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.