Masterpiece Theatre's The Forsyte Saga, Series I covers the first two books of John Galsworthy's Forsyte cycle -- The Man of Property and In Chancery, taking the characters through the turn of the 20th-century and the Boer War. This first series ends where Galsworthy's In Chancery ends, with the birth of Soames's daughter Fleur.
An onslaught of questions following our first airing of The Forsyte Saga, Series I in the fall of 2002 prompted the following explanations about various aspects of the production:
Robin Hill and other locations
The Forsyte Saga was filmed almost entirely on location in the northwest of England, within a fifty-mile radius of Manchester. With a large cast and dozens of locations, it was desirable to avoid traipsing the length and breadth of the country and the northwest offered the right blend of locations to recreate the action of The Forsyte Saga, which, of course, never strays too far from London and its satellites.
"There's a lot of Victorian stuff around, but the Forsytes didn't live in Victorian buildings. They lived in old houses," says production designer Stephen Fineren. "There's a line in the script that mentions the fact that Soames is the first Forsyte for a generation actually to build a house; I think they felt much more at home in the buildings of an earlier generation." Fortunately, the northwest of England is rich in Georgian streets and houses, "and there's not a single building in the area that we didn't consider," says Fineren. "We visited a colossal number of locations before we found what we wanted. Basically we found that Liverpool offered us the best choice. Manchester is too Victorian, whereas Liverpool has a lot of fabulous Georgian streets."
Fineren started working with Chris Menaul, director of the first three episodes, and making final decisions on what would actually work on screen. "Chris rejected a lot of the locations as being simply not grand enough. You have to remember that the houses that families like the Forsytes were living in, around Hyde Park, for instance, were enormous -- they were real country houses in the heart of London. So we had to find existing country houses, like Croxteth Hall and Lyme Hall that provided façades of sufficient grandeur for a posh mansion in town. After that it was just a question of dressing them properly."
Some of the exteriors used included: Croxteth Hall (James and Emily's house in Park Lane), Faulkner Square in Liverpool (standing in for Montpelier Square, home of Soames and Irene), Lyme Park and Tabley House in Knutsford, Cheshire.
Robin Hill, the home commissioned by Soames from Phil Bosinney clearly suggests that Bosinney is ahead of his time -- not Art Nouveau, certainly not classical, and beyond arts and crafts. 'There are only three real arts-and-crafts exteriors in the North of England, but even they didn't look strong enough, different enough, for Robin Hill," Fineren explains. "I showed photographs to Chris Menaul, and he said we'd just have to build half the set and digitize the rest."
Fineren found inspiration for his creation in the works of four designers: the American Frank Lloyd Wright, the Scottish Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and the English Charles Voysey and Edward Godwin. 'I saw an early sketch by Wright, which was absolutely stunning: all foreshortened sightlines, rectilinear shapes, horizontal planes rather than the solid bulk so beloved of the Victorians. So I thought, well, if Frank Lloyd Wright could do that in 1890, then Philip Bosinney can do it in 1883. I've cheated by seven years, but my excuse is that Bosinney is just way, way ahead of his time. Chris [Menaul] and Sita [Williams, the producer] loved it, and so we had our blueprint for the overall feel. But Wright was really too extreme: I had to introduce other more traditional layers, otherwise it just wouldn't be believable as a house that Soames Forsyte would commission, however good his taste. That's where I turned to Godwin, who's one of my favorite architects. He was greatly influenced by Japanese stuff; he loved simple lines, black wood, a very clean look. He designed a house in 1865 that was so advanced it never got planning permission. He was very much part of the Aesthetic movement at the end of the century, and I think that's the sort of person that Bosinney would have been. Rather unconventional in his ideas and his looks, and certainly in his love life.'
Voysey and Mackintosh provided inspiration for the decoration of Robin Hill -- simple stonework panels, stained glass, furniture design. "Anyone who's studied architecture or decorative arts will see elements of all these designers and a few more," says Fineren, "but I hope the whole thing works together as a unit. I tried to some extent to be faithful to Galsworthy's descriptions of Robin Hill in the books, but actually they're not at all practical. There are too many columns crammed into the inner courtyard -- he talks about eight, and I've cut it down to four, otherwise it would have been too crowded. I've stuck to the key things -- there are no interior doors, for instance, which some of the characters find a bit shocking, and was something that Wright liked to do. He just put curtains across interior doorways. The main feature of the interior is the flowing space, which is something Galsworthy talks about... Robin Hill is all to do with freedom -- freedom from London, freedom from convention -- and that's expressed through the sense of light and space that you get nowhere else in the story."
What you see on screen is a mixture of the real and the virtual. The ground floor and garden terrace of Robin Hill was built on a hillside in Cheshire; everything else is computer-generated. "We built as much as we possibly could; it's about fourteen feet high all the way around so that the actors could walk freely without going out of frame, as it were. The rest of it is done in postproduction, so we could show the house in various stages of completion. You see it as a building site, you see it as a finished house with a family living in it, and there was no way that we could ever have afforded to build that. We went wildly over budget as it is."
Old Jolyon's eulogy
At his father's funeral, young Jolyon recites the following lines from Shakespeare's Cymbeline, Sc. 2, Act 4:
Fear no more the heat of the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and taken thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown of the great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke.
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak.
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee and come to dust.
The casting of Irene
The Forsyte Saga Official Companion, a book available in the UK, comments on the casting of Irene:
(Irene's) an elusive character -- even Galsworthy admitted that he'd drawn her in shadows, that she presented a different façade to every character in the book and to every reader. (Sita) Williams and (Christopher) Menaul (producer and director) saw an awful lot of actresses before they settled on Gina McKee. 'We were looking for someone with a real sense of mystique,' says Menaul. 'Obviously we wanted someone beautiful and sexy, because it's Irene's physical attractiveness as much as anything that disrupts the Forsyte family, but she had to be mysterious as well. Part of the appeal of Irene is that you want to unwrap the enigma. Gina has a natural elegance, what I would call a period look -- the sort of style that you see in paintings from the turn of the century, somewhat aloof and untouchable. We saw many very good actresses who could have played the role, but Gina has this quality -- this hauteur -- that makes her right for Irene.'
Williams, once again, was looking for an actress who could convey the right blend of light and shade... None of the characters in The Forsyte Saga are entirely good or entirely bad. It's never black or white. The Forsyte Saga really is a composition in various shades of grey, like a Whistler painting...'
The two versions
Sita Williams, producer of the "new" Forsyte Saga, explains: "I'm also very keen to stress that this is not in any sense a "remake" of an existing television program. People keep saying, 'Granada are remaking The Forsyte Saga,' but that's a complete misunderstanding of what it is. The Forsyte Saga is a set of books, not a TV series. We're not attempting to 'remake' what the BBC did. I watched a couple of episodes just to get an idea of how they'd set about it, but I didn't go any further than that because I did not want our production to be influenced by anybody else's work. We've gone back to the source, to Galsworthy, and we're adapting that. Nobody ever says, 'Oh, they're remaking that 1970s version of Oliver Twist or that 1980s version of Bleak House' -- they understand that it's a reinterpretation of the book, in the same way that each new production of a Shakespeare play is a reinterpretation of the text. What we're doing is reinterpreting Galsworthy for our times, because we believe that the books are important and have a lot to say to us."
Yes, they are different. Yes, they each have strengths and weaknesses. And the original Forsyte Saga made for gripping television in its day. But perhaps memory puts a gloss on the program that wouldn't hold up today. Ed Siegel, syndicated television critic, recently wrote at length on the difficulty television drama faces in enduring the test of time:
Watching the 1969 version of The Forsyte Saga next to the excellent remake that is currently airing on public television's Masterpiece Theatre... it becomes apparent how ephemeral all of television drama is -- the good along with the bad.
...Technology accounts for the most obvious difference among these shows, and between the two Forsyte Sagas. New cameras mean new ways of shooting. The videotape technology with which the first Forsyte Saga was shot... almost mandated a slow and relaxed pace. You can almost sense the director cuing the actors to make their entrances and exits. When English drama went from videotape to film, it meant a faster pace, more akin to movies than to plays.
Siegel quotes Masterpiece Theatre's executive producer Rebecca Eaton:
...People's tolerance for length of scenes is diminishing. Part of the whole generational entertainment revolution is to get information into smaller bite-size pieces. Masterpiece is one of the last outposts for drama to be written and cut so it can have lasting emotional effect... I think we hold on to the integrity of the drama, but if you compare this Forsyte Saga to the old I think you'd see seemingly endless minutes given over to one scene.
When drama like this was new, it relied almost totally on words. With the limberness of camerawork and editing today, we rely on a lot of things, not the least of which are elaborate location, costumes, music and sound effects, things you're not even aware of and which allows for much more nuanced and subtle acting.
Some people might like the statelier pace better, but it would be terribly alienating to most viewers. There is certainly more visceral power, for example, in Damian Lewis's portrayal of Soames Forsyte in high dudgeon (particularly in the story's rape scene) than in Eric Porter's more theatrical performance.
The Forsyte Saga, both Series I and Series II, are available on VHS and on DVD. See WGBH Shop for more information.
If you're a fan of the 1967 version (or if you just want to compare for yourself), you'll be happy to learn that it is also available on both videotape and DVD. See WGBH Shop for more information.
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