Thursday 18 October 2018

Poldark in the raw? Isn't that what people want to see?

As a new series kicks off, actress Gabriella Wilde tells Eleanor Steafel she feels sorry for the show's 'objectified' leading man

Gabriella Wilde as Caroline Penvenen in Poldark
Gabriella Wilde as Caroline Penvenen in Poldark

Eleanor Steafel

The new series of Poldark gets off to a frankly preposterous start tonight. After bitter complaints last year that there weren't enough sightings of Aidan Turner's incomparable - and highly controversial - torso), the writers have clearly decided to give the people what they want.

And who can blame them? In the opening scene of the fourth series, Ross Poldark finally has his Daniel Craig moment. Striding naked but for a pair of breeches from the sea, his abs glistening, the Dubliner resembles an 18th-century James Bond. And just like that, viewers here and in Britain will be hooked for another summer to this curious drama about a Cornish mining town.

The hysteria around Turner's chest seems to reach such a fever pitch every year, with some chatter that the show has been eclipsed by fraught debates around whether or not it is acceptable for female viewers to openly ogle the actor. For Turner, it must all be getting a bit old by now, but for the rest of the cast, it's an opportunity to gently poke fun at him.

"I mean I guess it's what people want to see," says Gabriella Wilde (29) who plays Caroline Penvenen, the coquettish heiress who refuses to abide by 18th-century codes of behaviour. "Poor Aidan, rather him than me!

"I do feel for him because it's so talked about, and filming those scenes is probably awkward. I'm sure he's being cheered at and the crew are making jokes," she adds. "But if you're going to do it you've got to laugh at yourself. It's paying the bills."

And, to be fair, he does rather ask for it. Last week, Turner admitted to choosing a smaller horse to ride because it made him look "bigger", and said that his trousers have got tighter over his years in the role.

But as Wilde remarks: "Well, maybe he's a very smart man."

She holds no truck with allegations that fans "objectify" Turner, arguing it is "different" from the kind of attention women get. She calls the reaction to Turner's appearance "more lightheartedness", whereas "women have been forced into thinking it's a currency they have to use to get ahead, or to get the job. For women it is so deeply ingrained and infects so many aspects of your life".

Wilde, perhaps, has more authority on the matter than most, having modelled from 14, when she was "discovered" by style icon Isabella Blow, whom she met through a friend of her mother's (more on her well-connected family later).

Soon after, she met Naomi Campbell, who insisted Wilde be introduced to her agency, Premier Model Management. She was immediately successful, modelling for Burberry among others, but turned her back on it four years later to pursue acting.

"I started working from a very young age," she says. "I had my mother with me, but there were things that went on…" she pauses. "I was working on fashion campaigns that were very much for women and probably being sexualised in a way that I couldn't comprehend yet myself.

"I've definitely had experiences looking back that, umm… I don't think were okay. But it was just the norm. What's good now is that there's a questioning of that."

It seems to have given Wilde a thick skin. She is softly spoken, and distractingly beautiful, but possesses a steeliness. "A woman isn't being 'difficult' if she's trying to stand up for something that she needs," she says.

She is proud of her co-star, Eleanor Tomlinson (who plays Poldark's wife, Demelza), for recently addressing the programme's gender pay gap, forcing producers to admit that Turner was paid more. "If she had said that a year ago, I think people would have been up in arms, or she might have got into trouble with production because of the way the industry is," says Wilde. "She has every right to say that, and she has every right to ask for what she thinks she deserves."

Wilde admits she wouldn't necessarily risk broaching the subject herself - yet. "I think that every actress has to push themselves, even if they feel frightened," she says. "[But] I would still feel nervous to request that for fear of losing the job."

When she first joined the cast, in series two, Wilde who has two sons - Sasha (4) and Shiloh (2) - had to tell producers she was pregnant. "I was very scared," she concedes. "I thought I would lose the job. Now I would bowl in there a lot more boldly and say 'I'm pregnant and don't you dare try and fire me'.

She has, however, "had a really good experience. I was hugely supported and lucky - it was pre the MeToo movement and this great empowerment of women in our industry. They made it work, I was on set until I was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant. The costumes fitted around me".

When Shiloh was born, he came to the set, as Wilde was breastfeeding. "I don't have the luxury of saying 'I'm taking maternity leave' because the show films when it does - so you have to make allowances for me to mother in the way that I want to," she explains. "The days were scheduled around my son's feeding times. It's a brilliant example to set."

It helps, she says, that home is close by. She and her husband - Alan Pownall, the singer for electro band Pale - moved to Somerset in the English West Country just before she got the part. "It couldn't have been more perfect," says Wilde. "It films for six months and then I take six months off to be with my children."

Motherhood (which came unexpectedly early) has given her "a different kind of drive", she says. "I am a mother first and my job is my job, it's not my life. I want to get out of the door as quickly as possible, so that I can get home."

Her rural family life is somewhat different to her own upbringing. Wilde has an almost preposterously posh pedigree - she was born Gabriella Zanna Vanessa Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe - something, she admits, she has shied away from talking about. "I was desperately trying to define myself away from the image of what people might think. As I get older I feel more comfortable in saying that I am just me, and I don't need to try and sever that. My upbringing, my family, is a huge part of who I am. I'm proud of them."

"Them" is a bevy of beautiful, blonde siblings - a tattoo on Wilde's arm denotes, in Roman numerals, her position as seventh child. Her father, John Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, is a businessman and both her parents were previously married, which makes Gabriella one of a sprawling clan.

She counts Prince Harry's former flame Cressida Bonas among them (whose mother, Lady Mary-Gaye Curzon, was married to Gabriella's father).

"I think I probably mother in quite a different way to the way I was brought up," says Wilde. "I wasn't breastfed. I sleep with my children and I was definitely in a cot, probably at the other end of the house. My mother didn't work, I do. My parents had very defined roles."

What will she do after the Poldark, West Country bubble bursts? (The show is only due to run to one more season in 2019). "I think maybe not period drama, I'm done with the corsets," she laughs. "I'd love to do something in a T-shirt."

What about The Crown, I offer? She could play her step-sister, Cressida.

"Oh no, no no," she says wide eyed, waving her hands in front of her face in horror. "I think if The Crown is going for that long, then we all need to move on."

'Poldark' returns to the screens tonight at 9pm on BBC One © Telegraph

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