Cornish hero Poldark is actually a Tractor Boy at heart having been born in Ipswich
- Credit: BBC/Mammoth Screen/Mike Hogan
He may be Cornwell’s hero, but Poldark star Robin Ellis’ roots rest firmly in Suffolk.
The actor and cook book writer talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage about his love for Ipswich Town, the classic 1970s serial and appearing in the remake.
Actor Ellis was born at St Mary’s nursing home in Ipswich while his father was stationed in the town with the RAF during the Second World War. He’s followed the Blues from the Third Division South onwards ever since.
“Every week it’s always been a thing to check on the Ipswich result online,” says the 73-year-old, who’s never been to Portman Road but did see Town beat Arsenal 0-1 in the 1978 FA Cup final and recalls sitting next to Sir Bobby Robson at Lords once.
“I do hear Mick McCarthy and this team are rather exceptional in the sense their success has been built, and this is where it’s impressive I think, slowly with a team and that it’s not always just money that breeds success. One day I will get to see them, it’s more difficult nowadays because I live in Southern France.”
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“Both are very much ‘a team effort’. I found that in my career at Stratford when I was with a group called the Actors’ Company in the early 1970s, which was formed by Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge. We chose all the plays, the directors...
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“Early on in my TV career I did two or three classic serials and over a period of months you got to know people and it did help in terms of what appears on the screen. So there is a connection between it I’m sort of thrilled about Ipswich doing it that way.”
While the family were only in Ipswich three months before his father was re-stationed, his connection to Suffolk has remained strong over the years.
“We used to go to Southwold on holiday quite often in the 1950s, we had some very nice times there. My aunt Mary lived in Benhall Green, just outside Saxmundham, for about 30 years until she died. We used to visit her there regularly.
“I did a thing called the Dark Adapted Eye (by former fellow Suffolk residen Ruth Rendell) not so long ago. I think some of that was filmed in Suffolk actually. The county has these huge skies and it’s sort of as extreme as a mountain in certain areas - very striking, its beauty, unspoilt too.”
While Ellis will always be dashing Cornish hero Poldark to most, to me he’ll always be Danny Brown, who falls foul of Basil Fawlty in Touch of Class, the very first episode of Fawlty Towers.
He actually starred alongside the series’ creator John Cleese in a Trevor Nunn production of Much Ado About Nothing at Cambridge,
“It puzzles me to this day why he (Cleese) cast me but thank God he did, I’ve earned an awful lot of money relatively speaking from that one episode,” laughes Ellis.
“It was a hairy experience because I had to speak fluent Spanish to Manuel and I had to learn it by rote as it were. The first time I did it perfectly and then they said ‘I’m sorry we’ll have to do it again because there’s a camera in shot’.”
These days, Ellis can be found living in Southern France with wife Meredith, writing cookbooks for people with diabetes and blogging about rural life at www.robin-ellis.net
“I’ve written two books, one called Delicious Dishes for Diabetics and the other Healthy Eating For Life: Over 100 Simple and Tasty Recipes. I’ve a third out at the beginning of next year,” says the actor, who has type two diabetes, who has also just recorded my memoir Making Poldark as an audiobook.
“I’m type two diabetic and the point is really to demonstrate that you can eat very deliciously and simply with the condition, as it were. Having the condition isn’t the end of your delicious eating.”
He may have buckled his last swash, but Ellis jumped at the chance to appear in the latest TV adaption of Winston Graham’s Poldark books; playing the Reverend Mr Halse.
“It’s a small cameo. The first scene I played in the new version I played in the first version as Ross Poldark but I’m playing the judge this time. That was a rather curious feeling,” he laughs.
“I was honoured, they were very sweet to ask and I relished it. It doesn’t happen very often that an actor who did something 40 years ago is still around to take part in a new version of it, so it was an unusual situation.
“At the end of the first day’s shoot it was charming... The director came onto the set, it was a big courtroom scene so there were a lot of extras, and he said ‘before everybody goes home I would just like to say how extraordinary it is to have two Ross Poldarks in the same room’. Everybody clapped and we were all very happy.”
Set in late 18th Century Cornwell, the original series focused on ex-soldier Poldark who returns home from the American Revoltuion to find himself presumed killed, his fiancée married to his cousin, his father dead and the family business in ruin.
It was the romance between him and servant girl Demelza, the late Angharad Rees, that really had viewers on the edge of their seat during its 29-episode run in the mid to late 1970s.
Five million people watched the first episode. It became so popular evening church services in Cornwall had to be moved as everybody was at home watching it. Broadcast in more than 40 countries, Ellis remembers being mobbed by 2,000 fans in Madrid once, it came second only to Pride and Prejudice in terms of video sales.
“It was watched by a lot of people in the end. This was 40 years ago, so there wasn’t anything like the choice of channels there is now so that’s a factor. Graham was a very good storyteller, so it’s a classic combination of a very good story set in a very spectacular place with wonderful characters,” he says.
“If you dramatize that it already has an appeal. A lot of people did know it from the books because they were popular, so it had a prominence. The series had a lot going for it and the timing was right, I think the timing is right again. Costume drama is back on the box in a big way and I think this new production stands a very good chance of being a big hit.”
The original series was more restrained than its successor - expect to see a LOT of new Poldark Aidan Turner - Graham wasn’t a fan of the term bodice ripper. Ellis recalls taking his shirt off once. The next day the woman at the local laundrette wagged her finger at him and said big mistake. It was the last time he did it.
Did Ellis have any tips for Turner?
“There was a photo session where we chatted and he told me about his early days ballroom dancing all over Ireland and I told him about my cooking (Ellis writes cookbooks for people with diabetes and blogs about rural life in Southern France where he lives with wife Meredith). We went out to dinner one night which was very pleasant (but) I wouldn’t dream of giving him advice, he’s perfectly capable. He looks wonderful and he’s very good in it.”
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