An interview with Sita Williams
Executive producer of The Forsyte Saga, Series II
A veteran producer for Granada Television in the UK, Sita Williams made her Masterpiece Theatre debut with Reckless, deemed "a wickedly sexy romantic comedy" by The Chicago Sun-Times. She followed that with Lost For Words, which The Houston Post called "a Masterpiece Theatre milestone, a small, intimate drama that leaves your spirits soaring."
And as if to prove that she can hit all genres, she produced The Forsyte Saga, Series I which the New York Daily News described as "high drama and in high style."
Despite the legacy of the 1967 version of John Galsworthy's epic story, Sita points out that the Saga is "a wonderful series of books to bring to a new generation, and they're not carrying all their memories of a previous version." Even so, her rendition has managed to charm the old timers who fondly remember Susan Hampshire (as Fleur) winding Eric Porter (Soames) around her little finger.
Sita Williams recently answered questions about The Forsyte Sagas from her office in Manchester, where she is once again trying something new -- this time an historical drama about the Nazi occupation of the British Channel Islands during World War II.
Considering the near-legendary status of the sixties BBC version of The Forsyte Saga, did you feel trepidation about undertaking this project?
When I was first asked about it, I sort of gulped because anyone in the business knows what a huge impact The Forsyte Saga had on television drama. I thought, "Oh, God, I'd better have a look at the book." When I started to read, I found it absolutely tremendous and very relevant to today. Apart from dealing with family, love, and betrayal, it also deals with obsession, power, money, and possession. In fact, we are more like the Victorians that Galsworthy was writing about than was the audience in the sixties. After all, the first volume [of The Forsyte Saga] is called A Man of Property, and we've become a very property-conscious society.
How does the theme of property play itself out in the plot?
When Soames marries Irene, he regards her as his absolute property. And that was fundamentally the problem with their marriage. He just assumes that she now belongs to him. Soames collects objects and puts them on display -- just as he marries Irene and puts her on display and then expects her to do what he wants. Of course, she is not that kind of woman at all. Interestingly enough, in the book Irene doesn't exist in her own right; she is seen principally through the eyes of the other characters. But when we did our adaptation, Gina McKee made Irene a woman of independence, who cannot live with the idea of being a possession. She's a woman who fights against this imprisonment.
Did you go back and look at the sixties version to gauge how you would do things differently?
I watched about forty-five minutes of it and then thought, "I really mustn't watch this!" I didn't want to be influenced by anything that they had done. So I wouldn't say we 'studied' it. Neither of the writers watched any of it; we just kept to the book.
What were your thoughts about casting Soames?
I was very keen not to make Soames into a caricature baddie, so we sought to cast a very sexual, vibrant young man, which is very different from the sixties version. Eric Porter [Soames in the sixties version] is a wonderful actor, but he was well into his forties. Whereas Soames is meant to be more Damian Lewis's age, which is early thirties as the story opens. We certainly didn't see anyone else for Soames except Damian. I met him and it was quite clear that he was it.
I understand that he got an amazing fan letter from Australia.
Yes! I've got it here. It says: "Dear Granada Television, We will give you Ian Thorpe --" that's 'Thorpedo,' the gold medalist for swimming -- "Pat Rafter --" who won Wimbledon -- "Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Heath Ledger, and ten Bondi Beach surf lifesavers, bronzed and firm of thigh, for one Damian Lewis. Please contact our consulate to make the necessary arrangements. Kind regards, The Women of Australia."
That's quite a letter.
It was wonderful! What was interesting was to make Soames a sensual man. Therefore, when his marriage goes wrong and he's emotionally incapable of recognizing why it goes wrong, you don't condemn him. I think a lot of women didn't want to feel sympathetic towards him because of course he rapes Irene. But nevertheless you couldn't help feeling sorry for Soames as well. They're both trapped in a very unhappy marriage.
What were your thoughts about casting some of the other characters?
Young Jolyon is a hero of goodness and generosity, and has to be immensely sympathetic and likable. I think Rupert Graves absolutely carries it off. We've got the cream of British acting, really.
Fleur and Jon?
In England there's more of a memory of Fleur and Jon from the sixties series than of the other characters. Fleur was played by a then-young actress called Susan Hampshire, who is still working today and is the matriarch in the popular [UK] drama series Monarch of the Glen.
So we looked long and hard for the right actors. Emma [Griffiths Malin] has just the qualities of innocence as well as willfulness, which is Fleur. She and Damian worked very well together. And Lee [Williams] was the only young man who seemed absolutely right for Jon. It could be a fairly thankless role, because Jon is a nice guy who doesn't want to make anybody unhappy. Whereas the character of Michael Mont [played by Oliver Milburn] is more complicated.
He's a man of great experience. He fought in the First World War, so he absolutely wants to grab the moment. When he sees Fleur and falls in love with her, he's determined to marry her. But at the same time he's mature enough to know that if it's wrong she must say it's wrong and he will let her go -- unlike Soames who couldn't have done that with Irene.
There's another new character, Prosper Profond, played by Michael Maloney, who is also quite complicated.
Yes, he's a Machiavellian figure. Profond wasn't called "profound" for nothing. He sees everything and knows everything.
Would you set the scene for Series II?
We start in 1909 and set up the relationship between the children from very different backgrounds. You see the family of Soames and you see the family of Young Jolyon. Then we move eleven years forward to 1920. Fleur and Jon are now eighteen and completely innocent of the past that haunts their parents, although of course it will come to haunt them as well. We see Fleur's absolute freedom compared to her father and her attempt to free him from himself to enjoy life a bit more. What affected all this abandonment of the twenties in Britain was the First World War. So many young people were killed that the young who survived, or who were just growing up, went wild. They believed in grabbing life as it came without worrying what society might think, because they had seen that it could end tomorrow.
How did you deal with the aging issue? The characters from Series I are now quite a bit older.
I wanted the aging to be very delicate in terms of makeup. It's aging from the way you behave, the way you walk, and how you present yourself. I think Damian and Rupert and all the others pull it off extremely well. You're not looking at thirty-year-old actors trying to look sixty; you're looking at people who've changed with age as opposed to having age plastered on them.
Could you tell us about the costumes?
We did a huge amount of research. A lot of the twenties costumes and dresses are original or absolutely faithful copies of originals. We also made a distinction between what the freethinking, liberated Jolyon family would wear compared to Soames and the other straight-laced Forsytes. There's an amusing scene where Fleur persuades Soames to get into what we would call casual clothes, something he feels terribly uncomfortable with. It points out how clothing defines who these people are -- or think they are.
There seems to be a subtext of class behind what drives Soames. Does he aspire to the aristocracy?
Oh, yes, definitely. For Soames, having arrived isn't just being a solicitor with money; it's marrying his daughter to a lord. There's always a great snobbery in England about whether you are a proper aristocrat or not. I remember watching a program about the Queen, which had a wonderful old aristocratic lady who descended from the Normans and William the Conqueror. The Queen's family came over much more recently from Germany, and this woman said, "Oh, the Queen, she's just new money, really." That runs very deep here still.
What was John Galsworthy's background?
Upper middle class. Not aristocratic at all. What's interesting about Galsworthy is he was a radical socialist. So he's satirizing the aspirations of the Forsytes. Interestingly, in the first book the relationship of Bosinney and Irene is really Galsworthy's own relationship. He fell in love with a married woman and then subsequently married her. She was the model for Irene.
How do you think Galsworthy's writing stands the test of time?
Oh, I think it does. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, quite deservedly. The quality of the writing is exceptional in The Forsyte Saga. It's right up there with Dickens.
What do you think makes the characters in The Forsyte Saga seem so real?
What makes the characters successful is you absolutely understand them. They show that life is complicated, and life isn't fair, and you don't always act well. We recognize that in ourselves, and therefore we have some sympathy for characters who behave this way. We enjoy their dilemmas, because we think, "Oh, we're not alone. They're like us, really."
It's interesting that the book has no unblemished heroes.
I don't think characters can be interesting unless they're flawed as well. Don't you think we'd get very irritated by them? People with flaws are much more interesting, and those who appear not to have flaws are probably deeply flawed.
Are you going to do a Series III?
No, we're not making any more. We felt we had closure with Soames and Irene in the final episode. I cry every time I see it. They play it so well. I felt that that was a good point at which to leave it.
Do you think, thirty-five years from now, a new producer will revisit this story, just as you have done?
Yes, it's an irresistible story.
Considering how the sixties version now looks very dated, would you care to speculate how your own version will look a few decades from now?
Films move on and so does the craft of filmmaking. But what will continue to shine are the performances. That's what you still enjoy about the sixties version. You forget that it is extremely slow; you forget that the scenery wobbles; you forget all of the other distractions and you are engaged by the portrayal of the characters. I certainly think that the performances in our version will continue to be memorable. But whoever makes it in the future shouldn't look at ours until they've made their own.
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John Galsworthy | The Forsyte Saga, circa 1967 | Sita Williams
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