manifestations when you first read the scripts for this season and do you see Elizabeth here fulfilling the role of manifestation of George’s conscience?
Jack Well yeah to take the second part first definitely I think that’s right. Then I think later that will become more and more clear. I think you know I think towards the end of their marriage Elizabeth was a voice that George was really listening to. She they had become a team. They were working very well together and Elizabeth knew a huge amount more than George about some aspects of their life and business and and he relied on her hugely. So yeah she was a conscience and she was also an adviser.
Elizabeth Rewards are never guaranteed. And how well do you know this man? Can he be trusted?
George Can he be trusted?
George My uncle will say we have proceeded with all care and due diligence.
Ralph Of whom are we speaking?
Elizabeth But is this something Ross would entertain?
George Do I care what Ross would entertain? Have I not a mind of my own?
Jack And I as you say I don’t think the loss of her physically means the loss of that voice. So that felt really right to me in terms of. Yeah. I mean I love it. You know it’s obviously a quite a kind of cinematic televisual device because you can see this person and it worked very well it’s very striking and interesting and immediate. But you know it’s also very normal from the research that I did. You know it’s something that up to 60 percent of people who who experience grief have some kind of continued contact with the person who’s gone, be that touch, smell, sight, sound, and you know it doesn’t mean that someone’s going mad if they if they suddenly see their loved one who no longer they it’s it’s a totally normal response. And so I was quite keen to try and normalize those hallucinatory experiences which I think Debbie’s done well and they’re just like conversations you know he’s just having a conversation with someone. So I think they’re lovely. I think there’s something quite moving about them and you really see George’s frailty at a time when he totally can’t see it because he’s somewhere else.
Jace George maintains that Ross was nothing to Elizabeth an irrelevance but this week he actually hallucinated Ross and Elizabeth together mocking him.
Elizabeth Oh George, what are you doing? How will that serve any of us?
George It will serve me – to be rid of that – thief…
Cary Put the pistol down George.
Ross Compose yourself, George. What have I stolen? She was never yours to begin with.
Cary George. George. It is me. Nephew it is your Uncle. Listen to me!
Ross I pity you, but there it is.
George I don’t want your pity! I want you in hell!
Cary Nephew. Just put the pistol down. It’s me.
Ross That’ll be the day. You were always an atrocious shot!
Jace Is this George’s greatest fear made flesh?
Jack Yeah I think probably in a word. there’s no way that that George has ever escaped the connection between Ross and Elizabeth as much as he tries as much as he knows that Elizabeth is now his and Ross is out of the picture. You know that that was so formative for the both of them and George knows that. and it’s the kind of you know the thorn in his side that will he’ll never be able to get get rid of. and we kind of saw that as more as a kind of waking dream. That’s how we how I made sense of it anyway as opposed to a hallucination like the others because it kind of you know there are these people will talk about the people having visions just as they wake up or just as they go to sleep. That is a recognized thing and and it kind of gave Debbie a bit more freedom. I said not just having Elizabeth but bring something a bit more dramatic in. And so yeah I think you’re actually right. I think what what she’s doing there is is physicalizing his greatest sort of unspoken fear.
Jace I mean the pistol scene in particular is a sobering one not just because it depicts how far gone George is but he actually nearly kills Cary when he fires the pistol. What do you make of his condition and how deeply Is it connected not just to his grief but to this overwhelming isolation he’s found himself in.
Jack Yeah that’s interesting. I mean I think that definitely plays a part. I mean it’s obviously what people would call now. Something like complicated grief. I mean we didn’t want it to you know he’s he’s really fundamentally he’s grieving. His world has been shattered and flipped upside down. He doesn’t have a rudder anymore. Everything that he lived for is gone. And you know if anyone was in any doubt of his true feelings for Elizabeth they can’t be now. It was everything. And suddenly he is left in the world with these two children one of whom is an infant. He doesn’t know what to do with the other whom the other is Valentine which obviously that’s just a long and complicated relationship with. So yeah he’s on his own. And I think that has a massive impact. But really yeah he’s just he is just thunderstruck by the lack of the sudden traumatic lack of. And it’s kind of PTSD in a way you know it was so shocking and quick and unexpected and came it came at a time when he had suddenly been given everything. You know another child a knighthood. You know but everything was back with his relationship with Elizabeth and then suddenly she’s gone she’s taken away from him. And I think it it just has traumatized him really. In a word.
Jace I mean the George and Elizabeth scenes are filled with a lot of emotion and even tenderness more sort of emotion rather than rage than we typically see from George. I mean what was it like to allow George to fully embrace his sort of inner emotional life?
Jack I mean as an actor it’s lovely. My favorite bits over the last five years without a doubt have been showing the unexpected sides of George and building him up as one thing and then suddenly presenting something else. And Debbie and I I think both have just really relished in the opportunities to surprise the audience and keep them guessing so. So I love them. it’s a privilege for me to have the opportunity to to try and wrestle with scenes like that and and I’m thankful that they’re there.
Jace Before this next question, a quick word from a sponsors…
Jace It’s not before long that George is in the grip of what Dr. Penrose calls animal spirits among the ghastly treatments waiting for him are leeches. How challenging was it to shoot the leech scene and where those wriggling leeches real?
Jack Grim, they were grim. They were real. Thankfully they weren’t ever put on me. Yeah I’m sure we have done some some leeching around at some point in the past with Poldark. But with me that was somehow decided that they weren’t going to go on me. It was just gonna be just sort of as if they’d just taken them off me. I mean they are extraordinary things that any of you have seen them. They’re like they look like tiny little worms and then they feed on blood and they become like little thumbs. They swell up and they are just horrific. So I was happy to keep my distance to be honest but I was covered in all kind of leech lesions and and yeah and they were sort of purging so I was just vomiting the grim stuff. I mean it was horrid It was horrid. That whole all of that and that whole kind of sequence of of treatment as Penrose would call it was grim sitting in that bath for a long time was grim too.
Jace I mean this this is an episode that asks a lot from you not just emotionally and psychologically but physically. I mean the leeches the vomiting the ice baths I mean how physically demanding was this episode compared to four seasons of previous work on the show?
Jack Yeah. I’ve spent four years kind of standing very stiffly upright in a tight jacket and yeah. So I’ve never done anything really like this. It felt very very different but it was so nice. it was very freeing. And and it was you know I was liberated by the fact that this character is at the end of his tether and he is someone else you know he is behaving out of character whatever that is. So the kind of the ceiling was off I could go wherever I wanted really and just trust that this was you know a character cracking apart in a way. So it was lovely. It was liberating although you know running around the sort of cliffs in that little nightshirt was it was definitely cold. But you know as I said before it’s just so it’s really nice to be able to really explore a totally different side of someone especially you know after four years in the last series it felt like I was very lucky this year to be given those stories and and those challenges.
Jace The lunatic you see has lost all reason which is the essence of his humanity his unchanged and a malady can only be mastered by discipline and brutalizing. But George does escape his prison is his will to survive stronger than these punishments inflicted upon him.
Jack In that moment yes. Although we had lots of conversations as to where he’s running to. And if he’s running away you know in order to escape the world as much as he’s running away in order to escape that room. But but I think yeah I think I think in the short term his will to survive. Exactly. He is more powerful than than you know he hasn’t given up. He really hasn’t given up. He is just being traumatized physically emotionally by this doctor. And you know that is what the doctor is trying to do to be fair that is that was that those were their methods. But he needs to leave. And so he does without a thought without shoes without anything. He just he gets out of there. I mean.
Jace Which begs the question why does he run towards Nampara of all places. Is it random or is he somehow drawn there?
Jack I think he has to be drawn there. I think it’s a very interesting question. You know I didn’t want it to be random really because I feel like that under under serves it. I think it’s more interesting than that. So yeah I think he is drawn that he knows that there’s this burgeoning relationship between Ross and Valentine. He knows that Ross’s life is sort of continuing as normal while he’s falling apart and he’s drawn that and you know in series one in the first scene between George and Ross It all starts with George making an offering and making an offering of friendship really. That Ross rejects and that’s where it kind of that’s where we. That’s how we see the relationship again. And I think as Debbie has always said there is always a part of George that wants to be Ross’s friend that wants to reach out to him that that needs his praise or his admiration and and that you know they have this kind of strange inextricable link despite that total animosity. So I like the idea that he’s drawn there as a kind of last resort. You know just to see. And then what he sees is is devastating because he sort of sees Ross being a father figure and Valentine happy. And it’s too much.
Jace I mean that scene to me was beautiful he George becomes the ghost here he’s looking in the window at Nampara, as you say he sees Valentine with his quote other family and it is heartbreaking for him to see this sort of happy tableau in front of him. How much does that cut him to the quick and how much does that push him towards his next action?
Jack I think it does. I think I think it is. I think it is the driving force towards his next action. I mean I think you know he had to have been heading there. He you know he is he is totally somewhere else. He has run out of this house in a way that we’ve never seen him do anything like this before. But you know Valentine I guess represents one of the things the last things left that he has in this world. And then he sees him not he’s really in that moment he sees him as somebody else’s and all of that past history and and angst and trauma is brought back in an instant and he feels I guess useless he feels like there’s nothing for him in the world nobody needs him and you know what’s the what’s the next step. You know oblivion. I think this is his art you know I don’t think he’s necessarily making these decisions consciously but I think that’s where he’s being sent by his emotions.
Jace George stands on the edge of the cliff and it looks like he would have fallen to his death had Dwight not grabbed him.
George Why did you do that?
Dwight I thought you were about to fall.
George Would it matter?
Dwight: I wonder, would you allow me to accompany you back to Trenwith?
Jace Do you feel George intended suicide in that moment or is he as you say sort of so out of it that he would have perhaps just accidentally fallen?
Jack Well it’s a massive question and it’s something that we wrestled with a lot. And you know that scene went through a few different versions where that was more or less explicit. I think what we ended up was really nice because it’s sort of underwritten and very and it kind of leaves it up to everyone else. Yeah in my head the way that we ended up shooting it the way that it looks I think is that he is letting himself go and is pulled back. But you don’t want to come do want to come down too hard either side really because it’s nice to leave it to interpretation. But you know it’s in the air this this kind of ambiguity between exactly what was happening there. But I think yeah in my head it was the end for George.
Jace Were you surprised that given George is often villainous behavior that the audience might actually feel sympathetic towards him and his plight at this point in the series run?
Jack Was I surprised. I’m not sure I was surprised. I mean I’m always you know you’re hopeful and that’s what I was going for I guess in a way because you weren’t in that moment. You want you know human empathy to trump everything really. You know that whoever this man is when you see anyone in the world going through something like that and as vulnerable and as lost and as broken as he is you’d hope that there is a human twinge in us all that feels something and you know what I’ve always thought about George is however hatefully he behaves whatever he’s capable of doing. You know I hope that you always see that it’s really coming from a place of insecurity and vulnerability and a sort of lacking inside him. It’s not just you know inherent malice. He’s not just you know a baddie there’s more going on. And it’s the kind of vulnerability that we all feel from time to time. So I guess I was hopeful that people would would connect with it a bit and would allow him even if it’s just for a moment to kind of you know kind of tempt the empathy. It’s a question of how long it lasts isn’t it. Because You know as ever he’s just as capable as always behaving terribly well.
Jace In the broadest possible strokes, what can you tell us about where George’s storyline might be going before the end?
Jack He is obviously still at the end this episode in a in a very difficult place. The fact that Dwight now knows about it means that Dwight is in the picture whether or not anyone you know wants it or not. And yeah well I guess you know the presence of Dwight becomes a helpful one. I guess I can say that And George has still got a long way to go but he starts on that journey in the right direction again in time instead of the wrong direction and and sort of with the help of Dwight gets eventually gets back on his feet.
Jace Is there any chance that George and Ross might finally bury the hatchet. Other than in each other’s backs?
Jack I mean there’s always a chance, I don’t want to say too much but I will say that there’s definitely the scenes that Aidan and I had this year were some of them felt very different felt very new and interesting and as we’ve said they have a chemical reaction that is quite hard to avoid. But there’s new and different stuff that I think will be surprising.
Jace This is the final season of Poldark. What will you miss most about the production and of playing George Warleggan.
Jack I’m gonna miss so much. You know I have absolutely loved the last five years working on this show it’s been a massive part of my life and my career for sure for the last five years. I’ll miss the people I miss being right at the heart of a show that lets people watch and have a lot of love for and feeling part of the creative process for it as opposed to just a tiny little cog. So yeah I will miss it. I will miss him and I you know I obviously have spent a huge amount of time trying to work out who this guy is trying to make him real try and make him alive and authentic and convincing. And I’ll miss that process because I think he’s an interesting character and I’ve been very lucky to play him really. So yeah he’s horrible but I’ll miss him.
Jace Did you take anything with you from the set as a memento.
Jack I mean I did. I wish I’d sort of taken everything really George’s life is just so blingey and glamorous. You know if I could have opened a bag and swept everything in it would’ve been great. But I ended up for no good reason. Taking that beautifully fitted black suit tailcoat and britches I mean you know as I keep saying I don’t want earth I’m going to do with them but for some reason I felt like it was a meaningful memento. And it was made for me and I shot you know I shot almost all of this series in it because he’s grieving and in black and that’s so I love it. I absolutely love it. But I need to find I need to find something to do with that I can’t just you know sit in my cupboard as food for moths I need to I need to use it somehow.
Jace So not that Ebenezer Scrooge style nightgown then.
Jack Yeah. I mean no I was happy to leave that behind to be honest.
Jace If you had to describe the final Poldark episode in one word what would it be?
Jack That is not an easy question. I mean I don’t want to say satisfying because yes it’s not twee like that. I think it’s maybe rewarding I mean that’s a bit that’s pretty lame I think. But it’s difficult. I think you know it does tie things up but it’s also really interesting and it doesn’t totally tie things up and it’s unexpected. It’s all of those words. If I can put all of those words into one word which is not a word. If that’s the word I would choose.
Jace Jack Farthing thank you so very much.
Jack Thank you. My pleasure.
Jace For the last five seasons of Poldark, we’ve watched as Demelza Poldark transformed from a wayward street urchin into a dignified Lady of the Manor and wife of a Member of Parliament. But back at home, it’s all for naught: there’s only one true Queen of Nampara.
Prudie Right, Impudence, get up an’ whitewash yon wall ‘ee burnt! Tess smirks defiantly. An’ wipe that smirk off ‘fore this besom do!
Tess Cann’t help it, missis. Thinkin’ how I’d take a strap t’ee were I mistress ‘ere.
Prudie Thee? Mistress? ‘Ere?
Tess Stranger things ‘ave ‘app’d.
Jace Poldark star Beatie Edney, who portrays everyone’s favorite Cornish monarch, Prudie Paynter, joins the podcast next Sunday, October 20.
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