The Sunday Post: The Forsyte Saga Saga
Kenneth More as Jo, Nyree Dawn Porter as Irene (pronounced as in Irene Handl) and Eric Porter as Soames - central characters of The Forsyte Saga
It may have crept under a lot of people’s radar because radio drama is little celebrated in the press, but Radio 4 is currently half way through one of its longest literary adaptations – a new version of John Galsworthy’s sequence of novels The Forsyte Chronicles – often referred to by the title of the first trilogy within the work, The Forsyte Saga.
The most celebrated adaptation of The Forsyte Saga was BBC2’s 26-part version which was transmitted fifty years ago, starting on 7 January 1967. Apart from many straight readings of the novels on radio, there was a feature film, That Forsyte Woman, and a succession of radio dramatisations of individual novels and stories starting with the first novel, The Man of Property, in 1945.
John Galsworthy was born in Surrey in 1867. He trained as a barrister but his heart was in writing, though he made slow progress at first. He was first and best known, in his lifetime, as a dramatist, with plays including The Silver Box, Strife and The Skin Game.
His prose reputation was established with The Man of Property, the first part of the Forsyte Saga, which was published in 1906. Its sequel, In Chancery, did not appear until 1920, although the first ‘interlude’ – short stories about the Forsytes – was published in 1918. Other Forsyte Chronicles emerged at intervals until the final novel, Over the River, came out posthumously in 1933.
Although he declined a knighthood, Galsworthy was made a member of the Order of Merit, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature shortly before his death. Galsworthy's works fell out of favour over the next decades, but the television Forsyte Saga in 1967 revived his reputation, and new editions of the novels were issued to tie in with it.
Irene and Jo in later years, married and with a son, Jon, another variation on the eldest Forsytes' habitual Christian name, Jolyon (Jo's previous son by Jo's previous wife was called Jolly, but he was swiftly killed off for being too twee)
The 1967 television Forsyte Saga is structured differently from the books, and is an interesting illustration of the problems of dramatisation. The serial as a whole covers the first six novels and some of the interludes, where they add to the main plot. The first few episodes are assembled from various pieces of back story established elsewhere, as the first novel starts with the story of the marital problems of Soames and Irene Forsyte, two of the main characters.
On television, we start a number of years before this, and see how the other main character, Young Jolyon (Jo), played by Kenneth More, parted from his wife to set up home with his mistress (later his second wife), and how Soames (Eric Porter) wooed and married Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter). We are also introduced to the wider Forsyte family, including Soames’s sister Winifred (Margaret Tyzack), and her wastrel husband Monty Dartie (Terence Alexander). There are also some comic turns from the elder generation of Forsyte aunts, uncles and cousins, though some are more seriously presented, especially Jo’s father Old Jolyon (Joseph O’Conor) and Soames’s father James (John Welsh).
The themes of the Saga include the rise of the upper middle class, and how their snobbery and slavery to convention preserves their position but ruins their lives. The sympathetic characters are those who rebel against its constraints, though those who at first seem villainous turn out to have more nuanced motives. Chief amongst these is Soames, and perhaps the change in his character is symptomatic of the long break between the first novel and Galsworthy’s resumption of the Forsyte tales 12 years later.
In The Man of Property, Irene falls in love with Philip Bosinney (played by John Bennett), an architect who is engaged to Jo’s daughter, June (June Barry). Discovering their relationship, Soames rapes Irene. This causes their marriage to finally break down, and many years later they are divorced, but only because Soames wants to marry again and start a family. Tragedy strikes Jo's life when his troubled second wife Helene dies, and later his son with her, Jolly (Michael York), succumbs to disease during the Boer War.
After the birth of his daughter Fleur (Susan Hampshire) (the narrative jumping forward twenty years to the aftermath of the First World War) Soames's character is seen more sympathetically, although the breach in the family returns to haunt him when Fleur falls in love with Jon (Martin Jarvis) – the son of Jo and Irene, who has become Jo’s third wife. When Fleur and Jon’s relationship breaks down over the revelation of Soames’s behaviour to Irene, Fleur marries Michael Mont, a young aristocrat, and Jon emigrates to North America where he also marries. But Fleur and Jon’s relationship is rekindled when Jon returns to England at the time of the General Strike.
At the end of the serial, Soames dies trying to save his collection of paintings from a fire – another major motif is the contrast between the artist Jo, a creator of paintings, but also a free spirit who has no problem expressing love, and Soames, who acquires paintings as investments, and who likewise treats people as property.
Jon encounters his cousin Fleur and uncle Soames for the first time in his half-sister June's art gallery - Fleur asks if Jon has dropped his tambourine
The Forsyte Saga ran for a massive twenty six episodes, throughout the first half of 1967, by far the longest run of a television adaptation at the time (each episode lasting 50 minutes). It occupied the Saturday night peak time drama slot on BBC2, with repeats the following Tuesday – it was usual for BBC2 drama serials to get a repeat in the same week. The final episode was transmitted on 1 July, on the day that saw the first official colour broadcast by the BBC, of Wimbledon tennis.
The serial was one of the last major drama productions for BBC2 made in black and white. Five months after the Saga ended, Vanity Fair, starring Susan Hampshire, became the first colour drama serial for the BBC.
Such was the reaction to the series that it was decided to sanction a repeat on BBC1 in September 1968, when it really became a popular hit, and there were tales of pubs and churches suffering a drop in attendance when the series was on. It was sold around the world, including, unprecedentedly, to the Soviet Union. It was repeated again from January to July 1970, although BBC1 had gone into colour by that time, and there was a final outing from September to December 1974, with two episodes a week on daytime TV.
The serial was produced by Donald Wilson, who joined the BBC after a career in the film industry. He was recruited by Head of Drama Michael Barry to run the Script Department, which handled the supply of writing for television. At the time there were no script editors in television, so the department liaised between writers and producers, and looked for new writers for the burgeoning medium.
One of the projects Wilson tried to get going at the end of the 50s was a 15 episode version of The Forsyte Saga, to be adapted by the experienced Constance Cox. The rights to Galsworthy’s novels had been bought by US film company MGM, who made the feature film That Forsyte Woman in 1949. Negotiations with them would delay production for a number of years.
Meantime, in 1962, Canadian producer Sydney Newman left ITV to become the new head of BBC drama. Newman stripped the Script Department of most of its role, establishing story editors in each drama production team to work with the writers.
Wilson was made Head of Serials, one of three divisions of the restructured Drama Group, along with Series and Plays. This appointment would allow Wilson to continue with his plans for The Forsyte Saga. By 1966 at last it was possible to go ahead with production, and since he planned to write nine of the episodes as well as produce, Wilson stepped down from his executive role.
In the event five writers were involved in the dramatisation: Wilson, Constance Cox, Lawrie Craig, Vincent Tilsley and Anthony Steven. Internal BBC paperwork jointly credits Wilson and Cox for the first seven episodes, so it may be that they did work in tandem, with on-screen credit given to whoever contributed the most material.
The later Forsytes line up for the 1967 BBC actors football tournament. They lost 11-0 to Champion House, who were in turn slaughtered by Not In Front of the Children in the semi, despite Wendy Craig being booked for dissent
It is possible to imagine the two eras of the Forsyte Saga, pre- and post- the First World War, being adapted separately, as the links between the settings as well as the cast of characters are more slender - although the third novel of the first trilogy is set post-war. But having worked so hard to set the production up, perhaps Wilson felt that the time would never be right again to make it.
The large cast were in demand for other projects, and one of the reasons that The Forsyte Saga was made when it was made, rather than wait for the launch of colour television, was the difficulty in obtaining the services of what Wilson felt was the ideal choice of actors. As it was the production was a relentless juggernaut, with each episode taking two weeks to rehearse and record, plus initial location filming. It began in the summer of 1966, with the first videotape recording session on 7 July.
The last taping was on 22 June 1967, leaving just over a week until the transmission master had to be ready to be shown. There was a brief gap in the middle of the recording schedule, at the beginning of December, but otherwise it was a testing ordeal for the cast – especially Eric Porter, who was the only actor in every episode.
Eric Porter and Nyree Dawn Porter both found fame with The Forsyte Saga, though Nyree Dawn Porter had made a number of BBC dramas since coming to the UK from her native New Zealand in 1958. She had starred in early BBC2 classic serials Madame Bovary and Judith Paris, and made other television appearances, including on Juke Box Jury and Call My Bluff.
Eric Porter was born in Shepherd’s Bush in 1928. His first BBC appearance was in a 1946 television presentation of Shaw’s St. Joan. In 1957 he took the lead in the television play Jonathan North, but his broadcast career took a back seat in 1960 to stage work with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Kenneth More had had a long and prestigious career in British films, notably Genevieve and Reach for the Sky. His television career had started in 1946 with the Second World War play The Silence of the Sea. A succession of television roles followed until his film career took off.
In the mid-1960s More’s television career resumed with the lead in Lord Raingo, shortly before work began on The Forsyte Saga. As soon as he had finished his contribution to that, More was cast in BBC2’s The White Rabbit, and later roles included the lead in ITV detective drama Father Brown, and the alternative history drama An Englishman’s Castle.
The Forsyte Saga is a fascinating piece of fiction, straddling the aftermath of the Victorian era and facing the changed world of the 1920s. The classic 1967 television version was a watershed in television production, one of the most ambitious projects yet undertaken, which showed that there was an appetite for costume drama on a grand scale – despite Sydney Newman’s misgivings that people did not want large doses of nostalgia.
Future offerings from The First Churchills to The Pallisers and I, Claudius, as well as original dramas like Upstairs Downstairs, The Duchess of Duke Street and Downton Abbey, have proved that The Forsyte Saga was not a one-off. Neither was it merely a posh soap opera – while lacking the subtleties of Galsworthy’s sense of humour in prose form, there is a quality to the television adaptation which still stands up and provides compelling viewing, even after fifty years.
Share your memories of The Forsyte Saga below: or tell us the other literary adaptations and costume dramas that have lived on in your memory. And do you think colour is necessary for modern audiences to enjoy a drama?