Winston Graham’s historical epic is a beloved British classic both for the book series and the much cherished 1970’s BBC adaptation. When production co Mammoth Screen wanted to do a new BBC adaptation, they brought the project to veteran TV writer Debbie Horsfield who with a background in literature and a trusted reputation for writing great TV seemed a great choice to write it.
A stranger to adaptation Debbie nevertheless saw, on reading the source material that she could bring the story to today’s audience, though not considering at first the weight of public expectation such a popular property would generate. In some respects Graham’s novels are akin in popularity to a Jane Austen and interest peaked swiftly as soon as it was rumoured.
With twelve novels there was a wealth of material and her job was to narrow down the salient drama to a workable television plot. However some of the greatest moments of tragedy for the main characters in the books, were dealt with in only a single line such as Demelza’s loss. For novels of course the reader gets to think about the impact of these facts and her feelings in their imagination, but for screen viewing those moments have to be visualised in real time. As well as narrowing down storyline, dialogue and emotional material needed to be crafted.
With an abundance of side stories, characters had to tie into and strengthen the main story thread in order to earn their space in the adaptation. Some characters Debbie brought into the ensemble earlier than they had appeared in the books and sadly some favourites had to be lost to make for a tighter drama. Even so, with the first series equalling the first two novels there is a lot to fit into each season and Debbie has gone back to the production company and fought for an extra two episodes so that the story had the breathing space it needed for such an epic tale. Mammoth were great and found the resources to make that happen.
Sitting in a room watching Poldark clips on a large screen and having Debbie Horsfield talk about the choices she made really illustrated the incredible work she did to make this adaptation so breathtaking, and on a big screen you really see how cinematic and emotion packed this TV show is. Debbie explains that structuring is about finding the story heart of each episode and then everything else that happens impacts on that, either for that episode or a future one. That is how as a writer you navigate such a vast story. For revealing the inner thoughts that could be told in the novels but not on screen without voiceover or exposition, Debbie found characters unburdening themselves to another ‘good listener’ character was a way of more naturally allowing those inner states to impact the audience.
The show is very epic and ambitious and writing goes on even during production. Debbie Horsfield is also a producer on the show and the job can be intense. Coming to us form a particularly arduous shoot on location in Cornwall, they had made the decision to double bank eight episodes (actors go between two crews and two set-ups to keep up the pace of shooting) but that’s something that usually works best in a studio and the juggling act of unpredictable shooting conditions and actor availability when things get re-shuffled or shooting runs over meant a lot of extra re-writing under time pressure to ensure it all got done and the richness of story wasn’t diluted. The glamour of being a TV writer is never quite as glamourous as we’d like to believe. They probably won’t be double banking outside the studio again.
The show when aired has proved as hugely popular as ever and of course fans want their characters to fulfil expectations. Writing season two had begun long before the first series aired so fervour for this particular adaptation had yet to hit, and there was no pressure yet to fulfil audience desire while writing. But whatever public expectations are and whenever popular characters commit unpleasant acts, Debbie returns to the source material and never treads over that source in presenting events, the way she presents them though is up to her and how she deals with the turns and twists of the ongoing story is something we are invited to watch for ourselves to decide if she’s done well. It’s hard to please everyone (one prominent fan society even blacklisted the original author!) but Debbie welcomes the passion brought to the table by all the fans of the stories. Whatever her adaptation brings the books and other adaptations exist forever and there is, she believes, ample room in the fan world for all of them.
This current TV adaptation of Poldark will continue to occupy Debbie’s writing schedule hopefully for some time but she fits in other work when she has time for it. Mostly her own contemporary stuff but she’s enjoyed the adaptation process enough to welcome the thought of adapting other works.
Meawhile the last two episodes of Poldark series two film in the New Year and will be scheduled to reach our screens sometime in 2016. If the twitter response to my live-tweeting the session is anything to go by it is much anticipated already.