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The Forsyte Saga
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The Forsyte Saga, circa 1967

The story behind the Saga | The '67 cast

The story behind the Saga
In April of 2002, as the airdate for the "new" Forsyte Saga approached in the UK, RadioTimes editor Nigel Horne asked the question foremost on many minds. "...Can the trials and tribulations of an upper-middle-class Victorian family have the same resonance today as, for whatever reason, they clearly did back in the days of Harold Wilson? It made great television then... in the age of Cold Feet and The West Wing, will it now?"

The answer is "Yes, indeed," and the answer why is largely because the "new" Forsyte Saga is not a remake of the '60s version at all, but its own unique interpretation of John Galsworthy's epic story.

But the original Forsyte Saga left such an impression on the minds and in the hearts of all who saw it, it's little wonder that so many reacted with consternation and skepticism that such an undertaking was even underway. Back in 1967, the BBC wanted to introduce its newly created channel, BBC2, and needed a major attraction to draw more subscribers to the young station. Producer Donald Wilson felt that a lengthy, multi-part adaptation of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga would fit the bill. Wilson set about convincing the BBC to pursue the rights to the novels. At that time they were held by MGM, producer of the melancholy That Forsyte Woman (1949), which starred Errol Flynn as Soames, Greer Garson as Irene, Walter Pidgeon as young Jolyon, Robert Young as Philip Bosinney and Janet Leigh as June.

The BBC was concerned that perhaps the late '60s weren't the right time to present a grand costume drama -- this was, after all, the era of Vietnam, miniskirts, the Beatles and Strawberry Fields Forever. But Wilson won out and The Forsyte Saga was made.

The series turned out to be innovative, but also conventional: it was the last BBC drama ever produced in black and white and, at a cost of £250,000, it was the BBC's most expensive drama produced to date. A soap opera in the classic sense, the show introduced themes never before seen on television, gathered six million viewers, and garnered four BAFTA Awards (from the British Association of Film and Television Artists). Given that success, Forsyte was quickly shown again on BBC1 where it attracted an incredible 18 million viewers.

On BBC2, The Forsyte Saga's 26 installments ran from January through July 1967, coincidentally the one-hundred year anniversary of John Galsworthy's birth. BBC1 aired the show in 1968.

In these days of cable television, broadband and digital technologies we can hardly contemplate it, but back in the '60s the whole concept of The Forsyte Saga was NEW. With villains and ladies, a huge cast, and an ongoing nest of overlapping storylines in which passion, beauty, deceit and sensationalism were integral, it became a phenomenon and gripped the United Kingdom like nothing before.

Viewers remember the way the nation shut down each Sunday night for the event. Pubs closed early and the streets were deserted. The Church even rescheduled its evening worship services so that the immense audience could be ready for the start of the show at 7:25pm.

After its British run, Forsyte was released internationally, becoming the first serial sold by the BBC to the Soviet Union. Ultimately, more than 160 million viewers around the world watched the series. In the United States, the Ford Foundation paid National Educational Television (NET) to distribute the series. Episodes were presented with an "afterword" featuring NET executive James Day.

Stanford Calderwood, the new president of WGBH Boston, was one of the American public television executives duly impressed by the wild popularity and domestic success of Forsyte. Determined to fill the niche he saw created by the lack of British drama on American television, Calderwood orchestrated the premiere of Masterpiece Theatre with the first episode of the 12-part The First Churchills (written and produced by Forsyte's Donald Wilson) airing on January 10, 1971.

Eventually, the commercial networks followed suit. Although credited with being the "first miniseries," ABC's Rich Man, Poor Man didn't air until 1976, a good six years after The Forsyte Saga's astonishing American success.

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The '67 cast

Eric Porter was born in 1928 and died, at the age of 67, in 1995. An established actor on the stage, Porter first appeared on television in 1959. He continued acting until his death. He received the 1968 BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the cold and ruthless Soames Forsyte. He appeared in several Masterpiece Theatre presentations including Anna Karenina (1978), Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, and The Jewel in the Crown.

Nyree Dawn Porter (no relation to Eric) was a stage actress in New Zealand who immigrated to the United Kingdom at the age of 21, having never before seen television. By the time she was cast in The Forsyte Saga ("arousing the adoration of the Great British Male," RadioTimes) she had appeared on several British television programs. She turned down the lead female role in The Avengers and took the role of Contessa Caroline di Contini in the series The Protectors opposite Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). Porter was married twice, widowed and divorced, and had a daughter, Tayla, in 1975. She received an Order of the British Empire in 1971 for services to television. Most recently, she played the role of Margot Fonteyn in Hilary and Jackie (1998). Porter died suddenly in April 2002 at the age of 61.

Young Jolyon
In the 1950s, handsome film star Kenneth More was one of England's most popular leading men. His extensive filmography includes roles in Genevieve (1953), Doctor in the House (1954), A Night to Remember (1958), and Sink the Bismarck! (1960). Leonard Maltin called his performance as the young Jolyon "endearing." He published his autobiography, More or Less, in 1978 and died in 1982, at the age of 67, of Parkinson's disease.

Born in Ireland in 1904, John Welsh has over 90 film and television roles to his credit including the Masterpiece Theatre presentations Vanity Fair, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Country Matters, The Duchess of Duke Street, To Serve Them All My Days, The Citadel and The Tale of Beatrix Potter, as well as Brideshead Revisited.

Old Jolyon
Born in Ireland, Joseph O'Conor was a character actor who appeared on stage, in films (Oliver!, Tom and Viv, Elizabeth) and on television. His Masterpiece Theatre credits include The Possessed and The Barchester Chronicles. He died in 2001 at 84.

In addition to her role in The Forsyte Saga, Margaret Tyzack also appeared in Masterpiece Theatre's first presentation, 1971's The First Churchills, 1977's I, Claudius and 1998's Our Mutual Friend. Her film credits also include 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Mrs. Dalloway.

Known for his roles in Doctor Who and Blake's Seven, John Bennett was born in 1928 in London. He has been acting for over 40 years; his accomplishments ranged from an uncredited role in Lawrence of Arabia to Masterpiece Theatre's I, Claudius and The Bretts to the 2002 thriller Minority Report.

Susan Hampshire originally trained as a classical ballet dancer at a school founded and run by her mother. At 15, when she became too tall for ballet, she turned to acting and an extensive and award-winning career in television, theatre and film followed. In addition to her role as Fleur in The Forsyte Saga, she appeared in the Masterpiece Theatre productions of The First Churchills and Vanity Fair and won Best Actress Emmy Awards for her performances in all three. Hampshire has written several books including Susan's Story, an autobiographical account of her struggle with dyslexia. She was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1995.

Essays + Interviews:
John Galsworthy | Damian Lewis | The Forsyte Saga, circa 1967

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