The Meaning of Poldark Striding Topless Out of the Sea

Patrick Freyne: Poldark’s full of existential conundrums. And heaving, glistening chests

Poldark? More like Phwoahdark! Photograph: Mammoth Screen/BBC

This week my column is an essay that I have titled The Meaning of Poldark Striding Topless Out of the Sea. The new series of Poldark (Sunday, BBC One) starts underwater off the Cornwall coast with Poldark (Aidan Turner) swimming by the camera like a merman in an ad for smellgood lotion (aftershave) or maybe like a particularly muscular sea-lion cub looking for his mother.

"Finally!" says you. "A season of Poldark set under the sea. It was inevitable."

But, no, then we get a long shot of the hunky aristocrat striding purposefully out of the water. He has no shirt on, and his body is glistening with seawater. His dark hair is tousled. His eyes are soulful. The cliffs of Cornwall seem to call to him. "Sexxxy Poooldaaaark," they seem to say, unaware that this is a form of harassment, because they are cliffs from another time. Just out of shot some anachronistic career women are drinking Diet Coke or, possibly, diet laudanum, it being the 18th century. Then someone says aloud, "Poldark? More like Phwoahdark!"

Full disclosure: it was you. You said that.


Poldark is wearing tan trousers that are probably meticulously researched vintage bathing trunks but that I'm going to call 'chinos of the past'

Apart from his skin and hair, Poldark is also wearing tan trousers that are probably meticulously researched vintage bathing trunks but that for the purpose of this article I’m going to call “chinos of the past”. He is breathing heavily, but then so are you. His chest goes up and down 10 times as he stands there. You rewind the player to be sure. Yes, it was definitely 10 times (#journalism).

The camera pans up to the Cornwallian sky, and then it pans back down to Poldark, who is now wearing a big flouncy white shirt with his chinos of the past.

“Aw,” you say.

Being temporarily topless on a beach has made Poldark reflective. He thinks about his flame-haired, free-spirited wife, Gazebo (editor’s note: I think you mean “Demelza”), and her recent affair with the poetic young waif Hugh Armitage, who writes poems and is sickly. Unlike Poldark, who likes slow-motion horse-riding along the cliffs, lifting things sweatily and furrowing his brow. (These are listed as “hobbies” on his Tinder profile.)

He's doing the furrowed-brow thing now, as he moodily hallucinates his wife and her lover into existence on the beach. "What is love? A possession to be hoarded or a blessing to give away?" says hallucinated Armitage, which is a perfectly ordinary thing to say in the world of Poldark, even for a hallucination.

Poldark starts buttoning up his shirt and looks sad, and we are sad too, because he is buttoning up his shirt. Then Gazebo (editor’s note: seriously? “Gazebo” isn’t even remotely like “Demelza”) and his two frolicking children arrive on the beach, because their marriage is apparently still intact despite their ongoing extramarital shenanigans. “Papa!” one of his children cries, which is olden days for “Da” or “Male Progenitor” (as you call your father). Poldark still looks sad – I might be projecting here, but I feel like he really hates having to wear a shirt – and then the opening credits roll.

And that's the first minute of this week's Poldark. Other stuff happens after the credits, but all of these scenes feature shirts and should technically be outside the boundaries of this week's discussion.

But let me just run through it all anyway, lest the hordes of Poldark completists send letters of complaint to the editor. There are food shortages and riots in Cornwall, and Poldark's nemesis George Warleggan is now an MP who works in a CGI version of 18th-century London. He is intent on executing rioters, the smug-faced shit. Warleggan hates Poldark because Warleggan is married to Poldark's sometime lover Elizabeth, and Poldark is a manly man of action while Warleggan is a narky babyman of nefarious scheming.

Oh, there’s something else. Warleggan and Elizabeth have a brooding dark-haired three-year-old son who likes cliff-top horse-riding and tin smelting and might as well be named “the Eponymous Toddler, Poldark “Junior” Poldarkson”. For this and many other reasons Warleggan really hates Poldark.

So Warleggan ensures that Poldark’s hunky friend Jago and Poldark’s two hunky brothers-in-law, Samuel and Drake, are caught up in the riotous arrests and are sentenced to be hanged in a probably vindictive but possibly ecologically necessary hunk cull. (I’m not an environmentalist, but there are lots of hunks in ancient Cornwall, and there may be some issues with overbreeding.)

Poldark decides not to tell Gazebo about her brothers’ dire circumstances and leaves her to struggle with her forbidden love for sickly, sweating Armitage, while Poldark rides his horse in slow motion along the cliff top, makes populist man-of-the-people speeches on behalf of his doomed friends (the “gallows-side plea” is this era’s “best man speech”) and performs conspicuous acts of labour while implausibly wearing a shirt. (This is just bad writing, IMO.)

Perhaps, you say, the sea is Europe, Poldark is Britain and the beach is Brexit. Ah now! Poldark is played by an Irishman, so I'd say probably not

In his charismatic speechifying he derides the globalist merchants who snatch “corn from the mouths of babes” (presumably a reference to himself and his hot chums), and the fake news used to convict the rioters. Ultimately, he convinces the local toff Sir Francis Basset (sadly, not a hound) to spare his brothers-in-law but not Jago. Then he and his wife sit together in grief, wondering about the mysteries of marriage, while external forces plot a political career for the brooding action man.

At programme’s end Poldark’s status is . . . shirted. (Full disclosure: there are only two statuses on the scale I’m using.) So let’s go back to that opening sequence and contemplate, again, Poldark emerging from the waters.

Why is it so compelling? Why have you looped the footage and used it as a screen saver? Why have you printed the image on a card, pasted a cut-out of your own head on top of Poldark’s and typed “Happy Christmas from All the Family” at the top of the card and distributed it to everyone you know even though it’s not Christmas? You think for a moment.

“Perhaps,” you say, “Poldark is ‘man’. The sea is ‘life’ and the beach is ‘death’.”

Maybe. But that seems a bit heavy for BBC One on a Sunday.

“Perhaps,” you say, “this was just a particularly gratuitous attempt to hook a flagging audience with some eye candy on the first beat of a new season?”

Maybe. But Poldark is intriguing enough with its likable, broody costars, life-or-death melodrama and glorious cinematography.

“Perhaps,” you say, “the sea is ‘Europe’, Poldark is ‘Britain’ and the beach is ‘Brexit’.”

Ah now! Poldark is played by an Irishman, so unless this is a comment on the invisibility of the Irish question to the average Brexiteer, I’d say probably not.

“Okay,” you say, “perhaps we are all Poldark and this open-plan office I’m sitting in is the sea?”

That’s more like it. But please keep your shirt on. You’re on a final warning from HR.