british television

Detail, detail, detail: British TV show ‘Poldark’ adviser on how she stripped down history

The assignment includes considering the significance of each word, line, scene, character and context.

Poldark returned to our screens in true swashbuckling style, much to the delight of its fans. A BBC adaptation of Winston Graham’s historical novels, the first series was broadcast last year and proved a hit with Sunday evening audiences, pulling in more than 8m viewers an episode. The drama soon became associated with a single image of lead actor, Aidan Turner, about to film a scene in which a shirtless Ross Poldark scythes a field. But there is more to Poldark than good looks – I have particular reason to know as historical consultant to the series.

My research specialism is in 18th-century British history and given the popularity of Georgian drama I’ve acted as historical consultant to film, television and theatre regularly over the past decade. But Poldark has given me a unique set of experiences. The size of the audience outstrips any other productions I have contributed to previously, including feature films. With eight to ten episodes a series, the filmed content is also far more substantial. I’ve now consulted on three series for Poldark, equating to around 1,600 pages of Debbie Horsfield’s effervescent scripts.

Certainly, the characters are highly fictionalised and romanticised. Poldark himself is by no means a real historical figure. But the historical context behind the drama is carefully construed in the original novels by Winston Graham and treated with equal respect in the production process of the BBC’s adaptation. Set against a background of the American Revolutionary War and then the French Revolution, Graham opened his novels in 1780s Cornwall, exploiting its dramatic local history of mining, smuggling, banking and a dominant gentry class as the springboard for the personal experiences of his fictional characters.

Play
‘Poldark’.

From script to set

I am often asked what the work of an historical adviser involves. In truth, there is no single answer because the role is determined by the different needs of each production.

For Poldark, I’ve settled into a fairly regular pattern of involvement that begins with reading drafts of the scripts prior to filming. The script is not just the story, it is the blueprint for the entire production. I try to read each episode as closely as possible, checking the historical content from every angle, looking not just for the occasional anachronistic term, but for character development, locations, scene and prop details and context. I send back to the production team all the historical commentary I can think of – however significant or potentially pedantic – and leave the judgement calls to them.

When the scripts are finished and the production prepares for filming, questions start to come in from the various departments as they prepare locations, sets and costumes. And once the cameras start rolling, attention turns to many of the smallest details: manuscripts seen on a desk or broadsides handed out in the street. During the filming of the second series, some of my favourite moments came from conversations with the graphic artist, Richard Wells, as we bounced emails around discussing the appearance of 18th-century pamphlets, advertisements, military commission letters, polling books and more. Many of these details might not be captured in the final shots, but each and every one was inspired by original artefacts and painstakingly recreated by the art department.

Aidan Turner in ‘Poldark’. BBC/Adrian Rogers.
Aidan Turner in ‘Poldark’. BBC/Adrian Rogers.

Much of my academic research has focused on ideas of status and hierarchy in 18th-century Britain, and working with the Poldark production has given me the chance to consider how preoccupations with hierarchy and deference might be enacted in the most ordinary of ways – through words, greetings, gestures, emotional responses, motivations and aggressions.

What might a flashy middle class man serve at a dinner party? How would a politician sign a letter? Would everyone know how to curtsy? How would a gentleman or lady meet an acquaintance on the street? What does a footman actually do? Would a woman get drunk in a tavern? What games might you see children playing? These are the kinds of questions that need answers in order to put period drama on to the screen.

Reading Rousseau

Over time I have become deeply invested in the characters, contextualising their worlds as I read a script to preempt later questions or to add in details that might otherwise be missed. In series one, for example, Elizabeth Poldark is seen reading Rousseau. Such a detail can create a raft of knock on considerations at any point in filming. Is Rousseau the right choice for her? Might it influence her choices? If we see a shelf of books in the background what else should be there? If the director wants a close up shot, which pages should be selected and why?

Elizabeth (Heida Reed). BBC/Adrian Rogers.
Elizabeth (Heida Reed). BBC/Adrian Rogers.

One essential aspect of the storylines that I find particularly fascinating is the complexities of credit networks, local banking systems and the history of finance. We routinely see money changing hands, both paper and coins, in markets, private meetings, and at the gaming table. Surviving artefacts are, of course, key to the creation of the props required. Notes from 18th-century local banks provide the blueprint for the art department to produce replica money for the Pascoe and Warleggan banks featured in the Poldark plot.

But what about the other details? I’ve used previous research into 18th-century account books to determine how much cash someone might carry in their pocket and to consider what everyday items might cost. Trying to establish what the interior of an 18th-century local bank might look like was a harder task, and for this I turned to archivists and other historians to canvas opinion. While images survive for 19th-century banks, 18th-century images are, by and large, restricted to the newly established Bank of England (hardly a model for an ad hoc regional bank in 1780s Cornwall). Sometimes even the most expert opinion can only offer a well-informed guess, rather than concrete evidence.

Over the past two and a half years, I’ve considered the history behind each word, line, scene, character and context. Of course, as with any period production, it is impossible to create a perfect recreation of the past (and how can we ever know what that “perfect” recreation should be anyway?). Choices are always made for the purposes of plot, character, budget and schedule.

The role of the historical adviser is to ensure that those choices are well informed and that they are just that: choices, rather than mistakes.

Hannah Greig, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, University of York.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Now that you’ve reached the top, how often do you say, “Thank You”?

What kind of a leader are you?

How do you define success? The typical picture of success is a large bank balance, expensive material possessions and fame. But for some, success is happiness that comes from fulfilling a childhood dream or attaining a sense of purpose. For those, success is not about the volume of an applause or the weight of a gold medal, but about showing gratitude and sharing success with the people without whom the journey would be incomplete. Here are a few ways you can share your success with others:

Speech

While it sounds simple and formulaic, a genuine, emphatic and honest speech can make everyone feel like they are a part of a winning team. For a personal touch, acknowledge the team’s efforts by mentioning each one of them by name and thanking them for their unique contributions. Hearing their own name makes people feel proud and honoured.

Realise the success should be passed on

Instead of basking in the glory of their own achievements, good leaders encourage, motivate and inspire others to achieve success. A good leader should acknowledge his own mistakes, share his experience and knowledge and cultivate an environment where every milestone is an accomplishment for everyone in the team. Talk about challenges, the personal and professional struggles that you had to overcome. Sharing setbacks helps others to relate to you and helps them overcome struggles they may be facing.

Celebrate

Nothing beats shaking-off the deadlines, work-pressure and fatigue by celebrating success together. Enjoying a job well done together as a team brings about a spirit of camaraderie. A catered lunch, evening drinks or a weekend off-site, the important thing is to enjoy the win with people who have gone through the same struggle.

Keep it flexible

The last thing you want is for work celebrations to become monotonous and repetitive. Not all milestones have to be celebrated in a grand manner, some can just be acknowledged with gestures such as personal Thank You notes or writing a recommendation on LinkedIn.

Make success more meaningful

Go beyond numbers, sales targets and profits and add meaning to the achievement. Reminding everyone of the larger purpose inspires people. It’s easy to lose interest when you do something in a routine fashion. Giving a larger meaning to success makes people feel more involved and energized.

Great leaders are those who share their victories with others. They acknowledge that the path to success is collaborative. Great leaders don’t stand in front of their team, but are found working amongst them. This video is an ode to such leaders who epitomise the Chivas culture and know how to Win The Right Way. Follow Chivas on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Chivas Studio Music CDs and not by the Scroll editorial team.