Actor Heida Reed played Elizabeth in the first four seasons of Poldark, but her character’s early death in childbirth was a tragic ending to the fourth season. So her spectral appearance in Sir George Warleggan’s grief-stricken mind this season was a welcome surprise for Elizabeth’s fans. Reed joins the podcast to discuss how it felt to return to set as an idealized and imaginary Elizabeth.
Jace Lacob I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
When last we spoke with Heida Reed after Elizabeth Warleggan’s death at the end of Poldark’s fourth season, she pretended like a ghostly Elizabeth was entirely out of the question. Or did she?
Heida Reed: I don’t know if I can comment on that. I know nothing, I know nothing.
Jace Fortunately for us, Reed was only kidding. Elizabeth — and Heida Reed — is a constant and surprising presence on this season of the series.
George The investment is high – but, so, I’m told, are the rewards.
Elizabeth Oh, the rewards! Rewards are never guaranteed. And how well do you know this man? Can he be trusted?
Jace In his grief-stricken madness, the widowed George Warleggan is haunted by a ghostly Elizabeth who only he can see, serving as a reminder of his lost love.
Elizabeth Would you like me to do that, my dear? After all, it would not do to be late for the King when one is receiving a knighthood.
Jace This version of Elizabeth, a figment of her husband’s imagination, gives both viewers and George a chance to say goodbye to a complicated central character as this long-running series comes to a close. Reed joins us now to talk about how it felt to come back to set after her character’s untimely death, and what it meant to say goodbye again to Elizabeth and Poldark for good.
And this week we are joined by Poldark surprise star, Heida Reed. Welcome.
Heida Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Jace When you were told that despite being killed off last season Elizabeth Warleggan would be returning to Poldark, what were those conversations with Debbie Horsfield and the producers like?
Heida I feel like Debbie always had a plan for her to have some kind of place and in the last series. But I wasn’t like no one really knew until she wrote it and you know I didn’t have an option to do the fifth series anyway so it could have just evaporated. So I wasn’t sure until I think probably just a month or two before. So I you know they were there were no there wasn’t it wasn’t a done deal.
Jace I mean, when we sat down last time I asked, ‘We’ve seen that the dead can return on Poldark at least in flashbacks. Is there any chance you might be back in season five for another flashback?’ and your response was, ‘I don’t know if I can comment on that.’
Heida Oh yeah.
Jace Did you know then that you’d be back in some capacity?
Heida If I said that I probably had an idea. I think I was waiting around that time I think I was waiting to you know to be told you know we need we need you back for this. And I was hoping because it’s nice to be part of the whole thing. I mean I’m not entirely a part of the fifth season but to be able to say that you were in five is quite nice since you know, I was in it from the beginning.
Jace Well she is such as pivotal, important part of the show. Her death sort of hangs over things anyway. But I think having your presence on the show.
Jace In that kind of ghostly vision way, I think did bring things kind of full circle for that character.
Heida Yeah, I think it was just so so very nice for I mean not nice for George but nice for Jack in terms of like just getting quite a lot of interesting things to play with in that last season and just for people to really see the sort of human, fragile side of him and how much Elizabeth really meant to him, you know and how she was kind of his heart you know?
Caroline Which is worse? Burying a child, or leaving one behind? She did not deserve her fate.
Demelza Nor did her children.
Jace How did you approach this version of the character as Elizabeth herself, a ghost, a vision, a figment of George’s imagination, or something altogether different?
Heida I’ve never thought of it as a ghost. I remember I had a lot of people always say, ‘Oh you’re gonna come back as a ghost are you gonna come back as a ghost,’ or even when it happened, ‘Oh, Elizabeth is a ghost,’ but I’ve never thought of it that way. And I don’t think Debbie’s thought of it that way. I think it’s about George’s mental breakdown and his actual hallucinations.
Elizabeth George? Will you not say goodnight to your son?
George Thank you, Bessie. Goodnight, boy.
Valentine Good night, Papa
Heida He’s not dealing with the death of Elizabeth and he, in order to cope, he just he just sees her. So my approach to Elizabeth in those episodes were just the way that George would see her which would be you know perfect and warm and you know just whatever he needed it and in that time so there wasn’t much I’m kind of emotional background for me as the character because I was kind of. Approaching it from being a figment of his imagination, basically. You know ,it was all to serve his vision.
Jace I mean it in saying that she is the sort of sainted version of Elizabeth, she is on this pedestal. I mean what is the challenge then in playing someone else’s conception of a character you’ve played for four years?
Heida I think the way I approached it was just the sort of best bits of her this stuff because you know Elizabeth was very good at masks and very good at showing the world kind of what she wanted them to see. And so it was just that version and it was just kind of the best version of Elizabeth in a way you don’t get to see any of her fragility or weakness.
Jace She’s perfect in death.
Heida Of course. I mean I feel like we we put people on a pedestal whether they’re whether they’re passed away or whether they’re not in our lives anymore. A lot of the times we think of them as, you know, saints.
Jace What did you make of the way that the show used George’s grief to engineer a way to bring Elizabeth back into the fold both in the thematic sense and a personal one for you? I mean it meant you being able to come back to Poldark.
Heida Yeah it was. Well first of all I thought it was a beautiful way to tell a story from George’s perspective of just for him to have more humanity in and to see that he’s truly faced with the worst thing that could have happened to him in his life and kind of makes him reassess everything. But for me it was just really nice to come back because like I said it wasn’t a done deal. They’ve really truly been my family and and Jack specifically has been one of the most amazing partners I’ve ever worked with and will be and is a very dear friend of mine. And so it’s it was just like coming home to be honest people kept asking What’s what’s it like to be back and I was like the same like it feels the same because it feels like home so it doesn’t doesn’t feel weird except that there were lots of new people that I’d never seen before. And I met my son, Geoffrey Charles, who’s I mean you know 25 or something at this point, somehow.
Jace That’s hysterical. You’re in these scenes but also not in these scenes. The only character who can see you is George.
Jace Which must make it complicated for other actors like Pip Torrens not to make eye contact with you if you’re in their eyeline or to even see you.
Cary Poldark, Despard, Enys – three men with known Jacobin sympathies.
George Could be seen as hostile to the Crown?
Ralph Precisely, Sir George. But to more pleasant matters?
Elizabeth Are you sure, George? Is this really what you wish?
George Is it what I wish?
Jace What was involved in sort of blocking those scenes and being aware of eye lines?
Heida It was cool. I think we did what we did was that we we we put me in and out so they sometimes would film the scene without me. In order for Pip to sort of react more naturally to the fact that there’s nobody there. And then sometimes they would put me in so that they had both versions of reactions. But it was fun I was kind of like being a fly on the wall. You know you didn’t have to be like Oh so what’s what’s going on with us. Like well you know you didn’t have to have any dialogue or background you would just kind of on the just kind of a spectator and you were in your own scene and it was quite nice, I liked it.
Jace: Before this next question, a quick word from our sponsors…
Jace I liked that there’s a sense that the miniature of Elizabeth that Valentine shows George is almost talismanic that it sort of summons the restless ghost of Elizabeth. I’m using that in air quotes here.
Valentine Papa, look what I found.
George Take it away.
Valentine But papa…
George Take it away!
Jace Do you see George as being sort of in a state of denial about her death and that these hallucinations are sort of his way of coping with grief that he can’t confront
Heida Yeah absolutely. I think I think that the only way of coping to begin with is to imagine she’s still alive. But he’s convinced his himself that she is still alive. So he doesn’t know that he’s hallucinating or he doesn’t know that he’s in denial which I think makes it all the more powerful when he realizes he’s having a mental breakdown or you know he’s not dealing with his grief.
Jace So George resigns as MP post he closes up Trenwith. There’s a sense that George is so heartbroken by Elizabeth’s death so grief stricken that he’s lost. As you say his sort of grip on his sanity. Why do you feel he’s hit so hard by her death last season and why do you feel he copes in the way that he does, is it all about control for George?
Heida I mean yes you’re right. I mean he needs to be in power and he needs to be in control of everything. And as much as he loves Elizabeth I don’t think he was aware of how much he needed her until she she passed away. And I think there’s just a slight delay of how he’s feeling and I don’t think a person like George ever imagined himself in this type of situation of grief and heartbreak. And so it’s just a typical example of someone who’s not in touch with their emotions and emotionally articulate. And being a man and being you know back in those times and also powerful you know. So in that way I think Debbie’s done a really good job of writing it. You know writing this type of narrative food for George because essentially I think this is what happens a lot to people who are emotionally unavailable and especially men and especially men in power. Because they don’t have the wherewithal to sort of sit down and process. I think.
Jace And to me it also shows the fact that while this may have started out as a marriage of convenience they end up being by the end at least sort of an ideal pairing sorry Team Francis. But ythey are much better pair Elizabeth and George than Elizabeth and Francis were.
Heida Well yeah I agree. And I’ve always said, last season, season four was really fun for me and us because it was the first time that I got to play a character in that show in a happy relationship or in an exciting relationship where they were you know conquering the world together. And that was really fun for us because it’s been so much of the opposite.
Jace Do you feel that George harbors any sense of guilt over the way that Elizabeth died?
Heida Yeah definitely. And I don’t think that he has any way of articulating it which is probably why it makes more sense for him to just think she’s still alive. I think everybody does. I mean you know everyone involved in her life. I don’t know about Geoffrey Charles but I know that Ross and George definitely feel guilty for how everything has gone down.
Jace Do you see Elizabeth’s presence here as fulfilling the role of George’s moral compass, as his conscience?
Heida Yes absolutely. And she was. That’s what she was to him you know. Which is again another component of why I enjoyed playing her so much in the last and the last series. I always have but it was an extra add on and when she became his kind of, for lack of a better term Lady Macbeth. But we weren’t we weren’t that bad. But you know she didn’t just sit on the sidelines. You know she was a part of his decision making process.
Jace It’s clear George’s delusions such as they are are not going to resolve themselves immediately. What can you tell us about where this Elizabeth storyline might be going this season?
Heida I think that people will see an escalation in his delusions and for Elizabeth I mean she’s just a figment of his imagination. That’s up to George, when he lets go of that and whether he does we’ll have to watch and see. .
Jace Can we expect to see more of you in the next few episodes?
Heida You can expect to.
Jace What do you feel it would take for George to truly say goodbye to Elizabeth, to put her ghost to rest as it were?
Heida I mean the first thing is obviously to deal with grief and to recognize the loss that he’s had. And to sort of come to terms with the things that he feels guilty about. You know I can’t imagine how people dealt with all these things before it was kind of acceptable to talk and you know that British on top of it. I mean it’s nuts how repressed these people must’ve been. So yeah I think those two things are the steps to sort of get back to normal and then maybe find someone else?
Jace You had a going away dinner when you shot your final scene in season four and were presented with the vial of ergot that Elizabeth used to seal her doom when you wrapped the season was there a similar parting gift?
Heida This one? No. This one was…You know as much as I felt like I was a part of a still a part of it and I kind of you know felt like I was home I also was just kind of nipping in and out and they were in the middle of filming. And when people are in the middle of filming they’re sort of just, kind of get on with it you know. And I was fully expecting that I felt very much like a guest kind of a reoccurring guest role rather than someone you know who is like in every episode.
Jace What did it mean then to say goodbye to the character of Elizabeth Warleggan all over again albeit in a rather strange way where you’re not the character played for four years but rather someone else’s idealization of her.
Heida I think I I think I’ve gone through all that stuff like I think I’d gotten through the fact that I was done you know like you said we had my dinner. We you know we we said goodbye. I got the cards and the presents and everything. And so in my mind I was done. You know, this was just a lovely little visit. It’s like your childhood home and then you drive by just to say, like, ‘I used to live there,’ that’s kind of how it was for me. It wasn’t bittersweet though because it didn’t you know it was the next year. So it didn’t really feel like I’d been away because they’d only been filming for maybe a month before. But it’s also something that I did for a long time, you know, every year so yeah had I come back like three years later I bet would have been very nostalgic and bittersweet. But I think there hadn’t been enough time passed in order for me to sort of have all the feels you know? But it’s interesting to see now, you know now that everyone’s done I can sort of tell that they’re going through this some some of the stuff that I went through last year of just like, ‘Damn. Like what do I do now. What happens now?’
Jace What interests me about this version of Elizabeth is that she is this figment of George’s imagination seen through his eyes and therefore lacking any real agency.
Jace She’s an extension of his self, essentially. I mean did you struggle at all with the notion of this imaginary Elizabeth’s sense of agency?
Heida No I just I think it was always very clear from Debbie’s perspective who Elizabeth was to George. And if I never had any it was Oh yeah I never had any issues or stepping into that role. It wasn’t really about me you know. You know what. It wasn’t really about me it wasn’t about her. I was just there to kind of serve a purpose.
Heida Facilitate. Yeah. Yeah exactly.
Jace In addition to Björk, Sigur Rós, and maybe skyr, which I have for breakfast every morning, you might be Iceland’s most popular export. Do you feel it’s time for Iceland to play a bigger part in that global cultural conversation?
Heida I mean the fact that there’s only 300,000 of us and we already have you know like you said Sigur Rós and Björk which most people know about just the fact that we have two world famous music exports is pretty amazing. So no I think that we’re doing loads of stuff and there’s a few other actors out there even some that are doing much much bigger things. And I’m really proud to be one of them. And the fact that there’s not many of us and we’re still kind of on the world stage is it is pretty cool. And I think it’s just going to grow now. Like I said because because people are more open to to other you know other stuff now.
Jace Heida Reed, thank you so very much.
Heida Thank you.
Jace Coming up next on MASTERPIECE Studio, we go straight to Elizabeth’s widower, George Warleggan, still suffering from his wife’s untimely death. Can George find peace, or will the memory of his dead wife continue to torment him forever?
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?
Jace Poldark star Jack Farthing joins us next Sunday, October 13.
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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