Everything changes and every day in every way, one may be getting better. This maxim of auto-suggestion said by Fleur (Susan Hampshire) in 'No Retreat' (19) may also apply to the test of time that only few are lucky to stand, including the products of a new medium that television was in the 1960s. One example, however, that barely changes in impact is this formidable, classic, cult TV series.
Ms Hampshire in the extended 1991 interview with Richard Amphlett (the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham) referred to THE FORSYTE SAGA as an unchanging phenomenon, a 'definite costume drama.' Labeled as 'crescendo of publicity and popularity' and seen as 'national obsession' (Cliff Michelmore) at the time of its airing on BBC, the 26 episode - series may still be regarded as soap opera but...its truly formidable unit which, in passing time, brings about even greater awe and respect. Based on Galsworthy's three trilogies (THE FORSYTE SAGA, A MODERN COMEDY, END OF THE CHAPTER), it not only fanned enthusiasm towards the literary work (raising sales' number to a million of copies worldwide) but also became one of the most cherished soap operas. Even in the Soviet Union and Poland, life stopped with its episodes being showed.
Watching them almost half a century later is still a supreme entertainment. Exceptional camera-work by Tony Leggo, memorable designs by Spencer Chapman, ear-catchy music by Eric Coates and a variety of costumes by Joan Elcott predominate as pleasing to the eye and ear. Although the series is black and white and considerably stagy, everything is atmospheric and contributes to the feeling of nostalgia for the times depicted herein. Yet, what truly emerges as unforgettable are artistic personalities, warm hearts, recognizable brains, legal minds... so to say, completely memorable characters.
From 'A Family Festival' (1) to 'Swan Song' (26), one can be stunned by this great variety of people that prompt viewers to feel what they feel, identify with their worlds. The eldest Aunt Ann with her elegance among a group of other 'Victorian ladies' meeting at tea; Helene Hilmer singing her love song despite conventions; Winifred described by the actress Margaret Tyzack as 'forward looking and liberal;" Phil Bossiney, the architect of 'simplicity and regularity;' Marjorie, an exception from the Forsyte chronicle, a 'nuisance' who pushes the limits of moral acceptability, and many many others inside or outside the family cannot leave viewers indifferent. The director(s) prove to have 'put actors on screen in best advantage' (David Giles).
Developing the theme in a more in depth manner occurs impossible due to word limit. For that matter, reviews on single episodes will occur necessary. In this general review, I will highlight only the few most eminent character starting with Jo, surely no 'true Forsyte', as he says 'a bit of a mongrel' a prodigal son at moments, compared to Prince Rudolf of Austria by Sir Gerald Nabarro, excluded from the established order society but the one who calls our attention and sympathy from the very beginning.
Played warmly by KENNETH MORE, Jolyon is a "thoroughly understandable, broad minded man" (Kenneth More in a 1967 interview). The part where Jo actually turns up creates a unique atmosphere of an exception from the rule of legal background, the rules within a sense of property that so powerfully defines this family. Mr More admitted that there was no 'struggle' to find the character because it simply developed itself as a 'decent, open, loving' observer and the one who lives his life fully. We feel at ease watching him.
The intense contrast to Jo is the protagonist, the 'man of property,' Jo's cousin Soames Forsyte played with insightful psychology and powerful penetration by ERIC PORTER. His performance alone makes the series worth watching, never to be copied, never to be repeated, the artistic achievement stands in itself as towering. Eric Porter appears most to depict the fact that 'the close knitness in the family came over into private life." He sets his mind and heart on the role. As Donald Wilson, the producer observes, his character brings about a true study. As the story gets more concentrated in later episodes, Mr Porter delivers sheer brilliance contrasting and connecting the 'old man' with the 'young man.' His legal mind for whom a contract is a contract seems to be at war with most of the characters that come and go, especially women. Here, viewers still take sides...Soames or Irene, his first wife?
Her musicality and the sense of art contradict with his skepticism and the sense of property. Neither is good or bad, but simply people who can not get on well with each other. Portrayed by NYREE DAWN PORTER, Irene is 'a beauty to be possessed,' a woman who does not change, described by Galsworthy as "born to be loved and love." As Ms Porter admits, she is seen through the eyes of other people. Selfish, confident, loving?
SUSAN HAMPSHIRE as Fleur, Soames' only daughter, reveals something different. Richard Amphlett rightly observes: "there is little superficiality about her pragmatic and asture demeanor, and an intuitive intelligence in her mode of thinking." A woman with a passion to know, a passion to have; her feelings correspond to people she meets, a sort of 'mirror of her father' in the quest for possessive temptations and a woman who stands on her own in her quest for emancipation. The rapport (or its lack) with Michael Mont, her husband, is interesting in the context of changing times.
In order to get overwhelmed by the entire series, one needs to discover the wonderful entertainment supplied by each scene so well measured, each single person who appears on the screen and provides us with memorable feelings. One needs single episodes and their great continuity.
THE FORSYTE SAGA is sheer pleasure to watch for all those who can appreciate an ambitious story and can grasp true brilliance of British performances. Tastes change but genuine work remains.