Can We Love the Forsytes as Before?

By Bradbury, Malcolm | New Statesman (1996), August 21, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Can We Love the Forsytes as Before?


Bradbury, Malcolm, New Statesman (1996)


The remake of a classic serial about money and sex brings a tear to the eye of Malcom Bradbury

For someone like me -- a sentimental lover of, as well as a writer for, the once splendid, now sagging story of British television drama -- the news that ITV has decided to risk a remake of The Forsyte Saga brings a tear to the eye and a smile to the lips. A tear because, for anyone with a sense of cultural history, The Forsyte Saga represents one of the high moments of screen dramatisation. A smile because, after this nadir of a summer, when even the television repeats were repeats of last year's repeats, a major investment in a classic project is exactly what we and the television business need.

For those who were not watching BBC2 on Sunday nights in 1967, possibly on the grounds of not having been born, the television magic that was The Forsyte Saga may be hard to understand. But this was the start of something, the show for which the phrase "TV blockbuster" was actually coined.

The project, begun by Donald Wilson, then head of BBC Serials, was for an unprecedented 26 one-hour episodes, dramatised from nine novels by John Galsworthy about the history of the Forsyte family over about 50 years. It took a team of five writers (Constance Cox, Leo Lehmann, Vincent Tilsley, Anthony Steven and Wilson himself) to work out 1,500 pages of script. The show cost around [pounds]500,000 to make: a formidable sum in the mid-Sixties but, nowadays, scarcely enough to keep Carol Vorderman in designer clothes for her round of small-screen appearances.

The scripts were excellent, and the brilliant casting and dramatic chemistry between the lead characters set a new standard, holding a fascinated audience for 26 weeks. The "modern" classic serial was born. Shown on the new channel, BBC2, on Sundays at 7.25pm, class, sex and mammon brought even God to a standstill. Churches stood empty and vicars despaired for the next half-year. Susan Hampshire became a universal love object. Eric Porter, at 40, became one of the most famous actors of the day, as the formidable Soames. The scene in which he rapes his estranged wife, Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter), became one of the most famous on British television.

Why did it work so well? Television executives still ask the question, but clearly all the instincts were right. It had the ideal story. Although Galsworthy did win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1932, he is not a classic novelist in the same sense as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. Nor is he one of the greatest 20th-century novelists. But he did produce a great example of something that has always been basic to the novel -- the bourgeois family saga, the tale of the generations.

The first volume, The Man of Property, appeared in 1906, at the peak of Edwardian bourgeois wealth and confidence. By the time the ninth volume appeared, the Great War had come, and it was all nearly over.

The Forsyte Saga is also a major story of Englishness -- about the ambitions, possessions, loves, lusts and dynastic ambitions of a well-dressed and well-endowed family at the centre of commercial society.

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