1 9 6 7 (UK)
26 x 50 minute episodes
The Forsyte Saga was the last British soap opera made in black and white, and in terms of characterisation and acting, it was probably the finest. Producer Donald Wilson and a team of four writers spent a year preparing scripts for the series which was made for a paltry million dollars, and screened for the first time on BBC2 from January to July 1967.
The series initially performed poorly as not many people had a telly that could pick up BBC2. Once repeated on BBC1 it drew audiences of 18.5 million for 26 weeks.
Australian audiences who saw it in 1968 and American audiences who saw it in the autumn and spring of 1969 – 1970 were similarly entranced. Due in part to the success in the USA of The Forsyte Saga, PBS was encouraged to begin the Masterpiece Theatre series.
The Forsyte Saga was also the first drama series from the West to be bought by Russia.
Set in the changing society of the late Victorian era to the inter-war years (and spanning the years 1879 to 1926), it had classic soap ingredients. Packed with cliff-hangers and shocks, it was the story of solicitor Soames Forsyte, his beautiful wife Irene, her affair, his claim on his property, her lover’s death, her divorce, marriage to the painter ‘young’ Jolyon and later the fraught relationship between their son Jon and Soames’ daughter Fleur.
Kenneth More was joined by such distinguished names as Eric Porter (the aloof Soames), Susan Hampshire (the impetuous Fleur) and Nyree Dawn Porter (the beautiful Irene), but the cast had to rough it on location. There was no trailer so they had to change in cars and knock on householder’s doors when they wanted to use the lavatory.
Susan Hampshire interrupted her honeymoon to play a seduction scene with Martin Jarvis, while when Soames raped Irene the cast were as shocked as the viewers were to be later.
Eric Porter said: “I tugged and pulled at her bodice, and to everyone’s horror there was blood all over the place. I had gashed my hand on a brooch she was wearing”. Nyree Dawn Porter confirmed: “I didn’t have any difficulty putting on a horrified expression. When I looked down and saw blood I thought ‘what has he done to me?'”.
Something akin to Forsyte-mania swept the world. Pubs in Britain were emptied on Sunday nights; early-closing day in a Dutch city was changed because no one stayed to shop and the staff found excuses to go home and watch The Forsyte Saga; the programme caused students to postpone a rally in Prague; restaurateurs in Malta started opening later; and in New Zealand, a cricket match began early so the players could finish in time to watch the series.
When the south of England was flooded in 1968, grocer Frank Eley was sitting in the upstairs room of his shop in Edenbridge, Kent, which was surrounded by seven feet of water. There was a tap at the window; a man hanging at the end of a rope from a helicopter had come to rescue him. “No thanks” said Frank. “I’m in the middle of The Forsyte Saga . . .”
Jolyon ‘Jo’ Forsyte
Nyree Dawn Porter
‘Old’ Jolyon Forsyte
Joseph O’ Connor
Jolyon ‘Jon’ Forsyte
Jolyon ‘Jolly’ Forsyte