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In the early years of the last century, John Galsworthy wrote nine
novels, divided into three trilogies. "The Man of Property," "In Chancery"
and "To Let" formed the first trilogy, which he called "The Forsyte Saga."
The second group, "The White Monkey," "The Silver Swan" and "Swan Song"
formed "A Modern Comedy." Finally "Maid in Waiting," "Flowering
and "One More River" made up the last group called "End of the Chapter."
The first three books concentrated on the property-driven first generation Forsyte men, whose world was broken up by a beautiful woman called Irene, "a concretion of disturbing Beauty impinging on a possessive world," as Galsworthy puts it in his preface. But it is also a saga that brings us from the Victorian world in the 1880s up to the 1920s when the new generation finds new values.
Now this is very difficult stuff to reduce to a miniseries, but that is what BBC did quite successfully back in the 1960s and the television audience on both sides of the Atlantic went wild. For half a year, given a 50-minute episode each week for 26 weeks, they sat fascinated as they watched the fortunes of the Forsytes, man and woman, grasping, losing, growing older, having children who suffered from what their parents had done, some finding happiness at last, some settling for second best, but all interesting and very human. It is said that the idea of British miniseries based on famous novels is what prompted PBS to create Masterpiece Theatre to satisfy the demand. (Coincidentally, at the time of this writing, the very first Masterpiece Theatre, "The First Churchills," is due at the time of this writing to come out on DVD from Acorn Media!)
I am sure many of you have watched the first third of the new version of "The Forsyte Saga" complete with color, the obligatory scenes in bed, and horse manure carefully piled up in the streets of London. Be advised that the 1967 version is a studio version, with several location shots, in glorious black and white, with a cast that is simply hard to beat or even match, and a tendency to be wonderfully addictive.
I have viewed the DVD version on 7 discs released by Warner Home Video on the BBC label. (Yes, that is 1300 minutes in all, followed by 2 hours of spellbinding, often extremely funny, "bonus" material on the 7th disc.) If you prefer video tapes, the series comes in two sets: The First Generation on 6 tapes, The Second Generation on 7 tapes. They do not contain any of the extra material, so be advised. Technically, the picture has been beautifully restored except for a second here and there when there is a slight blur, perhaps 10 seconds worth out of more than 21 hours hours, and now and then the sound does get a bit fuzzy. In fact, I remember that being true when this series was first telecast, so that is no fault of this restoration.
The major stars are Eric Porter (Soames Forstye), Nyree Dawn Porter (Irene), Kenneth Moore (young Jolyon Forsyte), and a pretty actress who made her reputation in this series, Susan Hampshire. I cannot begin to list the rest, all of which you can catch during the end titles and much of which you can find on the Internet Movie Data Base. Porter plays to perfection the "unlovable" man who cannot understand why he is so; and as the story unfolds, his partial mellowing, as played by Porter, is an example to all "modern" actors.
In the book, Irene is seen only through the consciousness of the other characters, and as good as Ms. Porter looks as Irene, her acting is a touch wooden for such a catalytic character. Still she looks far more striking than her counterpart in the 2002 version.
Galsworthy has been compared with Thackery, but he does not quite have the sweep of that earlier author. Still, the scene at a party after a lawsuit in which the loser is attracting all the attention while the winners are being cold-shouldered by their so-called friends is both painful and telling. (In fact, if it makes you think of "Chicago," you can see how far ahead Galsworthy was in his estimation of how we treat "morality.")
Of course this is high class soap opera, but the production values are quite good for a 1967 studio production, the acting superb, and the dialogue a bit more intelligent than you will find in the afternoon on commercial series. This set, on tapes or DVDs, is a real "grabbit." It afforded me nearly 22 hours of viewing pleasure and will do the same for you.