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 £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 ambi- tions of a well-dressed and well-endowed family at the centre of commercial society.
It tells of a time when Britain was rich and powerful, when the bourgeoisie was rich and powerful, and when the family was everything. The Forsyte story was that of a class and nation at its last great moment, before the collapse following the First World War.
Galsworthy intended his books to be a satire of what he detested: class, wealthy hypocrisy and the British preference for property over passion. As he himself said, he started his tale with an instructive sight – “an upper-middle-class family in full plumage”. This family is arrogant, offensive and “brilliantly repugnant”. It is even dangerous, when it thinks its own interests are threatened. Yet somehow, as the characters deepened and the saga extended, it became a more intimate, affectionate presentation of a rich, if often repellent, way of life. When Galsworthy started writing, he was a bitter critic of his times. When he finished, he was recalling a wonderful world that was almost done.
Still, in the 1960s, Galsworthy’s Edwardian world was not so far away. The Edwardian generation still lived. Many things he wrote about – property, possession, class and, above all, the power, importance and security of family – still mattered. Britain was still a bourgeois society, concerned with home, family, property and place. Today, perhaps, it is not. The central images of The Forsyte Saga – of women as possession and property, of children as our own genetic promise for the future, of the stability of households as the guarantee of a good society – mean less in our age of populist solitude. A modern adapter will have to look with fresh eyes at material that worked very well in the Sixties.
Interestingly, although the BBC began to develop the project, it is now to be made by Granada Television, while the BBC contents itself with “contemporary” drama. This looks like a reversal of roles, although it was Granada that made two other of the greatest British television epics, Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown.
What this promises is a serious modern classic done to a serious standard.
Will it work? Perhaps yes, but to a different formula. The first Forsyte Saga was upmarket Dallas – far less slick, but cleverer, deeper, more aware of social complexity. It told an understandable truth about society; and its mixture of love and criticism of Britishness worked.
Will it work now? If it does, it will be because of a different theme – the war of the genders, central to the story, and now the most topical theme on television. What is clear is that early modern “classics” are now harder material to work with, because the glimpses of patriotic, patriarchal, imperial Britishness are matters of anxiety. In 1967, it was still half-contemporary drama; now it is the story of a past just slipping beyond familiar memory. So how will we feel about it now? And can we come to love it as we did before?