THE FORSYTE SAGA

British Serial Drama

The Forsyte Saga, one of the most celebrated of British period drama series ever made, was first shown in the U.K. in 1967 and subsequently in many countries around the world, to universal acclaim. Based on the novels of John Galsworthy, the series was made in black-and-white and comprised twenty-six episodes covering the history of the aristocratic Forsyte family between the years 1879 and 1926 (actually rather longer than the period covered in the novels themselves).

The project was the brainchild of producer Donald Wilson, who first conceived the idea in 1955 and spent years planning the series and getting the necessary backing for it. The series finally got the go-ahead on the strength of the distinguished cast who were signed up for it. They included Kenneth More (Jolyon Forsyte), Eric Porter (Soames Forsyte), Nyree Dawn Porter (Irene Forsyte), Fay Compton (Ann Forsyte), Michael York ("Jolly" Forsyte) and newcomer Susan Hampshire (Fleur Forsyte). The plot revolved around the feuds and machinations of the Forsyte family and their London merchants' business (paving the way for such glossy soap operas of the 1980s as Dallas and Dynasty). Each episode culminated in a "cliffhanger" ending designed to persuade viewers to tune in once again the following week. Among the most famous scenes were one in which the hapless Irene, unloved by her cold and possessive husband Soames, was brutally raped by him as their marriage fell apart. The scene was rendered even more convincing by bloodstains on Irene's dress (Eric Porter had inadvertently cut his hand on her brooch when tearing off her bodice).

The series enjoyed vast audiences, the first showing, on BBC2, attracting some six million viewers and the second showing, now on BBC1, attracting some 18 million. Publicans and vicars alike complained that they might just as well shut up shop on Sunday evenings as everyone stayed at home to see the next episode of the gripping saga. Similar success greeted the series in other parts of the world, including the United States, and The Forsyte Saga also earned the distinction of being the first BBC series to be sold to the Soviet Union. The worldwide audience was estimated as something in the region of 160 million.

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 policy that in ensuing years was to produce such results as The Pallisers (which was also produced by Donald Wilson) and Upstairs, Downstairs. In the United States it promoted the development of the miniseries in competition with the open-ended perpetual drama serial. The bosses of one U.S. television station, indeed, decided its viewers could not be expected to wait for the next episode and showed the entire series in one chunk, which lasted twenty-three hours fifty minutes.

-David Pickering


The Forsyte Saga
Photo courtesy of BBC

CAST

Jolyon Forsyte........................................ Kenneth More Irene Forsyte....................................Nyree Dawn Porter Soames Forsyte.......................................... Eric Porter Old Jolyon .........................................Joseph O'Connor Fleur ................................................Susan Hampshire Jon......................................................... Martin Jarvis Montague Dartie.............................. Terence Alexander Michael Mont...................................... Nicholas Pennell Winifred............................................. Margaret Tyzack Jolly .......................................................Michael York

PRODUCER Donald Wilson

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 26 Episodes

BBC2
January 1967-July 1967

 

See also Adaptations; Miniseries