ROBIN ELLIS: talks about Poldark and his new passions


Today it’s ‘Downton Abbey’, but  thirty-five years ago, we were obsessed with ‘Poldark’, a saga of unbridled passions, heaving bosoms and men in skin tight breeches. Filmed against the beautiful backdrop of Cornwall, the drama was addictive. Forget ‘Matthew Crawley’. Ross Poldark, with his darkly handsome looks and rebellious nature, was sex on legs and the nation’s women lusted after him.
’Poldark’ became so popular that some vicars rescheduled Sunday services so as not to compete with it.
But Robin Ellis, until then relatively unknown to television audiences, was a talented actor with a list of acting credits ranging from ‘Fawlty Towers’ to Shakespeare, when suddenly he was an international sex symbol. 
Speaking to him at his home in France, I wondered how he had coped with all that adulation.           
‘I wasn’t used to it’ he admitted ‘after all, at that time I was a *serious* actor’. Any seeming pomposity is swiftly dispelled by his laughter. ‘but I think I handled it ok.  I was just a bit embarrassed by it.  I remember one time I was visiting the Aldwych Theatre, in London, and there was a crowd of Irish schoolgirls with their two nuns, and they chased me around the theatre, with the nuns trying to catch up. I hid up in the upper circle because I couldn’t really deal with it’   He laughs at the memory ‘I’m not sure I saw the second half of the play! But it’s lovely to think of those girls now because they will all be in their forties with several children each’.

Such was the life of a reluctant sex symbol in the ‘70s -  but Robin Ellis would reinvent himself.
Having met and fallen in love with Meredith Wheeler, writer and news producer for ABC News in New York, he remembers how ‘Poor Meredith had to put up with 3 or 4 on/off starts until we finally got married in 1990‘ 
Meredith wanted Robin to meet her friend and ex colleague, Hughes Rudd, who had retired to the Tarn, so one weekend they flew to France.
‘I usually flew over France en-route for Italy but when I got there, I thought the area was beautiful. It reminded me of Tuscany.’  He was so smitten, over lunch he asked if they knew of any houses for sale.
‘By chance, some friends of Hughes knew of this house. It’s a Presbytere, where the Priest would have lived, and I think it was built about 1715. We looked at it at 2pm on the Monday and fell in love. By 5pm, I’d agreed to pay the asking price. I didn’t even know where we were other than we were in a region called Tarn because of the river, and east of Toulouse, because we had flown into Toulouse airport.  I just knew we wanted the house.’
For the next nine years, they travelled back and forth at weekends and on the ‘big holidays’ but each time it became increasingly more difficult to leave until in 1999, as their ‘millennial gesture’, they moved permanently to France

‘It was the right thing to do’, he says reflectively ‘Our parents were dead, we had no children, no responsibilities. I had a brother, Jack, an actor, living in London, and another Peter, in Los Angeles.  Meredith is from Chicago - all her family is in the US’
Then thirteen years ago, following a routine blood test, he was diagnosed with Diabetes type 2.  He knew all about the disease because his mother had type 1 and she had died at 68 from a heart attack related to diabetes.
‘So I knew how serious it was. I’ve always loved food, and have always cooked so we’ve always eaten well. I didn’t want that to change so I began to adapt a bit. White bread and rice had to go. I read a book by Michel Montignac, a very clever man, who said you should never diet. You just need to develop a new way of eating. In my case, I paid particular attention to the Glycemic Index and all foods that affect our blood sugar levels’
By diet and exercising a bit more - walking and gentle yoga, Robin managed to control his diabetes for years without medication. These days he takes a pill each day. ‘ but I am so glad I avoided medication for 6 years’.
Robin makes daily early morning visits to his local market – he likes to be there by 7.15am to stock up on provisions for his tasty recipes: fresh tomatoes, garlic, rocket, parsley, strawberries, poultry reared locally, and fresh anchovies, sardines for lunch. ‘these things taste so much better than when bought in the supermarkets’
Perhaps thinking to help other diabetics, he decided to publish a cook book called ‘Delicious Dishes for Diabetics – A Mediterranean Way of Eating’, which became a bestseller, and he has just been commissioned to write a follow up book, to be published in January, 2013.     So where does he get all his recipe ideas?
‘I’ve always collected recipes – my mother did too for years and years- and I have two big, big books full of cuttings, written out recipes which I’ve been collecting for about thirty years, and I have about 50, probably more, cookery books so my first cookery book was an Anthology really.  With every recipe, I cook it and rewrite it as I cook.’
This all seems a long way from acting so has Robin Ellis, the actor, retired?
‘Actors never retire!’  reminding me that his last ‘job’ had been as an American murderer in an episode of the Swedish thriller ‘Wallender’. ‘I enjoyed that.  So no, I’ve not retired.  Living in France makes it more difficult because I am not on the spot but should the right script arrive, I’ll be there!’
Not surprisingly, his favourite role remains Ross Poldark, a character he feels shared many of his own qualities. ‘If he’d have lived now, I think he’d have been reading The Guardian. Of course it’s difficult to compare us because he lived over 200 years ago but his spirit, and to a certain extent his bloody mindedness, could be me. He was an independent spirit outside the Establishment – a rebel within his own class. I can’t claim to be that but certainly I can sympathise’
Looking back, he remembers the Poldark years with fondness.  ‘ It was a wonderfully happy time!  I made some good friends tho’ sadly some are no longer with us.  Dear Ralph Bates (Francis Poldark) died twenty years ago, and of course darling Anghared Rees (Demelza) who died this year.  Far too young.  Very sad.  But there are others who have remained good friends and who I see regularly, like Donald Douglas (Capt MacNeil) – he lives in France, and Christopher Benjamin (Sir Hugh Bodrugan) has family in France so I see him when he visits.’
I wondered how he felt when the series ended?
‘Well, at the time, in 1977, we were ready to finish. We’d done 29 episodes – all the books, and thought ‘Right, that’s it. Great while it lasted. Good stories, great locations and the public loved it. Now, time to move on.’ 
Then in the 1990s, came the decision to revive it. 
‘Yes, that was a disaster’ he laughs, seemingly with satisfaction, ‘We were almost involved but I think it was good that we weren’t.  The spirit behind it was not really right.  The company doing it only wanted to use Anghared and myself. They weren’t going to use any of the music or any of the other actors and the script wasn’t very good.  It all felt a bit exploitative so in the end, I was glad – although it would have been interesting to play the same character twenty years older’
Thirty five years on and ‘Poldark’  remains a global success. The series is repeated on television channels worldwide, a re-mastered 8-disc dvd box set of the complete series is on sale, ready to capture a new generation of fans, while Robin has rewritten his book, ‘Making Poldark’.  A memoir of his time in Cornwall while filming the series, this edition will include never before seen photographs from Winston Graham’s private collection.
Today, his once dark hair may be silver  but he looks a good ten years younger than his 70 years. He is fit, walking 5-6 miles a day and loves living in France, his life with Meredith - and Beau and Ben, their cats.
Robin Ellis is as charming as ever, as Ross Poldark would have been. 
So how would he like to be remembered ?
‘I don’t really think of being remembered yet. I’m still here!  But If I have to think about it: I’d like to be remembered as someone who enjoyed life, who was also a good actor.’
Robin Ellis is obviously a happy, contented man, but I was curious.
Was there anything he would change ? 
He pondered for a moment,   
‘My trousers ?’

Cornwall Life - December, 2012

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