Who doesn’t like a story of family rivalry and strife?
When PBS aired the BBC version of John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga,” in 1969, television drama in this country was irrevocably changed. Audiences loved the 26-episode multi-generational story, and the clamor for more eventually gave birth to “Masterpiece Theater” and its host of British imports. The popularity of the mini-series in this era was phenomenal—where would American television in the 70’s have been without “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man”?
I’m a huge fan of “The Forsyte Saga” in all its black-and-white video glory, but I confess I promptly tuned out the 2002 remake when it first aired. Gina McKee as Irene was no Nyree Dawn Porter, who was superb in the earlier version. But I found myself drawn in last week when I came across my local PBS station’s airing of the later version. An absorbing story will always carry the day, though some faults in execution remain.
“Forsyte” 2.0 consists of ten episodes covering the first three novels of the “Saga,” ending with Fleur’s marriage to Michael Mont (The original series, which continues on with Galsworthy’s second trilogy, ends with Soames’ death). The 2002 edition departs from Galsworthy’s narrative at certain points and changes the thrust at others. Some of this is dramatized quite well—the emphasis on the lowly status of women, both legally and socially, in the Victorian Era, and later, the rise of feminism in the context of the women’s suffrage movement as portrayed in Irene and Winifred’s stories and in June’s rabble-rousing “Votes for Women” speech, respectively. In addition some relationships have been rethought. Winifred and Soames are not always staunch allies, though her lambasting of her brother and his male-dominated view of the world during her divorce proceedings proves to be one of the best scenes of the show. And the context of Soames’ rape of Irene in the 2002 edition is closer to Galsworthy’s intention: Soames enters her unlocked bedroom as opposed to chasing her up the stairs and ripping off her blouse in a scene that’s still shocking almost 50 years later.
In terms of visual appeal there’s no contest between the two “Forsytes”: the 2002 edition is in color and its production design is excellent. I love its conception of Robin Hill: who knew Philip Bosinney was a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright? I won’t lie–despite its pleasures the 1967 version may be hard to view for some. Given the necessities of video taping in that era, the makeup is thick, the actresses’ eyelashes and frosted lipstick are straight out of the 1960’s and all wigs are of the bouffant variety, whether worn by women or men. And of course it’s in black and white. As Kenneth More notes in an interview that accompanies the DVD version, the show missed being taped in color by only a year, yet waiting would have prevented the appearance of some key actors who had other commitments pending. It’s a shame, because the on-set still you see here shows how sumptuous this version of “The Forsyte Saga” would have looked.
However, 1967’s “Forsyte Saga” was very well cast and put a number of its actors squarely on the map. Kenneth More was dream casting for Young Jolyon, Margaret Tyzack was phenomenally right as Winifred (it’s amusing that she appears to be far more comfortable playing older rather than younger as the teenaged Winifred whom we first meet at her engagement party), and Nyree Dawn Porter (Irene) and Eric Porter (Soames) were unforgettable (the Porters were not related). However, several performances in the 2002 version are an improvement over the original: Gillian Kearney is exceptionally likeable as June, Ioan Grufudd is the “young buccaneer” Phillip Bosinney to the life, and Corin Redgrave is a magnificent Old Jolyon. It’s also refreshing to see such young actors in the roles of Fleur (Emma Griffiths Malin) and Jon (Lee Williams), though Susan Hampshire was phenomenal as the original Fleur, particularly in the second half of the 1967 series.
However, the casting of the three leads in “Forsyte” 2.0 is somewhat off. They’re all fine actors, but something’s missing. Rupert Graves as Young Jolyon probably comes off best. He’s the “amiable fellow” his father speaks of, but because of his age (39 when the series was filmed) and his wide-eyed open expression (still there in “Last Tango in Halifax” thirteen years later) he looks as young as June, his oldest child, and isn’t as convincing as Kenneth More in the older but wiser version of the character in middle and later age. Damian Lewis is clearly hampered by the show creators’ view of the younger Soames as an obsessed misogynist; they show us less of Soames’ “smother love” than his outright weirdness. In contrast Eric Porter gave us the pathos of a man who is absolutely bewildered by Irene’s non-responsiveness. When he comes as close as he can to begging her for affection, you feel for him, if only momentarily; when Damian Lewis plays the same scene after he sees Irene smiling at Bosinney, it feels robotic—there’s no resonance. Unlike Galsworthy’s or Porter’s Soames, Lewis’ version shows no horror or even passing remorse in the aftermath of his rape of Irene, except in his confession to Fleur many years later in a scene concocted by the show’s writers. He just comes across as a flat-out monster who seemingly loves no one but his father and later, his daughter. His passion for ownership as a “Man of Property,” is very apparent, but there should have been more.
Gina McKee has a tall order to fill as Irene, a character whom Galsworthy shows us exclusively through the eyes of others. McKee lacks Nyree Dawn Porter’s allure in the role, and like her co-star, she seems restricted by the show creators’ conception of the character. In the 1967 version we, along with Soames, meet Irene Heron as a lively young woman in her late teens; Ms. Porter practically bubbles with Irene’s warmth and enthusiasm for life. Yet McKee’s Irene seems consistently morose from the start except in the scene where she dances; there’s no real heat in her passion for Bosinney nor later, in her love for Young Jolyon (In contrast, Mr. More and Ms. Porter, who had excellent chemistry, raised the temperature of the room considerably when they finally got together). Fortunately both Ms. McKee and Mr. Lewis improve significantly as older versions of their characters in the last four episodes of the series that feature Fleur and Jon’s story.
Finally, certain changes in the ending of the 2002 version prove somewhat surprising. Jon’s backtracking from his decision to end it with Fleur and especially the final meeting of Irene and Soames simply don’t ring true, given what we know of these characters. It may have been that the show runners were initially looking to continue on with the “Saga” since they leave Jon marooned in America; there’s also that charming American girl he met in Paris who no doubt was set for a reappearance in future scenes set in the U.S. Obviously this didn’t come to pass, so they tried to tie things up in a bow with a final handshake between Irene and Soames.
Somehow I don’t think John Galsworthy would have been pleased.