Until she took on the most recent screen adaptation of classic Cornish historical literary saga Poldark, writer Debbie Horsfield was best known for a string of Manchester-based dramas.
It’s now 30 years since the first of her three series of BBC 1 factory-based drama Making Out went out. But her first TV writing credits were for Granada’s Crown Court in 1982 and feature-length Northern Soul story, Out on the Floor a year later, when still in her late 20s.
And while further BBC success, Cutting It (2003/5) truly raised her profile, since 2015 she’s attracted prime Sunday night audiences for an ambitious Mammoth Screen production, this current series of Poldark set to be the last … at least for now.
North West fans can learn more about Debbie’s success story when she’s a guest at a new literature and film festival at Stonyhurst College, near Clitheroe, Lancashire, next Saturday, August 17th, the location a relatively short ride for Debbie and her husband, actor and former Stonyhurst pupil Martin Wenner (the pair also married in the college grounds), from their home near Glossop on the Cheshire/Derbyshire border.
And these last few Sunday nights it appears that the mum of four’s been a nervous wreck at home while Poldark has been aired, irrespective of the positive reception of the first four series.
“Absolutely, I always am, when anything of mine goes out. I’ll have seen it all loads of times as an executive producer, but there’s something about seeing it go out on the night, knowing the world is watching. A bit nerve-racking. But I watch it with all my family around, which makes it less terrifying.”
Does she sit and watch her creations in ‘real time’, occasionally letting on with knowing glances and a glint in the eye, ‘Ooh, I could tell you stories about this scene’?
“I try and watch it like an audience member, and there’s a rule that nobody does any talking. I have some family members who would chatter all the way through if they could.”
I know where she’s coming from there. And I tend to find this new generation – not least my teenage daughters – watch telly while checking their mobile phones, yet can’t work out how they miss something key.
“I don’t do social media, so I’m not looking at all that, but I know a lot of people tweet and watch at the same time. That’s not my thing though.”
There was a major opportunity – but also a huge challenge – as a scriptwriter to bridge a gap between Winston Graham’s Poldark books for this series, there being a fairly long gap in the story between 1977’S The Angry Tide and 1981’s The Stranger From the Sea. Did that lead to lots of frustrating script revisions?
“It’s fair to say we never knew from one series to the next whether we’d be going any further. You never know if something’s going to be successful, but the actors were optioned for five series, so there was that opportunity if it was a success. Book seven (The Angry Tide) goes up to where we took series four, then it goes forward nearly 11 years and there’s a further five books, so we knew we wouldn’t be able to fit five books into one (last) series.
“The option was to stop after four series or have a look at the clues Winston Graham left in book eight (The Stranger From the Sea) about things that happened in the interim. And there are clues. He talks about things that happen to the characters and touches on things, but doesn’t go into massive detail.
“I talked to Andrew Graham, Winston’s son, and we agreed that filling in some of those missing years and using as the starting point the clues Winston left while looking at his own methods for creating stories, which was increasingly to look at what was happening historically, socially and politically at the time, such as slavery, the Acts of Union in 1800, Acts of parliament designed to suppress potential revolution, the Napoleonic Wars …”
It all seems so resonant and relevant to what’s going on here with this Brexit farce at the moment.
“I think the books have always been relevant to what’s happening today. When the first series came out, people asked if I’d invented the bits about greedy, self-serving bankers. But maybe some things never change.”
Winston’s son Andrew, a political economist, was a big wheel in the Labour Party from the late ‘60s to the mid-‘90s, wasn’t he?
“Yes, he was an economic adviser to several Labour Governments. I’ve become very good friends with Andrew and his wife Peggotty, and they’ve been a tremendous support, with Andrew the next best thing to getting to Winston himself.”
Debbie missed out on getting to know Winston, who died at the grand age of 95 in July 2003, a year after the publication of the 12th and final Poldark book, Bella Poldark), but there are parallel between the pair, not least the fact that he was originally from Manchester, born and raised in Victoria Park, just a few miles from her own Urmston and (even closer) Eccles roots (albeit a long time before).
“Yes, he didn’t move to Cornwall until he was 17, so there’s certainly that connection. I didn’t know there were books and didn’t watch the original series in the ‘70s until Mammoth Screen sent me the first two books and asked if I’d consider adapting them. I read them and found them an amazing read, and timeless I suppose. Love triangles, ambition, business rivalry – those things are never going to seem old-fashioned.
“I knew Cornwall a little before, having had holidays there, but obviously I’ve got to know it better since. In my younger days, holidaying in Cornwall, I absolutely loved the whole coastline around Tintagel, having always been fascinated by Arthurian legend. And what I’ve come to love from filming in Cornwall are all those amazing headlands, such as those near Land’s End, around the mines, really spectacular, and St Agnes Head, so wild and epic. And I think they’ve become a character in their own right in telling the story.
“Cornwall’s an amazing place, and there was never any question that we’d try and film those exteriors – the wild nature, the beaches, the coves, the cliffs – there. Nowhere else looks like Cornwall, I don’t think, although I understand why some productions go elsewhere. I recall massive complaints when the latest adaptation of Jamaica Inn filmed some of its town scenes in Kirkby Lonsdale, but there are very few places that look as if they’ve been untouched since the late 18th century. Similarly, we couldn’t film in Truro, which doesn’t look anything like it did back in the 18th century.”
Instead, you settled on the Cotswolds for those scenes.
“Yes, within striking distance of our studio in Bristol.“
I interviewed Ed Bazalgette, who directed the first four episodes, broadcast in 2015, about his role as director as well as his past and present involvement with my hometown band The Vapors, and he let on about the amount of background research carried out into the times the books are set. I’m guessing you all learned a lot along the way.
“The funny thing is that Winston Graham does all the research you could ever need. You just need to read the books. To begin with, I started out to see whether we needed any additional material that would be needed, but the truth is that his research was absolutely impeccable, even down to things like illnesses and diseases of the late 18th century, and what the physical symptoms would be.
“He had it all off to a tee. I soon learned there was no need to question or query the detail of what he was writing. His research was just immaculate. But I think it was exciting for Ed and for me. When you work on a period drama all your departments – design, costumes, make-up, and so on – have to research so the whole thing looks authentic. It was a big lesson for me, such as how much more difficult it makes a production if it’s a period drama, because period costumes are way more expensive to make. You can’t just get them off the peg as you would with contemporary drama. You can’t have endless versions of a costume. Often, you only have one. For instance, if something gets wet …
“In another example, when we started episode one of series one, what turned out to be a skirmish in the American War of Independence was actually supposed to be a much bigger battle, but we couldn’t get the uniforms. We could only get – I think – six Redcoat uniforms. The others were all out on a Jimmy McGovern production called Banished. So what was meant to be a battle ended up a skirmish with six soldiers. Those are the kind of things when you watch a show where you can never know the reality of what having to create it has been. That was a big eye-opener.”
There’s a duty of care to do right by the books, and I know you have the Graham family’s blessing. But I also get the impression you must feel you know by now (not least through close study of the original books) the author’s mindset.
“There is, but the thing I’ve discovered through doing adaptations is that things that work brilliantly in a novel may not work at all on screen. In a perfect example, a lot of the story’s told through internal thoughts, but nobody wants to have somebody have a voiceover for hours on end. You’ve got to find ways of dramatising those internal thoughts, either making them into a conversation with somebody with whom that character would be likely to be talking to, or find other ways to articulate that. While sometimes the chapters in the book are wonderful and go on for pages and pages, you can’t have a scene that goes on for 20 minutes in a drama.”
I must admit I was worried about this adaptation before, being a fan of the books and the original televised version, but I was quickly impressed by the results. Debbie and her team have certainly carried the spirit of the original, through the writing, filming, and acting, finding the right balance. I was fairly young when the Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees-led original TV adaptations went out, but recall key scenes, such as the original production’s prison break, various Ross and Demelza scenes (ah, Angharad, sigh), the hero riding on the beach, and so on. But many of the scenes in the remake now also stick in the mind, although I have to say that at key points, my better half and I will shout, ‘Get away from the edge!’ when we see someone going hell for leather riding along the cliff path.
“Well, in reality that’s a good point. No one’s going to be riding along cliff edges. That’s not going to be the quickest route into town. But fact is that if you’ve got the cliff edge … It looks spectacular, so you may as well use it. If you’re making the landscape a character, you should show it off.”
Fair enough, and I don’t think the Cornwall Tourism Office would have a problem with that.
“I don’t think so.”
You’ve no doubt made lots of friends during filming too – cast, crew and locals.
“The thing is that when you’re working with the same cast for five years, and I’ve been working with the production company far longer. And it’s coming up to seven years since they first sent me the books and I took them away on holiday to read them. I’ve made friends for life. It’s been very special, and I hope to work with many of them again.”
That’s a lot of crew, and I guess we’re talking from Aidan and Eleanor right through to their beloved dog, Garrick on the acting side.
“Yeah, people often say about Garrick that he must be the oldest puppy! How is he still alive?”
You say you first read the first novel, Ross Poldark in 2012. Have you now read right through to Bella Poldark, way ahead of where we’re at as this series ends?
“Absolutely, and you need that overview. I haven’t read the later books quite as exhaustively, but I’ve probably read those ones I’ve adapted seven or eight times, and would have them on the desk next to me all the time.”
While I’m on that subject, in response to an inevitable question about another Poldark series, you previously said you expected something ‘somewhere down the line possibly’. Is that right?
“I have no expectation. We’re all very clear that this is it. Having said that, there are five more books that carry on the story, so what I’ve said is that I could never say never. But I’m very clear that we’ve come to the end as things stand.”
Before Poldark, the majority of Debbie’s screen and stage work was set in and around the North West, largely in her native Greater Manchester, fictional or otherwise. Sex, Chips and Rock’n’Roll, The Riff-Raff Element, Cutting It, True Dare Kiss, All the Small Things, Age Before Beauty … she’s found so much inspiration from her home patch, writing along the way about the North/South divide, and – as with Poldark – class politics.
“Yeah, and pretty much everything was my original stuff. I hadn’t written an adaptation before Poldark.”
So where do you go from here with your writing? Back to Manchester?
”Well, one of the things I’m writing at the moment is definitely there, and another is set between there and London. I can’t mention either yet. They haven’t been announced yet, but there has been an announcement from Mammoth Screen that we’re looking at doing an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo further down the line. So that’s definitely not in the North West of England!”
In a feature for August 2019’s Cornwall Today you did mention there’s ‘not a tricorn in sight’.
“There’s not, sadly … although there might be some in Monte Cristo. I think they were still wearing tricorns then.”
And are any of your children following in your footsteps, as budding screen and scriptwriters?
“None of them have gone into writing, although two are doing a variety of fairly creative things. They’re not children anymore though – the eldest is 32 and the youngest is 25!”
My eldest daughter – a history undergraduate with a keen interest in drama – was inspired by seeing you give a talk in York, not least when it came to talk of dilemmas facing you and your team procuring costumes in a bid to ensure authenticity, talking about a key Ross and Demelza bedroom scene.
“Actually, that was one of the few things Winston Graham got wrong, and we didn’t realise until our costume designer said, ‘No, I can’t give you a dress that fastens down the back, because that wasn’t what they had then.’ There was a lot of discussion about that, and in the end I had to concede that while I got that it was historically inaccurate, for the purposes of the story it had to be that way. There are times when a story has to trump historical accuracy, and that was definitely one of them.”
How did you get to meet your husband? I see Martin was cast in Making Out in 1991 and True Dare Kiss in 2007.
“He was cast in a play of mine at the Liverpool Playhouse. I started off writing for theatre before I got into television. We met at an audition in 1983, he got cast … and it all happened from there!”
It seems that much of the television world has upped sticks and moved into your old backyard in recent years, with yourself, Paul Abbott and Sally Wainwright prime examples with many prestigious credits to your names. It’s a good time for Northern writers.
“Do you know, I think it always has. When I went to the Liverpool Playhouse, it was run by Willy Russell of Educating Rita fame, Alan Bleasdale had just done Boys form the Blackstuff, while Jimmy McGovern was my contemporary at the Playhouse, Kaye Mellor was up and coming … For me it’s not new that there’s this great body of Northern writers.
“And my stuff has always been filmed in and around Manchester, including filming at Stonyhurst. I had two series of The Riff Raff Element, which was set around Clitheroe and Slaidburn, and we filmed at the college.”
Although you started out, career-wise, in Newcastle while studying there.
“Yes, I went to university there. That’s where I started out, although truth is that I’d been writing since I was about four! But I wrote a play and took it to the Edinburgh Festival as a student, and I got my first job in a little theatre – the Gulbenkian Studio – as an assistant administrator. I had a great time in Newcastle, and while there the Royal Shakespeare Company were touring, I made connections, and soon heard there was a job going for an artistic director. So I got that job then moved to London, living there for a few years before moving back to Manchester. And we’ve been in Broadbottom since 1996.”
I’m intrigued by mention on your credits profile of the Out on the Floor TV film in 1983, as a Northern Soul fan. I missed that, but it pre-dated Elaine Constantine’s Northern Soul film by 30 years. Was that a scene you were part of?
“Most people will have missed it, to be honest. It started out as a stage play. I think it was the very first thing I had produced professionally. I kind of wrote it on spec. I raised the money to take a play to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and didn’t really expect anything to come of it, but got an agent and a couple of theatre directors told us to keep in touch and let them know what I was writing next.
“I wrote Out on the Floor because my sisters were really mad on Northern Soul and would go to Wigan Casino. And this play got taken up by the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London. They had this studio – literally a little portable cabin – and I don’t know how the director heard about this but the BBC were looking at doing a series featuring plays by new writers, he sent it to them, and they got me to adapt it, for my first TV show.”
A lot of your work before Poldark seems to have been at least semi-autobiographical.
“Yeah, for instance my series Cutting It – my twin sisters were hairdressers. I do tend to write about the world I know about. Not necessarily something I’ve done myself, but I need to have some kind of connection.”
I guess most of us first became aware of you as a writer through Making Out in 1989/91. That was filmed mostly around Tameside, with soundtrack input from Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert from New Order, aka The Other Two, whose soundtrack credits soon included the BBC’s Common as Muck (1994/97) and the pilot of Manchester-based ITV comedy drama Cold Feet (1997). Was that where your music taste laid?
“I’m way older than that! I love New Order, but it wasn’t actually my idea. That was the producer, John Chapman (who also produced Common as Muck). We never thought for one minute they’d agree, but they did, and it was incredible.
“The irony was that in the heyday of the Hacienda my kids were really tiny. I had a new-born and a two-year-old, so it wasn’t the kind of thing I was able to take advantage of. I was at home feeding the baby. Yes, I missed all that, I’m afraid.”
There was a return to your theatrical roots with a musical adaptation of Sex, Chips & Rock’n’Roll at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2005. Could you always be tempted back to that side of the business?
“Definitely, I love writing for theatre, although it tends to be a much longer gestation period in my experience. What I’m enjoying at the moment is – literally and metaphorically – not being on a treadmill … albeit a very pleasant one, these last six years, with a schedule that’s been incredibly punishing, although it’s been exhilarating, and I’ve loved it.
“There was one year when I literally had one day off. You can’t continue at that level. It helped that the kids were all grown up and I was no longer driving to football training or band practise … although I have to say I really miss that too.
“There are a lot of hours in the day that are freed up by not driving people to whatever training there is. But I was only saying to my youngest son yesterday how I loved those times, when you’re sitting in a car just chatting, the two of you together. No, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Debbie Horsfield appears at Stonyhurst Literature & Film Festival, Stonyhurst College, near Clitheroe, Lancashire, on Saturday, August 17th, with more about the two-day festival programme, other guests and events, here.
With thanks to Alex Gill and Debbie Horsfield for images used in this feature.
For more about Debbie’s adaptation of Poldark, follow these official links for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For the latest from Mammoth Screen, head here. And for more about Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, try this Pan Macmillan link.