Missed Poldark? Ahead of series 4, here's the complete story so far

Aidan Turner in Poldark  - 1
Aidan Turner in Poldark - 1

With a storyline featuring more twists and turns than the Cornish coastline, catching up with the fourth series of Poldark might seem daunting – especially now that the story is rumoured to be shifting away, in parts, from scenic Cornwall to the fleshpots of Georgian London. But never fear, our trusty Poldark primer is here to give you all you need to know about the story so far.

Before the series

Debbie Horsfield’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s romantic sequence of novels about swashbuckling 18th century Cornish ex-soldier Captain Ross Poldark was a risky bet for the BBC. It was a series with history: in the 1970s an earlier version starring Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees won the nation’s hearts. Few believed the magic could be repeated.

But Aidan Turner as the dashing Ross soon had the nation swooning, especially when he stripped to the waist and picked up a scythe, and the chemistry with co-star Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza was electric. Scenic and sensual Poldark proved to be the BBC’s biggest hit in years. 

Series One

Played out against the wild and beautiful backdrop of coastal Cornwall, series one was the very definition of sweepingly romantic, a heady mix of high emotion and economic hardship. In 1783, after years of soldiering in America, brooding action man Ross Poldark (Turner) arrived home to find his father dead and his Nampara estate and tin mines in ruinous decline.

Aidan Turner - Credit: BBC
Credit: BBC

Worse, his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth (Heida Reed) was betrothed to his weakling cousin Francis (Kyle Soller). Undeterred Ross rolled up his sleeves (and stripped off his shirt) and set about reversing his fortunes. Rescuing a scraggy street urchin from a beating, he took her into his household as a kitchen maid. Her name was Demelza (Tomlinson), soon to become the focus of his bare-chested manly passion.

Ross rapidly established a reputation as a moody brooding maverick with a social conscience. His efforts to rebuild his fortunes and pull the local community out of poverty were a key driving force of the story. His plan to go into business with his cousin by reopening a defunct copper mine were undermined by George (Jack Farthing), scion of the ruthless Warleggan banking family whose stranglehold on the local mining industry was putting hundreds out of work and into penury.

When Ross secured other investors to back a co-operative venture to break the Warleggan’s monopoly, they set about destroying him – their biggest pawn being the fatally flawed Francis, who they cheated out of his fortune via a cardsharp cousin. Time and again Ross’ quick temper and occasionally law-breaking efforts to help others forced him into conflict with powerful vested interests.

Poldark - Credit: PA/BBC
Credit: PA/BBC

Above all though, Ross was a love-wracked hero. He clearly had strong residual feelings for his cousin Elizabeth yet his growing passion for Demelza dominated. An early series high point was their sizzlingly romantic wedding which not only set tongues wagging in Cornish high society but came as a shock to viewers too. Demelza struggled hard to live up to her newfound social status but it was her lowborn eagerness to please that was her undoing.When she facilitated Ross’s cousin Verity’s elopement with the disgraced Captain Blamey, cousin Francis retaliated by betraying Ross to the Warleggans, causing much marital discord. But worse was to come when nursing Francis and Elizabeth through an epidemic of diphtheria Demelza’s self-sacrifice brought about the series’ tearjerking high-point of tragedy – when she contracted the illness herself and their baby daughter Julia died.

The series ended on a cliffhanger, literally, with Ross and Demelza reconciling atop a windblown cliff and looking to the future. But the remorseless Warleggans were out for vengeance, blaming Ross for the wreck and plundering of a ship that had washed up on his shoreline, and the closing titles rolled as Ross was being hauled off to Truro by a troop of redcoats. Whatever lay in store for him in series two, few were in any doubt that it would it would involve lots of high passion, low cunning and oodles more supremely well crafted swashbuckling action.

Series Two

Showing no signs of being spoilt by success Poldark came out all guns blazing, with Ross in jail facing the fight of his life. The opening episode teased us, too, with a glamorous heiress, Caroline Penvenen (Gabriella Wilde) catching his eye, and closed on his weakling cousin Francis’s shock suicide attempt.

Who's who in Poldark?

Unsurprisingly, Ross – despite Demelza’s inept efforts to seduce a judge – was acquitted thanks to a heroic speech from the dock. George Warleggan – rapidly developing into the best boo-hiss villain outside pantomime – was mighty miffed. But Ross was broke, which took the edge off Demelza’s discovery that she was pregnant. Romance was left to noble-minded medic Dr Enys (Luke Norris) whose encounters with minxish Caroline all but set our screens ablaze. Even Francis turned over a new leaf, taking pointers from Ross on how to be a real man.

And so it went, with severe money worries driving Ross to take more risks at the mine, and Demelza’s jealousy over his lingering feelings for Elizabeth pulling their marriage apart. Increasingly, George was also in the foreground plotting Ross’s annihilation.

There were happy moments too: Demelza gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Enys stopped a scurvy epidemic, and Francis and his sister Verity were reconciled. But not Ross and George. In the most satisfying bar brawl of the TV year Ross at last got to biff him in the chops. But just as things were on the up, Francis was tragically drowned. And worse was to come as George acquired, and called in, Ross’s towering debts. 

Only an intervention by unlikely benefactor Caroline Penvenen saved Ross from debtor’s prison. The Warleggans were furious but George already had other plans for vengeance. His plot to have Ross arrested while smuggling yielded some of the series most thrilling scenes, but again he failed. Instead George focused remorselessly on taking from Ross something still more precious, by wooing the widowed Elizabeth. And as Ross’s frustration at his declining fortunes reached a peak, her agreement to marry George led to the most controversial scene of the series – Ross’s rape of Elizabeth. For all the “did he, didn’t he?” furore, there was little room left for doubt on screen.

This was the game-changing moment that determined Poldark’s course for the foreseeable future. Not only did Demelza put two and two together but as Elizabeth remained on course to marry George, and did so, it became clear that she was pregnant. Enys and Caroline’s star-crossed love couldn’t distract from that, nor the noble medic’s running off to the Navy out of heartbreak. Not even Demelza’s near-miss affair with Ross’s pal McNeill, or the reversal of Ross’s fortunes in the mine, could take our minds off it. 

With wily old Aunt Agatha acting as a Greek chorus, even Elizabeth finally figured out whose child she was carrying. And that, if it arrived sooner than expected, oh my word, there would be trouble. Series two ended with the heartwarming sight of Ross and Demelza arm in arm on a pretty Cornish clifftop again, But there was no escaping the foreboding feeling that a tiny newborn baby might yet pull the ground from under them, with tragic consequences for all.  

Series three

It opened with the birth of Elizabeth’s baby in suitably stormy circumstances and progressed with a now familiar blend of high romance, low morals and oodles of chicanery. Early on Ross took a trip across the Channel to rescue his old friend Dwight Enys and other English prisoners from appalling abuse at the hands of Republican French jailors. He garnered sufficient glory from this action – one of those rescued being Cornwall’s apex aristo Lord Falmouth’s nephew, Hugh – to be dubbed “the hero of Campere” and have local grandees begging him to stand for parliament. Ross’s kneejerk refusal to soil his hands with the dirty business of politics backfired badly when arch-rival George Warleggan won the seat and set about vigorously feathering his own nest and oppressing the local poor. Clearly, Ross’s capacity for shooting not only himself in the foot, but those dear to him, too, was showing no signs of abating.

Series three did much by way of consolidation, clearing out the dead wood and wreckage of the previous two while also introducing a raft of new characters and fresh moral and romantic dilemmas. Prime among the newbies were Demelza’s handsome younger brothers, Sam (Tom York) and Drake (Harry Richardson) Carne. This freewheeling pair of Methodists quickly fell foul of George Warleggan – whose efforts to have them slung in jail, and worse, were constantly thwarted by Ross. And when Elizabeth’s newly arrived cousin Morwenna (Ellise Chappell) fell hard for fresh-faced Drake, her fate was sealed when George forced her to marry (in exchange for keeping Drake’s head out of a noose) the odious pervert Rev Osborne Whitworth (Christian Brassington). Thus setting up a storyline of aching unrequited love that continues to twang heartstrings feverishly.

The best TV shows of 2018

Throughout, George remorselessly upped the ante for TV villains. His political rise – first to magistrate and thence to parliament – was a major theme of the series – as was his ruthlessness and spiteful cruelty towards anyone who got in his way. As if condemning Morwenna to a hideous marriage  wasn’t enough, his vile behaviour towards  ancient Aunt Agatha eventually put her into a not-so-early grave. But not before the wry old dame spilled the beans to him regarding his son’s true paternity – opening up a gulf of paranoia and giving a devastated George yet another reason to hate Ross to the core. Astonishingly, Elizabeth managed to front it out and convince George that Agatha was just being spiteful. But the lie their relationship is founded on runs even deeper now, and will doubtless continue to fester.

In the end the greatest dramatic irony of series three was that by its close, one of those whose lives Ross Poldark saved in France was proving the biggest threat to his future happiness. Pale, wan, romantic young toff Hugh Armitage (Josh Whitehouse) was entranced by Demelza from the moment he met her, and it wasn’t long before she was feeling longings in the loins, too, such was the cascade of poetry, pencil portraits and undisguised desire he showered on her. Will the one passionate clinch they had in the sand dunes at Nampara prove enough for Demelza and Hugh though? It’s a question that doubtless will hang heavy over series four. Especially given all the signs that Ross, who in the final episode dropped a major hint that he would stand for parliament if invited to do so again, could well be spending a lot of time away from home in future. That way, surely, temptation lies.