Poker is a classic card game with a long history and that makes it a perfect fit for TV programmes of a certain vintage.
The drama and thrills of the game mean that it is often showcased in high-octane movies including the James Bond series but there are times when it is perfectly suited to more genteel productions.
A hand or two of poker can often be witnessed in a great period TV drama. It may be pivotal to the plot or the game can merely be an amusing aside following supper. Over the history of this television genre, we’ve witnessed some classics and here are some of the best examples.
Partners in Crime
Based on the Tommy and Tuppence novels by Agatha Christie, Partners in Crime carries all the elements of great sleuthing that we associate with this acclaimed author. In the TV series, our hero is Tommy Beresford who, in a sympathetic portrayal by David Walliams, seems to fail in all his endeavours. This is despite his obvious intelligence and logical mind.
Among his shortcomings, Tommy is a terrible poker player and is taken advantage of by those associates who are aware of an easy scalp at the tables. Fortunately, Walliams’ character turns out to be a great detective and against a backdrop of early Cold War Britain, that logical brain is finally put to good use.
No round up of British Period Dramas – no matter what the subject – would be complete without a look behind the doors of Downton Abbey. Among the many twists and subplots, there is a reference to poker and it is an important one in the context of this particular episode.
The memorable scene features the character Terence Sampson who knows Robert Crawley through his London-based Gentleman’s Club. Sampson manages to negotiate an invite to Downton Abbey where he engages in a game of poker with Robert – Lord Grantham, Lord Gillingham. John Bullock and Michael Gregson.
Sampson turns out to be nothing more than a card sharp and, having swindled three players, Crawley, Gillingham and Bullock, they are forced to provide IOUs in lieu of cash.
Our swindler then turns his attention to the fourth and final opponent but Michael Gregson has a trick of his own. In a classic scene, Sampson capitulates and is forced to cancel the IOUs that he holds. Gregson produces some of the best poker quotes in British TV as he threatens to expose Sampson for the swindler that he is and this worrying period for the estate quickly dissipates.
Those that have never watched Downton Abbey may be forgiven for thinking that it depicts a genteel world from days gone by but it isn’t afraid to touch on a darker element at times. Ponzi schemes and shady poker play are interesting examples of how the series strays from its comfortable element at times.
Unlike Downton Abbey, the Poldark TV series has never hidden its capacity to titillate as well as entertain and, among all the romance, sex and intrigue, there is an important scene relating to a game of cards. Francis, a particular ne’er-do-well, loses all of his money, as well as a family mine, at the table in what is a pivotal moment in the very first series.
This is an important scene as it leads to a notable shift in family fortunes. Suddenly, Ross Poldark is the rich, successful member while Francis is faced with penury and forced to reap his own fields.
In the episode, Ross also has an issue with a card sharp friend and, at one stage, is about to suffer the same type of calamity that befell Francis. Faced with a heavy loss, Ross resorts to a more direct method of regaining his money. Fisticuffs ensue, the opponent is thrown over the table and happily, our hero is restored to his financial fruitfulness.
The Gambling Man
Card playing has been such a focal point of British social occasions for centuries and it’s therefore surprising that it features in period dramas only sparingly. All of the examples that we’ve listed are isolated scenes in long running serials but they are all memorable and are crucial to the plot at the time.
In the case of the Gambling Man, however, the entire series is based around our hero’s exploits at the tables. Created by the great Catherine Cookson, followers of this legendary novelist will not be surprised to learn that the series is set in Victorian Tyneside. The central character is played by Robson Green who is a rent collector who decides that he wants to better himself and move on in life.
His only real talent is as a card player so this is where he decides to build his fortune. It’s a bumpy ride along the way for Green’s character but those skills at the poker table eventually help him to succeed and to build the life that he wants.
Like a number of scenes that we’ve unearthed from British TV Period Dramas, The Gambling Man tells a tale of winning against the odds. Skill eventually triumphs, leaving us with some memorable moments to look back on.