Costume dramas at war!
Can the BBC's new period piece 'Poldark' outdo ITV's 'Downton Abbey', asks Joe O'Shea
The BBC is set to go back to the future and revive one of its greatest hits in its latest bid to match the worldwide success of Downton Abbey.
Beeb bosses, stung by the success of ITV in a genre they consider their own, have just announced plans for a new production of Poldark – a major international hit for the corporation in the 1970s.
And this latest broadside in the 'Costume Drama Wars' could be the most expensive yet, with the BBC determined to outdo their rivals after seeing 2010's much-heralded revival of Upstairs Downstairs fail in the face of Downton's massive popularity.
The Poldark announcement came in the week when Downton producer Gareth Neame said he could see his show going on for "another 10 years".
"I think it is going to go on for a while," said Neame.
"Right now the show is still growing in the US and it would be awful to think of the show ending."
The ITV drama is still building audiences worldwide. However, with rumours that writer Julian Fellowes could be about to end his association with Downton to concentrate on a new US period drama (NBC's much-anticipated The Gilded Age), the BBC might sense an opportunity to finally unseat Downton in the affections of millions of viewers.
The original BBC adaptation of Poldark, the romantic saga of a British officer returning from the American Revolutionary War in the late 18th Century, was a huge Sunday-night success in the mid-70s.
Based on the romantic novels of Winston Graham, it ran for just two series but won big audiences in the US and in over 40 other international markets.
Up until 1995's adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice, Poldark was the most successful BBC costume drama ever in terms of international revenue.
Critics of the BBC are already claiming that the corporation has no fresh ideas (after failing with the revived Upstairs Downstairs).
However, BBC One desperately needs a hit after seeing Downton and the less critically acclaimed but almost equally successful Mr Selfridge (which averaged nine million viewers for ITV) earn huge revenues for its rival.
The outgoing BBC One controller Danny Cohen has commissioned Debbie Horsfield, creator of the channel's show Cutting It, to write a six-part adaptation of the Poldark novels with the option of a second series already inked.
Mr Cohen, who left the post to become the BBC's director of television, said: "I hope audiences enjoy the range and creative ambitions of these new dramas for the channel."
The Poldark re-make will stay true to the original story, focusing on the return of gentleman soldier Ross Poldark to his home in rural England from across the Atlantic. He is expecting a joyful reunion but finds that all has changed in his long absence, with family tragedy and romantic betrayal setting him on a turbulent course that will outrage local society and involve him with the headstrong servant girl Demelza.
The 1975 version of Poldark starred Robin Ellis as the returning soldier and actress Angharad Rees (who passed away last year) as Demelza. It was set on the wild and beautiful coast of Cornwall.
Discussions on initial casting have already begun, with the BBC believed to be looking for fresh talent for a drama series that could make one young actress in particular – whoever is chosen to play Demelza – a major star overnight.
And after recent failures, the Beeb knows it cannot afford any mistakes with what should be one of the TV events of 2014.
One thing is for sure, though: they won't be short of material when it comes to further series – Winston Graham wrote a total of 12 Poldark novels.