It was a landmark television program, demonstrating the appeal of something called a miniseries. Legend has it that in Britain people tuned in on Sundays rather than go to evening church services, causing vicars to grumble. The program eventually reached an estimated worldwide audience of 160 million, even breaching Cold War barriers as the first BBC series sold to the Soviet Union.
Now The Forsyte Saga is coming down the pike again, in a six-hour adaptation of the first two books in the Forsyte series. Produced for Granada Television and WGBH by Sita Williams, who was producer of the light-hearted and sexually charged PBS comedy Reckless, this Forsyte will feature a younger cast than the original’s, a snappier pace, and apparently all the juicy ingredients that made people tune in so faithfully in the late 1960s. Granada bought rights to the material from Turner Broadcasting (which acquired them with other MGM assets) and has set a budget of $9.5-10 million. The series is set for release next fall.
First broadcast in the U.S. in 1969, the 26-part BBC-produced Forsyte Saga was based on the novels of John Galsworthy (1867-1933), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932. The books tell the story of a London merchant family from the late 1800s through 1920. The first novel, The Man of Property, focuses on the materialistic Soames Forsyte and his marriage to Irene, who turns for love to another man. "Irene marries Soames out of necessity, not out of love," says director Williams. "The story is about the consequences of having to do that."
The television adaptation is remembered in part for a controversial and shocking scene in which an enraged Soames rapes his wife. The scene was made even more upsetting because actor Eric Porter while filming apparently cut his hand on Nyree Dawn Porter’s brooch and left bloodstains on her dress.
Galsworthy’s later novels take the Forsytes through their descendants up to the author’s present day.
Why was the first TV adaptation so popular? "It’s a timeless story," says Masterpiece Theatre Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton. "It’s about family, sex, money, betrayal and beautiful houses. Need I say more?"
Although The Forsyte Saga is often associated with Masterpiece Theatre, it was actually a precursor to that series, proving to early PBS brass that there was an audience in the U.S. for period drama and for limited series. "It is probably the emblematic title for a certain kind of period drama on PBS. I think it’s what put PBS drama on the map," says Eaton. "It’s the most famous Masterpiece Theatre we never did."
Forsyte also led to development of the miniseries form and such commercial blockbusters as Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man.
Did WGBH and Masterpiece Theatre consider just re-airing the original 26 hours? "We could have re-upped the rights," says Eaton. But the series despite its strengths is "very much a museum piece at this point," she says. It features stiff staging, static camera work and is generally old-fashioned, she says. "It’s very studio-bound, very talk-y . . . There are these long scenes and long speeches, wonderfully written and beautifully acted, but television has just changed all around it."
The creators this time around are plotting at a brisker pace and are focusing on just the first two of Galsworthy’s books. (Galsworthy wrote a third book of the Forsyte Saga, plus two additional series of books and two "interludes.")
Producer Williams says she cautions colleagues to avoid the word "remake." "It’s 38 years later," she says. "Inevitably it will differ. This is only the second adaptation of Galsworthy’s novels. People have to remember first that this is an adaptation of novels, so each generation comes to it differently. You bring your [present day] preoccupations."
Chemistry among the lead actors was critical to the success of the first Forsyte. In this adaptation, Soames will be played by Damian Lewis, who is currently winning acclaim for his performance in HBO’s Band of Brothers. Ioan Gruffud, who played the lead in British ITV’s and A&E’s Horatio Hornblower, stars as Bosinney, the architect who captures Irene’s heart. Rupert Graves plays Forsyte son Young Jolyon.
Williams says casting the female lead was challenging. "She’s more an object of beauty," Williams says. "We had to cast someone who could be mysterious and aloof and yet appealing." The producers saw "just about every leading young actress," she says, and decided upon Gina McKee, known for her roles in the BBC limited series Our Friends from the North and film roles in Wonderland and Croupier. McKee also played a small role as a wheelchair-bound friend in Notting Hill.
The BBC Forsyte cast was middle-aged, as the players had to age into their twilight years as the story progressed. This Granada series, with a considerably younger cast, will take the characters only into their 40s, leaving the rest for a sequel series. "I don’t see the point anymore [in casting older]," says Williams. "They’re meant to be young and sexy and good-looking. We’ve gone for the youthful passion."