Russell Baker on The Forsyte Saga
Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode, and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.
More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.
Episode: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7
In 1969, a black-and-white version of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga ran for 26 weeks and became a smash hit on public television. There was no Masterpiece Theatre in those days, but after the Forsytes showed that there was a large audience for dramatized classics, WGBH in Boston phoned the BBC, and the rest is television history.
Tonight Masterpiece Theatre returns to its roots with a brand-new version of The Forsyte Saga. This time it's in living color, and we begin with a special, two-episode opening night.
The Forsytes are a rigidly correct Victorian family obsessed with money and respectability. You'll meet an awful lot of them very quickly, but the man to watch is the austere young lawyer Soames Forsyte. Soames's life is devoted to acquiring property, but hidden behind that chilly facade is a desperate yearning to be loved.
First, though, we meet Soames's emotional opposite, his cousin Jolyon Forsyte, whom women find easy to love.
And now, The Forsyte Saga.
Welcome back. You will have noticed that love and money are inseparable in the world of the Forsytes. So it's inevitable that when Soames Forsyte sees Irene, the woman of his heart's desire, someone will instantly tell him she has no capital.
Neither does Montague Dartie, who marries Soames's sister Winifred. Dartie thinks marriage will gain him a chunk of Forsyte money. But Soames says no.
Young Jolyon sacrifices his family's money for love of a governess. Forsytes who offend respectability, Soames tells Jolyon, are not entitled to Forsyte money, even for their children. Now irony has twisted the knife: Soames is in love with Irene, who has practically no money at all.
She has even less love for Soames, but he's determined to have her anyway. Irene knows she can never love him, but her choice is stark: marry into money, or look for work.
The Forsyte Saga continues.
The marriage between Soames Forsyte and Irene is in serious trouble. Irene is asking for separate bedrooms and otherwise making it obvious she doesn't want to have children.
Soames's sister Winifred also has marriage troubles. Her husband, Monty, is a compulsive gambler with unpayable bills. Winifred's furniture has been repossessed, the ultimate disgrace to all Forsytes.
The architect Philip Bosinney is wreaking romantic havoc left and right. Though he's engaged to marry young June Forsyte, he's clearly eager to throw her over for an affair with Irene. He and Irene have already exchanged kisses. Young June's marriage is obviously in trouble before it even begins.
Soames is blind to the passion developing between his wife and Bosinney. He's commissioned the architect to build him a country house where he hopes Irene can finally be happy with him.
The Forsyte Saga, second episode.
Soames Forsyte's wife, Irene, is now passionately in love with Philip Bosinney. The affair has become common gossip in the family, and Soames himself has finally begun to notice that Irene has smiles only for the young architect.
Irene has made it clear that she loathes Soames. At a formal ball, her rapturous dance with Bosinney amounts to a formal declaration that they are lovers.
All Forsytes are scandalized. Young Jolyon's daughter, June, who is engaged to Bosinney, is crushed, but he turns his back on her without apology. In Bosinney's world, love must be served.
Only Soames still thinks his marriage can be saved, even after Irene demands that he let her go and locks him out of her bedroom. As we resume tonight, Irene is in another bedroom.
The Forsyte Saga, episode three.
Philip Bosinney has been accidentally killed, run down in the street by a horse-drawn wagon.
His death also kills Irene's hope of escaping from Soames, the husband she hates, and making a new life with Bosinney. We last saw her returning to Soames's house, shattered and in a desperate frame of mind.
Two other Forsytes now become increasingly important. They are old Jolyon and his son, also named Jolyon, who is an artist. Young Jolyon is a notorious outcast among Forsytes, a man who walked out on a respectable marriage and a daughter for a woman he loved. He now has two children by her.
His older daughter, June, has been raised by her grandfather. She'd been engaged to Bosinney, and though he was quick to jilt her for Irene, June is also shattered by his death.
And now, fourth episode, The Forsyte Saga.
The death of old Jolyon Forsyte has left Irene financially secure for the first time since leaving her husband, Soames. Jolyon's surprise bequest of £15,000 is a lonely old man's gesture of gratitude for a woman whose beauty enchanted him. It is also a gesture of contempt for Soames's branch of the family, which treasures money over beauty.
Old Jolyon's friendship with Irene began while his son young Jolyon and granddaughter June were on a long vacation abroad. His death occurs just before the travelers arrive home.
There's long been hard feeling between June and Irene. Both had once loved the same man, Philip Bosinney, and he had jilted June to make Irene his mistress before his sudden death. Irene's reappearance among the Forsytes seems unlikely to delight June.
Now The Forsyte Saga, fifth episode.
Soames Forsyte is now 44 years old and wants a son. Being a man of business, he has a deal in mind. It involves a young French woman, Annette, whose mother runs a restaurant in London. Annette and her mother -- especially her mother -- are also business-minded.
One problem remains: Soames is still married to Irene, who walked out on him 12 years ago. To marry Annette, Soames must first get a divorce. And divorce is hard in 1899. Soames needs evidence that Irene has had lovers. He asks his cousin Jolyon to go to Irene and inquire. Jolyon does. Irene says there has been no man since leaving Soames. Soames insists she's lying and threatens to act if she continues blocking his divorce.
She is still his wife, he tells Jolyon. A husband has rights. He is entitled to exercise them.
The Forsyte Saga, episode six.
We've now covered 25 years in the history of the Forsyte family, and a new generation is on the rise. Two of them, Val and Jolly, are already soldiers fighting in the Boer War. However, as we conclude our series tonight -- and there's a future series in the works -- the focus is on Soames Forsyte and his wife, Irene, who left him 12 years ago.
Soames desperately wants a son and is negotiating marriage with Annette, whose mother runs a French restaurant in London. Marriage is impossible, though, without a divorce from Irene, and the divorce law has Soames in a hopeless muddle.
Sometimes he tries to win Irene back just long enough to bear him a son. Other times he has her watched by detectives, hoping to catch her in adultery.
Irene has no interest in solving his problem. She's despised him since the day she agreed to marry him. Besides, she has become fond of his cousin Jolyon. As we resume, Soames has followed Irene to Paris.
Concluding episode, The Forsyte Saga.
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