I have been occupied for the past few days watching the complete original version of The Forsyte Saga based on the novels by John Galsworthy. A couple of years ago I tried to watch a more recent 2002 TV adaptation of the same tale but lost interest – the characters lacked conviction compared to the earlier version in my memory.
The original adaptation was first screened on TV in Australia in the late 1960s. It is one of the most memorable and engaging TV dramas I can recall. In Britain, 18 million people watched the final episode of this 26 part series and, as a measure of its near universal appeal, it was the first British drama sold to the former Soviet Union. It was the last major TV drama shot in black and white.
The version I purchased from Amazon.com was a replication of the original version transferred to a set of 7 DVDs from BBC video. Its 26 episodes run for nearly 22 hours with nearly 2 hours of trailers. Once I stated watching I found it as difficult to stop as it is to put down an engaging novel.
What a totally absorbing drama The Forsyte Saga is. Succinct dialogue, superb acting and an engrossing nostalgic look at Victorian and post-Victorian society.
The distinguished Shakespearian actor Eric Porter played the part of the unforgettable, dour Soames Forsyte. Soames was a ‘man of property’ who did have a soft affectionate side but had a very limited capacity to communicate that. In a remarkable trailer on the final DVD Porter reveals that he coped well with the Soames part because it reflected his own character – his own communication problems turned him into an actor.
The other character who was a clear image in my head after nearly 30 years was Soames’ daughter by his second wife, Fleur, played by Susan Hampshire. I still find her performance totally captivating. A flighty, charming yet very determined young post-Victorian woman who was used to getting what she wanted.
Less interesting to me was the beautiful Irene, played by Nyree Porter. She was Soames’ first wife in a tragic, loveless marriage that never worked. Irene did have beauty on her side - she was almost statuesque - but seemed about as cold as Soames without his depth or good qualities.
One of the memories that re-watching the series stirred was the community debate that occurred during the first series over who was the culpable party in the Soames –Irene conflict. Was it the dour Soames or a cold, unyielding Irene? I remember it split viewers strongly. I always had some affection and sympathy for Soames. I thought this might be an unpopular choice but I was interested to learn recently that surveys in Britain at the time suggested most people backed Soames too.
Good story-telling is often about nostalgia. It can be about shifting us to another place or time where we can fantasise. Victorian and post-Victorian England is a convenient source of bourgeois fantasy. Indeed leftwing critics of the series criticised it as such. But The Forsyte Saga is more than nostalgia – it is great drama – indeed I have seen nothing comparable to it for years.