by Allan Fish
(UK 1967 1,295m) DVD1/2
The aristocracy of wealth
p Donald Wilson d David Giles, James Cellan Jones w Lennox Philips, Donald Wilson, etc. novels John Galsworthy m Eric Coates art Spencer Chapman, Julia Trevelyan Oman
Eric Porter (Soames), Nyree Dawn Porter (Irene), Kenneth More (young Jolyon), Susan Hampshire (Fleur), June Barry (June), Margaret Tyzack (Winifred), Joseph O’Conor (old Jolyon), Ursula Howells (Frances), Lana Morris (Helene), John Welsh (uncle James), Fay Compton (Ann), John Bennett (Philip Bosinney), Terence Alexander (Monty), Nicholas Pennell (Michael Mont), Martin Jarvis (John), Michael York (Joly), Nora Swinburne (Aunt Hester), Terence Alexander (Monty), John Barcroft (George), A.J.Brown (Roger), John Baskcomb (Timothy), Cyril Luckham (Sir Lawrence Mont), Geraldine Sherman (Victorine Bicket), Terry Scully (Tony Bicket), Derek Francis (Elderson), George Woodbridge (Swithin), Nora Nicholson (Aunt Juley), Kynaston Reeves (Nicholas), John Bailey (Aubrey Greene), Austin Trevor (Botterill), Karin Fernald (Anne Wilmot), Alan Rowe (Settlewhite), Maggie Jones (Smither), John Phillips (Sir Alex McGown), George Benson (Marquess of Shropshire), Caroline Blakiston (Marjorie Ferrar),
Where would we be without The Forsyte Saga? It was made as the flagship of the BBC’s fledgling new channel, BBC2, running for six months in the first half of 1967. So popular was it that, armed with numerous BAFTA awards, it then showed on BBC1 the following year and literally stopped the nation on Sunday evenings and whole episodes were not so much talked about for days as months. It was like a cultured soap opera, the intelligentsia’s antidote to Coronation Street. Some critics may point at the BBC’s using black and white when colour was literally just around the corner – literally, with Susan Hampshire appearing in colour in Vanity Fair before the year was out. However, the producers felt they had the cast they wanted and any delays would have meant losing several cast members, so they decided to shoot straight away. Much as though colour would have been beneficial in some ways, monochrome suited the stuffed-shirt world of the Forsytes, and added to the sense of the funereal about their undertakings.
In terms of its plot – which centres around a family of merchants and lawyers in London from the mid 1870s to the late 1920s – it’s true that the first half was the more dramatically potent, centring around the fateful marriage of Soames and Irene, the infamous marital rape, and her various scandalous affairs. The second half, largely dominated by Soames’ spoilt and selfish daughter Fleur, was less interesting, especially in that whereas the first half took in over 30 years, the last half took in barely 10. The Forsytes, along with their times, mellowed with age, and even Soames became a rather loveable, crotchety old man whose heart was very much in the right place.
Much credit must be laid at the makers’ feet for going forth with the cast they had, because one could hardly imagine anyone else in the roles. Nyree Dawn Porter may seem a little precious forty years on, but she became an instant celebrity, while Susan Hampshire was never better than as Fleur, Margaret Tyzack offered the first of her great drama serial roles, while Joseph O’Conor, John Barcroft and George Benson offered lovely support. And while it was good to see Kenneth More back to his best as young Jolyon – though rather too old for the character in the opening episodes – the highlight was undoubtedly Eric Porter’s Soames (once played surprisingly well by Errol Flynn in the otherwise forgettable That Forsyte Woman), one of the great performances in small screen history. He was especially memorable as the older Soames, with the demeanour of a particularly proud undertaker, huffing and puffing around and trying to adapt to the times while refusing to let go of the past – scenes at the races, trying to play golf and blowing up balloons are classic comic moments. If aspects have dated, it remains to this day a milestone of TV drama which began the US passion for rarefied British TV drama on Masterpiece Theatre that lasted through Upstairs, Downstairs and Brideshead Revisited to Downton Abbey.