Debbie Horsefield, writer and executive producer of the new BBC Poldark series.
Debbie is better known for her award-winning contemporary work, such as TV series including The Riff Raff Element and Cutting It.
“I was shocked to be approached to write this,” admits Debbie, who had never written a period drama prior to this.
“Karen Thrussell, one of the producers sent me a letter asking if I might be interested, and as I was about to go on holiday it was a good opportunity to read the books. I had never watched the TV series and was curious to know what the fuss was about. About three pages into the first book I had decided that this was definitely something I wanted to do.
The characters simply come off the page. Quite often in a TV adaptation you have to characterize through dialogue so that if you were to look at a script and take the names away, you can still tell which character is speaking simply through the way they express themselves, their pattern of speech. In the introductory scenes of the book Ross Poldark the two characters of Joshua and Charles are introduced and you immediately imagine how those characters look and act by the way they talk.
Researching 18th century Cornwall was of course another challenge in the writing of this screenplay. But this was made much easier for me by the face that the details in the books are extraordinarily well researched. When I started to do my own research, I quickly discovered that Winston Graham had done most of it already in extremely thorough detail. For example, I would look into symptoms of some of the common epidemics of the times, and research what sort of symptoms you would see; fever, what does that actually look like, how would you accurately describe a gangrenous arm. And then I would find the answers and go back to the books and see that Winston Graham had already done it all.
I did still conduct my own reserach of course. When it came to studying the Cornish dialect Merv Davy, Deputy Grand High Bard of Gorsedh Kernow, who plays the Cornish pipes was a great source of advice. I also used Cornish lexicons, including a dictionary and a list of Cornish surnames and Cornish dialect expressions. I discovered that many of those I found in my sources were used in the books, so it seems that once again, Winston had got there before me and had already done his research.
I had some sense of the landscape and the place already. I used to come down to Cornwall quite a lot as a child, my father brought me down west touring, driving through lots of places, so I know the territory.
I didn’t know much about the stories and the mining, however. I quite deliberately didn’t watch the the old TV series until I had written the first four episodes. I heard that the writer of Pride and Prejudice wouldn’t watch the previous version, I wanted to start by going back to the books, and write it as the books told the stories.
Some scenes have been tricky. You have to remember that this is not a big feature film, so when a part of the story covers a shipwreck, for example, you have to think how you can tell that story in the most dramatic way but which is practically possible in terms of resources and time available. I’ve collaborated a lot with the design team. In a sea scene, where there are lots of boats on the water, you need to think about things such as, how would you light it?
But despite the challenges, I’ve had a fantastic time working on it. It wasn’t all sunshine, although the summer was very hot and beautiful. Some of us did come to Cornwall in March, filming the winter sequence. The devastating storms were happening at that time and some of the cast and crew were actually here during the storm that destroyed the train lines out of Cornwall at Dawlish.
But we’ve had a lot of support all through this process and overall the reaction to this new adaptation has been fantastic. People are very excited.
On the characters:
Ross Poldark is talked about a lot before you even see him, so you learn a lot about his character before he ever arrives, through dialogue. Ross is an anti hero in a way, and in many ways he is unique in literature. Of course there are other notable examples, such as Heathcliffe, Mr Darcy, Rett Butler. Ross is complex, a hero, but flawed, and that is true of real people.
I love the character of Demelza also. Ross says it about her after their daughter dies, he says she will recover sooner than he would because she is fundamentially optimistic and has a buoyant nature. Low expectations in life, because up to the point that Ross rescues her she has learned to expect bad treatment.
But she is optimistic and sees the good in life, any good thing, a wonderful quality to have. Ross stews about things, he holds grudges.
Elizabeth is very much a product of her time, we have to take into account the options available to women of her class, which were very limited when we consider the choices she makes and the way she behaves. Why doesn’t she defy her family and go back to Ross when he returns? You have to consider that in 18th century Cornwall, that course of action would be virtually unthinkable to someone from her background, her class, the social stigma could have ruined her life. You have to remember that these characters are very much defined by the times in which they lived.