The new series of Poldark opens with our hero stepping out of the turbulent Cornish sea. In a sequence that looks very much like a nod to Casino Royale, the topless, tousled Ross Poldark (played by the suitably rugged Aidan Turner) strides up the beach in slow motion. He could not be more windswept and interesting.
This scene from the beginning of the fourth season is surely destined to supersede the “shirtless scything” sequence from the first season as the most memorable Poldark moment.
Let’s not get too carried away, though. The tabloid lionisation of Turner as a sex symbol should not obscure the drama’s many other admirable qualities. Poldark remains a gloriously watchable, escapist Sunday-night period drama. Boasting a stunning co-star in the Cornish landscape, it makes for a rousing, superior bodice-ripper.
All the attention could have gone to Turner’s head, but the Irish actor retains a very healthy sense of irony about the Poldark phenomenon. He is canny enough to realise that all the “beefcake” red-top headlines are an inevitable but scarcely significant part of the job.
“No, I don’t mind. Go for it!” laughs the 34-year-old. He adds that he does not hit the gym specifically to prepare for the frequent moments when his shirt miraculously disappears. “I have to keep relatively fit just to fit into the costumes. Also, the fights are never too far away with Ross. So I’m always training for them – but just at the clubs at the weekend.”
‘Marriages and relationships are complex’: Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark. Photo: Robert Viglasky/BBC/PA Wire
The fourth season of Debbie Horsfield’s adaptation of the best-selling novels by Winston Graham is set in 1796. It dawns on Poldark that he must protect his beloved Cornwall from his dastardly nemesis George (Jack Farthing). So he jeopardises everything he holds dear by moving to London and starting a political career.
At the same time, the reckless, roister-doistering protagonist, who has hardly been a saint himself, must learn to deal with his wife Demelza’s (Eleanor Tomlinson) infidelity with Lieutenant Hugh Armitage (Josh Whitehouse).
Each episode of the previous three series has attracted a consolidated audience approaching eight million, figures that these days are otherwise reserved for royal weddings. Turner takes it in his stride, deadpanning that his advice for new cast members is: “Just don’t look me in the eyes.”
“Maybe people want to escape at the moment,” he says. “There are a lot of hard-hitting crime dramas around, and this seems like an antidote to that. It’s very nice to know the show’s popular, but I never feel that pressure. I just try not to fall off my horse.”
The fact that Turner has sworn off social media also helps him to avoid much of the hype. “I just don’t need it in my life. I don’t care to listen to people who I don’t know criticising me – there’s nothing I get from it.”
‘You get older, you grow a beard’: Aidan Turner, photographed by Jeff Spicer/Getty
The actor is far happier to dwell on the more substantive question of why his character has proved such a draw. He reckons it is because Poldark is a reluctant hero, an egotist trying to do the right thing. Fundamentally, he is a good man who makes bad choices.
“He’s a complex person, flawed. He’s open all the time to learning and to change, although he can be stubborn. His heart is in the right place, and we see him grow.
“There are, of course, parts of that ego which make him work: he’s a gambler by nature. He’s a hard worker but he takes chances. It wouldn’t be very truthful if he made all the right decisions.”
The other intriguing aspect of this season is how Poldark copes with the realisation that Demelza has been unfaithful. “It’s not just a fling that Demelza has, or some sort of revenge attack – she and Hugh properly fall for each other,” says Turner. “Ross understands what that is. Marriages and relationships are complex and tricky.”
This series also sees Poldark maturing, hence the beard. “You get older, right? You grow a beard. He has a sense of responsibility to the people around him, taking care of business, of loved ones. I think he’s realising that every cause he takes up has a reaction. He’s not just looking out for himself; he’s a little less selfish. A better husband, maybe, a better father. It’s about growing up.”
A key part of that lies in Ross’s decision to go into politics. “It starts off with a dissolved government, then a referendum. That’s when Ross starts to think of going to Westminster. He’s tempted. But in the end Demelza really pushes him in that direction.
“It’s nice that he’s engaging in something and making a real change. He’s figuring out that it can’t happen from where he is in Truro. He’s going to a place which, in Ross’s eyes, is a home of corruption and power – everything that he’s been against for a long time.”
As for Turner’s own development, he has been discussed as a potential James Bond – yet he brushes off the rumours. “There’s someone else playing the role. I always feel weird talking about it. It’s come up a lot in recent times. When it’s free, I’ll have a look at it.”
Aidan Turner in rehearsals for The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Photo: © Marc Brenner
Meanwhile, on 23 June, he is due to open at the Noël Coward Theatre in London in the title role of Martin McDermott’s satire on terrorism, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, directed by Michael Grandage.
“It’s been a while since I was on stage,” he admits. “I’m slightly anxious, but excited, too.”
After that, the fifth series of Poldark will start shooting. Turner is initially not sure whether to confirm he is on board. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. I get in so much trouble…”
Might it be the Demelza and Hugh show, then? “No!” Turner laughs. “Poldark is the name of the show.”
‘Poldark’ begins on BBC1 on 10 June at 9pm. ‘The Lieutenant of Innishmore’ is at the Noël Coward Theatre, London, from 23 June to 8 September (0844 482 5141)