A Saga with Staying Power

Revisiting the unsurpassed TV glories of The Forsyte Saga

Culture & Anarchy TV
Television's finest: Eric Porter as Soames Forsyte and Susan Hampshire as Fleur in "The Forsyte Saga" (Press Association Images)

  In any conversation about the state of contemporary television drama it appears compulsory to note that the finest one ever minted was The Forsyte Saga, first shown in 1967 on BBC2 and then repeated on BBC1. I have vague memories of it as a seven-year-old child, because my mother and father, like most of the rest of the nation, were hooked on it. There are various tales, all of them true, about the effect the broadcast — at 7.25pm on Sundays — had on our lives. The pubs opened later because no one went until the programme had finished (this was a land before video recorders). Evensong was earlier because no one went in case they missed the start of the broadcast; and there was an electricity surge after 8.15 when the couch potatoes got up to put on the kettle. I watched it properly in the Seventies, when the BBC had no hang-ups about repeating black-and-white programmes (it was the last major television series not to be made in colour), and found it so good that I read not just the six John Galsworthy novels on which the dramatisation was based but the three that came after Soames Forsyte’s death. A year or two later I found myself reading English at Cambridge, where almost all of the academics were busily engaged in putting Galsworthy (who won the Nobel Prize for literature, but let that pass) and his contemporaries Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells down the intellectual lavatory where Virginia Woolf had directed they should go.

I watched it for a third time in the mid-Nineties, by which time I knew enough about history to appreciate how very accurate the attention to detail was. It was not merely that the costumes were right and the historical context exactly as it should have been, but everybody sounded authentic. The team who adapted the novels for television did so with utter respect for Galsworthy’s dialogue and, where that dialogue did not exist, with utter respect for his tone and diction. When, early in this century, a new adaptation appeared on ITV with the full benefits of modern technology I found it so dreadful that I lasted only 20 minutes into the first episode. If anyone actually enjoyed it they should seek urgent remedial help.

And now I have just watched it for a fourth time, not so much for entertainment — though, by God, it was entertaining, and conveyed a double nostalgia not just for the period from 1879 to 1926 but for the times when I have seen it before — as to make a necessary re-acquaintance with Galsworthy. I am writing a history of Britain from 1880 to 1914 and he will figure in it, not just as a chronicler of part of the period but also because of his role as a forceful social commentator through his plays, such as Strife and Justice. And since I may not get round to watching it again, I thought it appropriate to register some thoughts on it as a television work, based on 47 years of reflection upon it.

First, one has to be impressed by the refusal of the BBC to imagine that a television audience could not handle 26 episodes, each of 50 minutes’ length. These days anything beyond about six episodes, even for relatively undemanding dross, is considered courageous. But the public not only stayed the course, their numbers swelled during the course, and their attention spans did not waver. More to the point, the script — like the books — is highly literate; and there was no spoon-feeding of the viewer by feeling the need to tell him or her who Queen Victoria was, or what the General Strike was about, because it was assumed they knew about such things. I suspect most of the public still do know such things — our education system is not that pitiful — and resent being patronised in modern costume dramas when they are confronted by the assumption that they don’t.
Second, the acting performances were in some cases astonishing in their excellence. The outstanding player was Eric Porter, then aged 38, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a very serious stage actor. Porter seems to have had some of the troubled aspects to his life that disfigured Soames, and which enabled him to play Galsworthy’s creation with such force. He was the son of a bus driver from Shepherd’s Bush, and his National Service in the RAF was cut short by a nervous breakdown. If you buy the boxed set of DVDs — and you should — you will find numerous good extras, some of which include Porter in rehearsal. They are illuminating for what they show of the proximity of Soames Forsyte’s temperament to his own. The other main star of the series, Nyree Dawn Porter, who plays Soames’s miserable wife Irene, seemed constrained by her part, especially in the later episodes where her main function was to be serene. She was comprehensively out-acted not just by Porter but also by Margaret Tyzack, another superb stage actress, who played Soames’s younger sister Winifred. Honourable mentions should also go Joseph O’Conor, magnificent in his humanity as Old Jolyon, Martin Jarvis, who played the potentially ridiculous role of Jon with great sincerity and aplomb, and John Bennett, whose brief appearance as the doomed Philip Bosinney was marked by a unique mixture of high camp and aggression. Kenneth More, the biggest name in the cast, rather plays himself, which in a way is what Galsworthy would have wanted: and Susan Hampshire, as Soames’s spoilt daughter Fleur, is almost permanently irritating, which is also not far from what the author intended. And the main theme — of the way in which property trumps human feeling — is consistently held until the end, when Soames dies after rescuing his precious art collection from a fire at his house that Fleur, through her usual thoughtlessness, has started.

Other extras on the DVD include interviews with Donald Wilson, the producer, who had nursed the idea of putting the Saga on television for as long as the medium had existed, and with various BBC executives who freely admit they couldn’t see the point of televising it. Even in those days, the idea was reactionary; the Saga did not, to the eyes of progressives, have the outlook the BBC liked to foster and promulgate through its programmes. Yet the public absolutely loved it. Are there lessons to be learned by today’s commissioning editors?