EXCLUSIVE: Robin Ellis Remembers ‘Poldark’

Robin Ellis cooking up some delicious diabetic food. ©Meredith Wheeler. (Click on photo for hi-res version)


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—As American TV viewers are now hooked on “Downton Abbey,” there was a time 35 years ago when another spellbinding British saga took the former colonies by storm. It was called “Poldark,” and it aired over two seasons on PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre.”

The Emmy and BAFTA-nominated miniseries, based on the beloved novels by Winston Graham, tells the story of a dashing 18th century English army officer (Robin Ellis, “The Good Soldier”), who finds the trials and travails at home every bit as perilous as what he faced in America during the Revolution. Hailed as a British “Gone with the Wind,” the classic miniseries debuted in May 1977, was featured on “The Best of Masterpiece Theatre” special, and voted one of the 10 most popular shows in the series’ history in a 2007 PBS poll.

Acorn Media has now released “Poldark: The Complete Collection,” encompassing all 29 episodes, and including a new interview with Ellis called “Getting the Part,” as well as other bonus material.

Brimming with adventure and romance and set against the backdrop of the ruggedly beautiful Cornish coast,

Robin Ellis in "Poldark." ©Acorn Media. (Click on photo for hi-res version).

“Poldark” tells the story of the gallant Captain Ross Poldark and his ever-changing fortunes. In the first season, a wounded Ross returns home to England from America after a brave escape from a French prison camp. He finds his father dead, the woman he loves engaged to another man, and a viperous businessman eager to drive his family from their land. The second season follows Ross through further tumultuous times, from saving his marriage to reclaiming his fortune as he attempts to defeat his predatory rival once and for all.

Along with Ellis, “Poldark” features an all-star cast including Angharad Rees (“Close to Home”), Ralph Bates (“Dear John”), Jill Townsend (“Cimarron Strip”), Jane Wymark (“Midsomer Murders”), Kevin McNally (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and Judy Geeson (“Mad About You”).

Living in France with his wife, Ellis recently recalled one of his most famous roles. A diabetic, he recently published a cookbook with recipes geared toward other diabetics.

Front Row Features:  Does it seem like 35 years have passed since “Poldark” first aired?

Ellis: The short answer is “You’re kidding!”

Front Row Features: Have you seen it since then?

Ellis: I admit I have occasionally aired an episode. Not often though.

Front Row Features: What is your fondest memory of making the series?

Ellis: That’s a hard one—it’s 35 years ago. I loved making it. I adored the company. We were a happy bunch and we saw a lot of each other because the majority of it was shot in the studio with all of us being present. We rehearsed each episode like a play and then shot it on five electric TV cameras over 2.5 hours on the second day in the studio. (It’s) so different from nowadays where actors only get to meet if they share a scene.

Front Row Features: Was it expensive as it was filmed on location in Cornwall?

Ellis: I never knew the budget. It was as much as I could do to get the lines learned. It was expensive I suppose but they saved a lot on our fees, which in those days were paltry compared to today.

Front Row Features: Did you keep any souvenirs from the set?

Ellis: I would have liked the leather coat from the first series but it was a period costume and the BBC was not in the business of giving away bits of the show. Sadly, someone pinched it and it wasn’t there for the second series.

Front Row Features: Did you have to audition for the role? If so, what do you remember about the audition?

Ellis: I auditioned three times and after the first I bought the books and realized how good the part was. I was on tenterhooks after that. I describe it in “Making Poldark,” which is being re-issued as an e-book in March. In the Acorn Boxed set there is a booklet, which is an excerpt of the memoir and it recounts (my) first interview for the job.

Front Row Features: Were you familiar with the Winston Graham books before you got the role?

Ellis: No, but he subsequently became a great friend. He and his wife, Jean, were often on the set for the second series and indeed he had a walk-on role in one scene at a churchyard. He and Jean were present for my wedding to my American wife too.

Front Row Features: Of course, “Poldark” remains one of the most popular series ever aired in the U.K. But why do you think the series also is so popular internationally?

Ellis: Good stories and characters cross language and geographical barriers. It always had the advantage of being adapted from established books. These had been popular since the ‘40s and ‘50s. This gave the characters a depth of development that is not always there in other series manufactured for TV. The stories had a chance to develop through the behavior of the characters rather than be imposed by a TV writer.

Front Row Features: With the release of the DVD collection, does it make you glad that audiences who may have missed it when it originally aired (or were too young to see it then) get a chance to see it now?

Ellis: Of course. It is fantastic if new audiences confirm its worth.

Front Row Features: Ross Poldark is sort of like an 18th century, British Rhett Butler. He’s dashing, and a bit of a gambler, yet kindhearted to those around him. What did you make of this character?

Ellis: I do think he did “give a damn” and got “up the noses” of the local establishment. I always enjoyed playing those bits. He was an obsessive—stubborn, a bit arrogant, determined, opinionated, foolhardy—even foolish at times, and “out of his time” in some ways. (He also was) a rebel though he later became a Tory MP, of course. I remember I used to say in interviews that I thought he would have been a Guardian reader i.e. a liberal. He was three-dimensional certainly and tremendous to live with and play.

Front Row Features: Was there ever talk of a reunion after the series wrapped? Were you involved in the 2008 version “Stranger from the Sea” for ITV?

Ellis: That’s a long story which I go into in some detail in the updated version of my book “Making Poldark,” which will be available as an e-book in we hope March. It was a disappointment it didn’t work out but in the end I am glad we didn’t do in the way proposed by the production company. It wasn’t good enough as it turned out. We can be proud of the two original series that Acorn issued.

Front Row Features: Do you stay in touch with any of your cast mates?

Ellis:  Ralph Bates died more than 20 years ago and Richard Morant died late last year. Jill Townsend and Judy Geeson live in the U.S. Paul Curran (Judd) and Mary Wimbush (Prudie) have died. I see Angharad from time to time.  Donald Douglas, the amorous Scots Captain McNeill, who pursued me up and down the coast of Cornwall finally gave up the chase and lives about an hour north of us here in France and we see each other very regularly.

Front Row Features: What can fans expect in your revised e-book?

Ellis: There will be 9,000 new words plus photographs from the late Winston Graham’s personal photo album (with the permission of his son).

Front Row Features: You authored a book, “Delicious Dishes for Diabetics: A Mediterranean Way of Eating,” that was published last year. What inspired you to write it?

Ellis: I was diagnosed 13 years with Type 2 diabetes. I like to cook; in fact I do the cooking at home and have done for years. This is an advantage if you have Type 2 diabetes, as how and what you eat has a major effect on the condition. It seemed a good idea to pass on some ideas to others. We ate healthily before the diagnosis but I had to make some changes. I have collected recipes for years and pasted them in a large notebook. So I had the means and the motivation. We were lucky to find a publisher who thought it could work et “voila!” as they say here.

Front Row Features: Tell me about your blog. Do you enjoy writing in it every day?

Ellis: The blog was set up a year ago by the publisher as a way to publicize the book. It has various categories (recipes, food, diabetes, “other sides to this life”) and I really enjoy the pressure of writing on a near daily basis.

Front Row Features: When did you move to France? Do you miss England?

Ellis: We moved here permanently nearly 13 years ago–after 9 years of traveling back and forth. I don’t miss living in the U.K. I like living here and regard it as home, though we get up to the U.K. several times a year to see family and friends.

Front Row Features: Are you still acting?

Ellis: Rarely, but actors never retire, so I’m open to offers. I enjoyed playing an American murderer in an episode of the Swedish version of the crime series, “Wallander,” (in 2006).

Front Row Features: What’s next for you?

Ellis: I’m planning a month-long trip in America, partly to visit family and friends but also to promote the cookbook. We’ll be visiting New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, L.A. and San Francisco. I’ve always enjoyed the U.S. My late brother, Peter, also married an American and had a son there. My other brother, Jack, is mentioned in the current edition of “The New Yorker,” as he is appearing with Kevin Spacey in “Richard III” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He and his wife were married in New York. (Also) my father trained as a pilot in Arizona for the RAF during World War II, and for years we used to receive “Arizona Highways” magazine. We used to listen to the records he brought back, and I guess we all developed an enthusiasm for the U.S.