Catherine Despard was a real-life abolitionist and activist whose story is often ignored in the history books. That sense of responsibility gave actor Kerri McLean a real motivation in her performance as Kitty in this final season of Poldark.
Jace Lacob I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
Ross’ war-time buddy, Ned Despard, hasn’t been the most welcome addition to Cornwall this season. His rebellious, quick-to-anger attitude has left nearly everyone in his path on edge…or in danger.
Ross Hanson’s in Truro. I can’t know if he had a hand in Bannatine’s death – but I do know his presence here…
Ned Is unlikely to be for the good of his health! He’d be well advised to avoid me.
Ross And you, him! In fact you’d be well advised to avoid confrontation of any kind!
Ned So I should go to ground?
Ross Literally! Below grass!
Jace Ned’s elegant wife, Kitty, is a different kind of surprise for Cornwall at the dawn of the 19th century. A black woman, freed from slavery by her husband in the New World and now an active member of the growing abolitionist movement, Kitty is a force to be reckoned with.
Kitty My husband, before he freed me, bought me from a man named O’Hara.
Ralph O’Hara – ?
Kitty Your overseer? My mother begged him to sell me. Because she would not have you debauch me. I was twelve.
Jace Kitty is an anomaly in high and low society, stunning the elite and the poor alike by her very presence.
Demelza See? Not everyone’s as vile as they were at Vauxhall.
Kitty That’s because they think I’m your maid!
Jace That scripted sense of ‘otherness’ helped actor Kerri McLean find her way on the set of a drama in its fifth and final season, and give back a voice to the real life Catherine Despard.
Kerri McLean: I mean it’s a disgrace really that she’s been erased from the history books. I think I think she’s been erased for as much for being black as for being a woman.
Jace McLean joined us to talk Cornwall, the real-life Kitty, and whether Caroline Enys’ lingering jealousy has any basis in fact.
Jace And this week we are joined by Poldark star Kerri McLean. Welcome.
Kerri Hello Jace!
Jace Kitty Despard is of course based on real life historical figure Catherine Despard and she’s slowly revealed to be a woman of intense mettle. What did you make of the character initially?
Kerri Well when I first found out about Catherine I was quite surprised that she was actually knocking about in London toward the end of the 18th century. I couldn’t quite believe it. And I was quite surprised that I’d never heard of her as well. But as I did a little more and more research on her and read the scripts as they came in, I just thought wow what a woman. And I just got more and more into the character. She’s just such a formidable force and she’s determined. She’s strategic. She knows how to play the long game. And she’s got a really sort of strong good positive moral compass as well.
Jace I mean what is truly mad to me is that as a writer and a campaigner, Catherine Despard has all been erased from the history books. And what do you make of her erasure and what does it mean to you that you can give her back her voice and tell her story now?
Kerri Well I mean a means a lot. And it felt like quite a responsibility. I mean it’s a disgrace really that she’s been erased from the history books. I think I think she’s been erased for as much for being black as for being a woman. That period of time, to be highly educated and having letters published, having your words right out and in Parliament as a woman, as a black woman particularly it was unheard of. So it’s a disgrace really that she’s been erased from the history books. And it’s a shame because we don’t really know what happened to her. It’s very difficult to know what happened to Catherine afterwards. So for me as a performer I felt like I had been given an opportunity to play this character from history who was pretty much an unheard voice and I felt really a real honor to have the opportunity to play her. So I felt like I had to do a really good job.
Jace You came into Poldark in its final season. What was it like to come in as the new kid as it were, in joining the show in its final year?
Kerri Well I kind of quite lucky in a way in that I didn’t really know the show. I’d never really watched it. I didn’t really know anything about it so I didn’t know it was such a hugely popular show and I didn’t know what a huge following it had so I kind of had the usual nerves that everyone has when they start a new job. And obviously I didn’t know it was an existing show and I was coming into series five. So I was aware that you know I was a bit of a newbie but on my first day at the read through a I met quite a few new characters or a few new people who were playing new characters and they were new to set that kind of soften the blow a little bit but I didn’t feel too much pressure in that regard just because I was a little bit ignorant in that I didn’t know this show. I didn’t know the sort of audience what huge audience the show had.
Jace Poldark has always been a show that has trafficked in marriage as convenience or marriage for the sake of financial gain. But there’s a real sense here that Kitty and Ned, much like Ross and Demelza, married for love. What do you make of their marriage and their dynamic?
Kerri Their marriage certainly Is for love and I think that was one of the things that I really wanted to bring across in the performance was just they didn’t marry for convenience, they didn’t marry for wealth they didn’t marry to join two families together and for power they took the hardest option for those two to be in a mixed marriage. At the beginning of you know in 1800 that was so unheard of at those times and so yeah they didn’t they didn’t take the easy route. so that’s something we really try to with Vincent Regan who is my onscreen husband it was really about trying to keep that about them just keep the real love that those two have for each other so I’m hoping we’ve got that chemistry on screen and that was was what we were really going for and this this really interesting mirroring between Kitty and Ned and Demelza and Ross in terms of there’s quite a lot of parallels with their relationship and how they came to be with one another. How kind of the men in the relationship are quite headstrong and quite often end up going with their emotion and getting into trouble and it’s the women in both of the relationships that are quite strategic and know how to play the game a little bit more than theirs. I really like that mirroring in this series with those with the two couples.
Jace I mean I love the scene where Demelza learns that Kitty was Ned’s kitchen maid before she became his wife and she laughs which leads Kitty to become terribly offended.
Demelza So erm – your husband – he know’d mine…
Kitty In America. When yours came home, mine went on to fight on the Spanish Main – was much decorated – then made governor.
Demelza How – how did you – come to…?
Kitty Be his wife? I was his kitchen maid.
Demelza No. No. No I too! To Captain Poldark.
Jace Does that similarity in their past create an instant kinship between these two women?
Kerri Well I think I think in that scene the way that we played it was that I think Kitty is a bit unsure at first when she first hears it. I think she’s a bit like, ‘Oh? Really you were, you were the kitchen maid?’ but I think it certainly brings them together and I think they’ve got a lovely relationship and I think she trusts quite quickly because she’s happy for her husband to go get away with Kitty to London to go and help Ned. Pretty much straight away. So yeah there’s definitely an understanding between the two of them.
Jace Kitty’s speech in episode one gave me chills.
Kitty Ask yourselves – what is it that corrupts the milk of human kindness? Turns the just and tender-hearted into vile rapacious brutes? It is the single-minded pursuit of profit. How long can this continue? Do not our senses cry out for liberty, equality, brotherhood?
Jace How challenging of a moment was this to perform and what went through your head during this impassioned speech.
Kerri I think I was really lucky because the writing is so lovely in that speech. I think it’s just such lovely language and it’s so weighted and it’s got so much meaning to it. And I think for a woman who is an ex-slave to be talking to this community in England at that time, I loved it. I really loved playing that scene. It’s one of my favorite scenes. Yeah, I really enjoyed it and it was just it was really about connecting with the audience in a way that not to gross them out, but to bring those real hard facts home that this is where she’s come from. This is what has happened to her and just highlight the inequalities of that and how we can you know people cannot be treated as objects.
Jace I mean it’s one of those moments over the course of the series that proves that Kitty is a force to be reckoned with. Did you relish those moments throughout the season where the viewer gets to see Kitty’s innate strength and determination?
Kerri Oh certainly I mean I think it’s also just you know with Catherine Despard that like when you read about her historically she must’ve had a huge pair of balls. So I loved I love those moments. I loved playing those roles I loved the campaigning the fact that she was an activist that that the fact that she was going for reform in the UK. I think she’s a formidable woman. She was on I loved playing those parts and having the opportunity to play to such a strong woman, particularly a black woman in that era. And yeah I loved it, totally revelled in it.
Jace Well I mean it is still rare to see people of color in historical period dramas.
Jace Kitty’s race is essential, she’s a former slave who won her freedom. She became an abolitionist campaigner. And do you feel that her presence here is itself a necessary and progressive act to bring more diversity to period dramas?
Kerri Yeah I think it’s fantastic I think for me I mean I’ve been I’ve been acting for years and I’ve not really been called in for that many period dramas. So for me when this came in and I got the audition I was thrilled and just the opportunity to get to play in this era in an English drama was just fantastic. And the thing is I think I think if it was sort of colorblind casting which I think is a positive thing but it’s a very different thing from casting people casting characters that have a story to tell that is an unheard story and I think that’s really what this what Kitty’s role is is that she is one of those unheard voices from history that we get to hear. So I think I think it’s a really positive thing and I think it’s a great strategic move by Mammoth and by Debbie Horsfield to write Kitty into this. And I think it’s great. I think I think it’s all positive. I think it is because there were people around of color at that time. We know there was it’s just that they they’re not really written in generally. So I think it’s really important that we start to see see those faces hear those stories that come from those times.
Jace Kitty has some huge emotional beats throughout this season. I want to talk about a couple of them. She confronts Ralph Hanson, her would-be-rapist.
Kitty My husband, before he freed me, bought me from a man named O’Hara.
Ralph O’Hara – ?
Kitty Your overseer? My mother begged him to sell me. Because she would not have you debauch me. I was twelve.
Jace It’s a horrific moment that speaks to just how evil Hanson is. What did you make of this rather enormous reveal?
Kerri Absolutely it’s it’s huge. And it changed quite a lot actually that scene was actually many sort of separate scenes and we ended up actually it turned into one huge long scene which towards the end of it is where I come face to face with with Ralph you know it’s actually quite short in terms of what we say with the weight of it is just horrendous absolutely horrendous. It’s an awful moment but it’s it’s it’s also I think it’s really brave actually of Debbie to have put that in there. And to you know go back to the days of slavery when you know Kitty was a slave or certainly the daughter of a slave at that time and probably about to go or be sold as an adult into slavery or what was cast as not all those times. And so I think it’s really it’s a it’s a really positive. I think it’s a really positive thing but it’s definitely completely in your face and and quite brave I think for it to have been written in that way.
Jace Ned is ultimately found guilty and sentenced to not only execution by hanging but the most gruesome death I’ve ever heard of involving being drawn and quartered in his bowels thrown into a fire. It’s more than Kitty can bear. What did you make of the verdict when you first read the scripts for this season and how things would play out for Kitty and Ned?
Kerri We didn’t have episode six till quite a few quite a way into filming. So I kind but I I obviously in history I knew kind of knew what was going to happen and I didn’t think they were going to shy away from that. And so it wasn’t a surprise when I read the script because I kind of when we find anybody I need kind of that that was the way it was going to go because that’s what it was like in the history books. I mean it is just awful. I mean it’s not even that long ago to think that they were quartering people I mean Ned doesn’t actually get quartered in the end but it’s just it’s so hideous is it’s astonishing to think that kind of stuff was done even then. Yeah, awful.
Jace The scene between Kitty and Ned in the cell is beautiful. They’re they’re bathed in the soft glow of the light from the barred window.
Kitty That first day you arrived at the Bay, you had a button loose.
Ned I asked you to mend it.
Kitty And afterwards, you asked me what you could do for me in return.
Ned And you laughed and said…
Kitty “Mend the world!”
Ned “I fear that’s too great a task”!
Kitty But you did mend the world. For so many of us. And for me especially.
Ned And now I must quit the world! Wishing I could leave you a better legacy.
Kitty But you have left me the best. Here.
Jace How difficult of a sequence was this to get right and what went into the filming of this.
Kerri t is actually beautifully written scene so that really helped. We didn’t shoot it that many times actually. We only shot it a few times each way with cameras on different sides of states. Only the two of us. It’s quite small space. So it was really about Vince and I just feeling it in the moment. You know it was a comedy describe it any better not because it’s it’s such an emotional scene it’s so you know to say goodbye and to deliver that information. It was so powerful but it was one of those things like we just sort of had to be 100 percent in the moment. Else it never would’ve worked for the audience because they would just know that we weren’t there.
Jace The line where Kitty talks about mending the world and her first meeting with Ned is at such odds with the darkness about with what’s about to come. Is this a true testament to the love that they shared a first meeting that involve nothing more than a loose button?
Kerri I think it is testament but I think it’s also that thing of you know that subtext of. It’s so awful what’s about to happen and they both know it and I think it’s them kind of making light of it in a way in light of it. But keeping a lightness to it because the alternative is to just close your eyes out and blood and blood and blood. But then they know they know they’re not going to they’re not gonna hold each other again. They know they’re not going to spend a night together again. I think that’s how Debbie’s written. I think that was her feeling for it was just sort of. It’s that coping mechanism almost of if we talk about this and keep the lightness of this and she’s picking fluff off his jacket and making sure that he looks smart to go and do this thing. She wants him to go in a dignified way. And if you sort of collapse in floods of tears, you sort of drop the ball and the dignity is gone and I think that I don’t think these two people are a dignified couple. So I think that’s what I think for me that’s what a lot of that was about.
Jace: Before this next question, a quick word from our sponsors…
Jace The real life Catherine Despard had a hand in writing Edward Despard’s speech that he gives before his execution.
Ned Fellow citizens, I come here having served my country faithfully for thirty years, to suffer death for a crime I did not commit. His Majesty’s ministers know I’m innocent yet they choose to destroy a man because he’s been a friend to truth, liberty and justice. Nonetheless, I hope that falsehood, greed and tyranny will be vanquished and this nation, which I have loved, will one day be a beacon of democracy, freedom, justice and humanity.
Jace Is this speech the culmination of everything they believed in — democracy, freedom, justice and humanity?
Kerri I think it is. Yeah I certainly think it is and I think if you look at Catherine and what she then goes on to do after her husband has been pretty much murdered by the state she then goes on to have an enormous hand in prison reform in the UK. I think that those actions show that that is definitely something she lives by. So I think that yeah I think it I think it definitely is a part of what she stands for and she’s seen it. You know I think that’s the thing with those two. They’ve they’ve been in Honduras. They’ve Ned has, as his position of Governor of Honduras. He has managed to divvy out land and create a fairly equal, fair society between, you know, merchants overseers blacks slaves, ex-slaves and he’s divvied up the land and it they’ve seen how equality can work. They’ve seen how people can live in harmony. And I think having seen that and then coming over to the UK and seeing the inequality over here that it’s not it’s not just a case of Catherine lives by this. She’s seen evidence of how it can work. And I think that’s you know that’s I think what drives her forward and allows it to keep moving as an activist to keep fighting because she wants justice.
Jace This week’s episode shows Kitty in full campaigner mode trying to quote bring a monster to justice. How does Ned’s death spur her towards action towards correcting institutionalized barbarism as it applies to the treatment of prisoners?
Kerri I think there’s two things going on. I think it spurs on in and because she’s seen it firsthand and she’s been documenting it for you know nearly two years I think by that point she has been documenting the conditions she has seen torture. She has seen inmates being literally injected with smallpox. She’s seen inmates literally sleeping with rats running over them and she knows that’s not right. I think his death sort of drives her to bring Merceron into account. But I think also what’s going on. Certainly I mean I can’t speak for Katherine Despard through an historical figure because I just I just don’t know but I think certainly in the world of Poldark for me as an actor and and trying to make sense of this character’s journey I think there is also that thing of. Rather than really grieving which I don’t think Kathryn does in an after Ned’s death she isn’t grieving properly and instead of grieving she’s channelling all of that emotion, she’s channeling it into activism. And I’ve seen that in real life happen and quite a few times I think I think it happens quite a lot. It’s kind of a way of diverting away from having to deal with that.
Jace I mean how how dangerous a position is this for Kitty to go so publicly against Merceron and cold baths prison at hand out leaflets calling for an investigation.
Kerri It’s huge. I mean she and she knows that she definitely knows that. I think she also feels like she’s got nothing to lose in a way. You know. She wants to bring Merceron to account and she knows that the mass ones have got hands in in in Ned’s death as well so she’s she’s kind of got that incentive to do that. And she she’s very she’s very aware of how she’s kind of walking the line with this. You know she could easily. They’ve they’ve done Ned over and you know they could set things up to take her down as well but she goes for anyway. She’s rather bold.
Jace But she is the tension between Kitty Caroline and Dwight comes to a head this week. You can feel the heat coming off of Caroline in that breakfast scene in particular.
Kitty: Oh! Please excuse me.
Dwight You’ve not slept?
Kitty So many letters to write!
Caroline Some tea?
Kitty I thank you.
Dwight As your physician let me urge you to resist the temptation to over-exert. And as your friend – let me ask you to consider your future.
Kitty My future?
Dwight When your child is born, how will you live? Where will you live? I know I speak for Caroline when I say you will always have a home with us.
Caroline For, for as long as you wish.
Jace How aware is Kitty about her effect on the Enys’ marriage? Have you considered that it is you who is getting too close. Caroline asked Dwight which Kitty overhears. Is she seems to realize maybe in that in that moment that her presence is doing more harm than good is it that moment when she decides to return to Jamaica or is it Horace’s poisoning at Kilwarren. what spurs her to to leave Britain?
Kerri I think when it’s brought to her attention that she is getting in the way and that she may have even if maybe subconsciously overstepped the mark. I think certainly for Katie that is the line of the last thing she ever wanted to do and it was never something she was consciously trying to do. So I think for her it’s a. It’s part of the reason why she she wants to leave. But I think there’s there’s other forces at work as well. I think once she knows that she’s done as much as she can to bring the mass ones down. I think for her it’s she doesn’t want to stay in the UK because I think for her she’s feels like the UK is it’s cool. She has taken her husband and I and I don’t think she wants to stay in the UK because you know has her son. He’s out in France and at that time she’s I don’t think she’s got a reason to stay. So I think she wants to go home so I think you know this they’re the sort of triangle route with Caroline and Dwight is a part of it but I think I think the end is much bigger factors there too. Ah ah ah. As important as that mate that drive her to make the decision to go.
Jace What did you make of the fact that Kitty leaves England not alone but with Cecily the daughter of Ralph Hanson, her enemy. Is there a message of hope that’s embedded in the image of these two as traveling companions?
Kerri Yeah I think there is. You know I think there is that thing as well of that both for the time. They’re both quite independent women because both of them are going it alone which within itself for that period of time for women to be traveling on a name is quite unusual. You know and Cecily also has kind of stripped herself away from her father. And so yeah I think it’s completely weighted in how you think it is about new futures and I think it’s about. Like women carving out what their future can be and make and making a future that they decide. So I think it’s got you know that’s quite strong message.
Jace Along those lines Kitty says, ‘I shall not be alone.’ How significant is it that Kitty is pregnant that a new generation might change things for the better. Might achieve what Ned could not?
Kerri I think it’s really poignant. I can completely see why Debbie Debbie did it. I can see why she wrote it in there. I think it’s it’s lovely and it is it is that is that new generation is that new hope. And it’s that sense of. Ned living on and Ned’s legacy living on and his ideas living on as well. So yeah I think it’s a lovely thing that we know that she’s going with child. And also it’s kind of against the odds as well because we think she you know she’s had so many miscarriages. You know she has these scenes earlier on where she doesn’t want to tell Ned and she talks to Dwight and and demands her about it and she doesn’t she doesn’t want to get his hopes up. So we kind of thing. Oh she’s probably going to lose the baby but she hasn’t. And I think it’s a really lovely it’s a lovely goodbye for the audience to kind of see her going and know that she’s she’s got kind of going to be okay. And it feels like a justice there feels. I think I think as an audience it must feel quite quite warming to know that she you know we’re not thinking she’s going to go when she might leave the baby and we don’t know where she’s going to live it feels like there’s some there’s some closure there for her and that she’s got a future.
Jace It might not be a happy ending since no one is dead but it does feel as though there is hope for the future. It will be I think as you say she will be all right. Kitty’s goodbye with Dwight is uncharacteristically tender as he kisses her hands.
Dwight Merceron cannot touch you now. And we have all the evidence we need to bring him down.
Kitty Then do it. For my sake – and for Ned’s.
Dwight We will.
Jace What did you make of the way that Dwight and Kitty parted?
Kerri I think you’re right. I think it is but I think it was tender and I think they had quite a meeting of minds. I never think I never thought when I was playing her I never thought those two it was never physical in like a sexual chemistry sort of way. I think they admired one another. I think they respected one another and I think yeah it was it was their minds it was it was it was a meeting of minds. That’s what attracted to one to one another. And maybe that when you know there was a there’s a there’s a line that was crossed by both of them and you know which Caroline really picked up on. And I think I think it was. I think it’s the way it was read. It felt right when we did it on the boat when we performed it. It kind of it it felt apt and it didn’t feel like it was. You know it was too much and it was. It didn’t feel like it would be that would be awful and disrespectful to Caroline. It kind of it kind of felt it felt right. But you know there is a closeness between them and I think it was quite a big goodbye for them. I’m not sure if they can I don’t know. Maybe they will write to each other but I don’t know if they’re gonna see each other again.
Jace I think it is interesting because I think that meeting of the minds is what makes it so threatening to Caroline. This isn’t a sexual relationship. This isn’t an emotional affair it’s almost an intellectual affair that they have. And that is why I think Caroline is so sort of thrown by her presence. What is unsaid in that silent nod between Kitty and Demelza?
Kerri I think it’s an understanding nod but it’s also a huge thank you note. They’ve got such a connection you know they’ve got such you know very different journeys and very different places but they’ve got so much in common. So you know I think it is a thank you because you know things could have been different if she’d have you know in in episode one when Ross asks her. Is it OK for us to go to London and try and pursue this. You. Things could have been very different if she had put a foot down and said no. And I think I think that not you know. I think it’s the understanding between them these two women. They they understand one another. They recognize one another. I think they both recognize one another in each other. So I think I think it’s it’s that in that connection and they’ve got a love for each other as well. I think.
Jace Kerri McLean, thank you so very much.
Kerri Thank you for talking to me.
Jace After five incredible seasons, we’re finally here: the last episode of Poldark.
Demelza When I look in your face, I see a stranger.
Ross I will be a stranger if you choose to desert me!
Demelza Then become again the man you once were.
Ross That man no longer exists.
Demelza Then I must leave.
Jace We’ll bid Ross, Demelza, and company goodbye in a special interview with Poldark creator Debbie Horsfield following the November 17th broadcast of the series finale.
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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