You cannot make a TV show with beautiful scenery and muscly torsos alone!*
When Poldark came back to our screens this year it did so with a bang. A hit in the ratings and with critics, much was made of Aiden Turner’s beautifully chiseled (and frequently exposed) chest as well as, of course, the excellent acting from a diverse British cast and the always fantastic Cornish countryside (arguably a character in it’s own right). Underpinning all this sexy and broody period drama is Anne Dudley’s atmospheric score. Dudley has a fantastically eclectic mix of past film and television credits, working on projects as diverse as Jeeves & Wooster and American History X (not to mention she nabbed an Oscar for her work on The Full Monty) and she was an excellent choice to score this new take on the classic Poldark story.
Dudley’s soundtrack works hand in hand with the visuals of the program to conjure up a very familiar, romantic vision of 18th century Kernow. Starting with ‘The crossroads’, we are introduced to this new, beautiful yet haunting world of Ross Poldark. The one song on the album, – ‘Medhel an gwyns’ (co-written with Mike O’Connor) – comes next followed by ‘The longest walk’ and ‘The bal maidens’, which I particularly liked as it brought to life the exciting Cornish coastline as well as containing what feels to be the core motif of the soundtrack. Things calm down a little for ‘An army against one man’ before we get to track six where we find the show’s main title theme. A short punchy theme that sets us up tonally, this is a strong forty seconds of music that under pins and hints at many of the later tracks, as well the ‘The bal maidens’.
‘Love of my life’ provides a gentle piano based love theme that opens up nicely with a light string section, succeeded by the positive and pretty ‘The blue dress’. ‘Resurgam’ is a gently optimistic piece paired with the darkly exciting ‘Liberty or tyranny’ which builds into a fast, imposing action theme. ‘Daring to hope’, ‘Working the quillett’ and ‘truth and consequence’ all follow in succession, offering comforting mood setters. ‘Where the land meets the sea’ would easily make it into my top 5 tracks for this album and leans subtly on tones from the main theme.
‘The Carnmore Copper Company’ and ‘Becoming porcelain’ are both gentle incidentals. ‘A seam of ironstone’ has an interestingly modern feel, using some low bass before dipping into a variation on the main theme again. ‘A blood red moon’ is a suitably eerie track showing great use of strings and harp, while ‘Copper and tin’ is a punchy, percussion-full piece that helps pick up the pace of the album before the final track, ‘Luck of the devil’, a rather dark and slightly forbidding piece ending with a dramatic string.
As someone with family roots in Cornwall I found the music really did remind me of home, and I listened to parts of this soundtrack as I headed back to visit family. Staring out across the misty Cornish countryside as my train gently trundled from Liskeard to Looe, the sound of tracks like ‘The blue dress’ and ‘Where the land meets the sea’ genuinely resonated with the landscape rolling past. Out of context of the show but in context of the geography that shaped and inspired the narrative, I found this music really came alive.
The soundtrack, as a whole, truly evokes the stark, beautiful darkness of the Cornish landscape. I’d argue that the score touches less often on the more joyful, irreverent atmospheres of Cornish life but that’s not a criticism of the music itself, the tone of the program it serves dips less into the country fair side of the culture and more into the brooding on the cliff tops side of things! That’s not to say the score lacks joy, often to the contrary, it’s a very emotionally charged soundtrack that takes great pleasure in its themes and narrative source. The song, ‘Medhel an gwyns’, is an especially lovely piece, though the folk music fan in me would have liked this track to feel a little more authentic. It defiantly has the vibe of a contemporary composition of a traditional style folk ballad – but much of that is my taste and taking that out of the equation this really dose hark back to the lamentful old folk songs from the region. Within the soundtrack itself ‘Medhel an gwyns’ provides a beautiful moment of sad reflection which I really enjoyed in the middle of all the pure music.
There is an elegance to Dudley’s music, weaving tones that feel familiar with a confident freshness. Many tracks feel light and crisp, though never frothy and I found myself going back to listen to some of them several times. Not all soundtracks stand up to being listened to out of context of the show or film they were composed for. This is a very beautiful soundtrack with some strong themes that are often reworked and referenced to great effect throughout but some tracks do feel like incidental music and don’t stand out as uniquely as others. ‘The longest walk’ for example, while very beautiful, does feel by itself, ironically, as if it’s not going anywhere.
Anne Dudley has created a strong, beautiful soundtrack for a beautifully crafted TV show. As an album it’s equally entertaining but if making a playlist from it, I’d probably be tempted to skip one or two tracks to get straight to the really good bits!
– Robert Turnbull
Poldark is out now from Sony Classical
*Note: I have writer this entire review with my shirt off in tribute to Aiden Turner.