Do You Know About the Forsyte Saga?

While Downton Abbey has recently premiered on Masterpiece Theatre, we thought we’d tell you about another great period drama, The Forsyte Saga. Whether, like me, you prefer the older version (1967) or the new (2002), settling in to watch the Forsyte Saga is like snuggling up with a brandy in front of the fire – comfortable, cosseting and considerably entertaining. Like all good costume dramas, the Forsyte Saga provides romance, drama and skull duggery based on a series of three novels – The Man of Property, In Chancery and To Let -and two interludes published between 1906 and 1921 by author John Galsworthy, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932. The twenty-six episodes cover the history of the aristocratic Forsyte family between the years 1879 and 1926. You should be aware that the 2002 version only covered the first two of Galway’s novels and only ran for seven episodes. The plot revolved around the feuds and machinations of the Forsyte family and their London merchants’ business, with each episode culminating in a melodramatic cliffhanger ending. Together with the fact that the original version was filmed in black and white, the series has a decidedly “soap opera” feel to it, and we say Bravo!

The Forsyte Saga chronicles the ebbing social power of the upper-middle class Forsyte family through three generations, beginning in Victorian London during the 1880s and begins with Soames Forsyte (right, played by Eric Porter), a successful solicitor who buys land at Robin Hill on which to build a house for his wife Irene and future family. Little does he suspect (at first) that Irene has only married him for his money. Beneath his very proper exterior lies a core of unhappiness and a string of brutal relationships. Eventually, the Forsyte family begins to disintegrate when Timothy Forsyte, the last of the old generation, dies at the age of 100. Soames’ cousin Jolyon abandons his distraught wife and won’t see his children again for some years, whilst architect Philip Bosinney, besides having an affair with Irene, plays fast and loose with Soames’ money while building him a house.

A much darker and condensed version of the novels appeared in the movie That Forsyte Woman (1949), which starred Errol Flynn as Soames, Greer Garson as Irene, Walter Pidgeon as young Jolyon, Robert Young as Philip Bosinney and Janet Leigh as June.

In his novels, Galsworthy documented a departed way of life, that of the affluent middle class that ruled England before the 1914 war. Galsworthy’s masterly narrative examines not only their fortunes but also the wider developments within society, particularly the changing position of women. Honestly, you’ll find yourself cheering for the good guys, absolutely loathing Soames and losing patience with the aristocratic ladies who fail to hear you yelling at the screen, “For God’s sake, speak up, walk out, do something!”

One of our favorite acresses, Susan Hampshire (Monarch of the Glen), plays Fleur in the original version.
The series attracted no less than six million viewers on its first showing and when repeated on BBC1 the following year, a staggering 18 million people tuned in. The success of the series, which won a Royal Television Society Silver Medal and a BAFTA award for Best Drama, prompted the BBC to plough further resources into similar blockbusting “costume” dramas, a strategy that led to the production of such series as The Pallisers and Upstairs, Downstairs.

You can watch a bit of Episode One here.

6 thoughts on “Do You Know About the Forsyte Saga?”

  1. I have already have Forsyte Saga on my Netflix queue…
    But after episode 3, I am still enjoying Downton Abbey. In a bizzare way it reminds me of All Creatures Great and Small. I get to spend a bit of time in a pleasant place with (mostly) pleasant people. There's enough emotion for me in Downton Abbey, and enough conflict to be interesting, but the quality of visiting a pleasant place in an interesting time is appealing.

  2. Whatever you do, avoid the remake of The Forsyte Saga!!! It is SO NOT the original! And Gina McKee, fine actress that she is, is no Irene. Nyree Dawn Porter had the exquisite looks that defined Irene — alas, too beautiful for her own good and the obsession of the odious Soames!

    Remakes are dangerous!

  3. I've seen both versions of The Foryste Saga and enjoyed both, although of course, the remake is shorter and the actors for some reason don't seem to age, particularly Rupert Graves as Jolyon who looked gorgeous for most of both series. I've even read the first book of the series. I'm curious to see the film with Errol Flynn and Greer Garson, which is mostly about Irene and Soames.

  4. I agree with Jo — the remake is not worth watching. But the old version is the series that MADE Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. And it is well worth watching again on DVD. Frankly, I love B&W — gives it an aura color can't match. I adored young Jolyon, wanted Soames to choke on his tight collar, but loved Fleur in her foolishness. Imaging going ballistic over being called "The Limit!" Nyree Dawn Porter as Irene was superb.

  5. All, I think Nyree Dawn Porter (her first name was Maori, she came from New Zealand), died a few years ago. She really was unforgettable as Irene, and poor Gina McKee could not take her place 🙁

    In re: Rupert Graves, who was Jolyon in the remake… He is all over the place lately! Saw him in the UK Law & Order last night that is running on BBC America. He still has that young young face and when he plays a villainous character it is hard to accept him in those roles 🙂 He was good as the brother in A Room With A View and was also in another Italy-set costume drama at around that time…the name will come to be if I think upon it.

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