1 October 2021 Susannah

The Forsyte Saga

The Forsyte Saga, 1967 BBC TV Series

One hundred years ago a fabulous series of books came to end, with the publication of the last volume of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. The first novel of the saga was The Man of Property, published in 1906. It was followed by an ‘Interlude’ book, Indian Summer of a Forsyte in 1918, then came In Chancery in 1920, another ‘Interlude’ Awakening in 1920, and finally To Let in 1921. Later he wrote more Forsyte Chronicles but The Forsyte Saga officially ended 100 years ago with To Let.

The series tells the story of an upper-middle class English family (strongly based on Galsworthy’s own) and the themes are money, status, marriages, and property (for some of the characters, wives and property are the same thing!). In 1932 Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Forsyte novels came in at no.123 in the BBC’s ‘The Big Read’ poll of the UK’s ‘best-loved novels’.

I love the books and think it sad that in recent decades Galsworthy has rather sunk from sight. There have been several film versions – silent movies in 1920 and 1922, a 1949 movie, That Forsyte Woman (which only covered the first book) with Errol Flynn and Greer Garson. Then in 1967 came the 26-part BBC adaptation, which included A Modern Comedy (a subsequent Forsyte book written by Galsworthy). This starred Eric Porter as a chilly Soames, Kenneth More as Young Jolyon, Nyree Dawn Porter as Irene and Susan Hampshire as Fleur, as well as many other marvellous actors. I had heard about this version, but it was only in the early 1990s that I borrowed video tapes from the library and sat down to watch it. My husband was away on a business trip and each night I put the children to bed earlier and earlier, so I could fit in more episodes. I adored it and have re-watched it with equal pleasure since then. In 2002 Granada TV made a mini-series of the novels, with Damian Lewis as an excellent Soames, Rupert Graves, and Gina McKee as a disappointing Irene. I’ve never really loved this version – I think the old black and white adaptation spoiled me for anything else.

Did you know that John Galsworthy visited Australia? His visit was in 1893 – as the young man had fallen in love with a rather unsuitable woman, his father sent him travelling, hoping he’d forget the young lady. He did forget her, but returned home to start an affair with the wife of his cousin, whom he eventually married.

It was at the docks in Adelaide that he met another writer – Joseph Conrad. The two became firm friends, though Galsworthy always made far more money from his books than did Conrad.

Have you read John Galsworthy’s books or seen any of the movie or TV adaptations? Which is your favourite? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- The Forsyte Saga, 1967 BBC TV Series, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061253/
Body image credit- The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/103159.The_Forsyte_Saga
Body image credit- John Galsworthy, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20479335

Comments (20)

  1. Derek Leitch

    I read somewhere that the series aired around 1966-7 on BBC 2. It said this was intentional to highlight the new channel and get more viewers watching. By if my memory serves me right, I can remember sitting around t h e tv with the whole family on Sunday evenings. I don’t think we would have given up ‘the Billy Cotton Band Show’ on a Saturday night for something more highbrow. I think it eventually replaced Perry Mason for Sunday night viewing. Also at that time reception was so bad we could not get ITV, so I don’t think we started watching BBC 2 till later when we bought a better TV and new aerial.
    I also fell in love with Nyree Dawn Porter and agree she was better than Gina McKee.
    I liked the later series also but my sister refused to watch it as she said it couldn’t surpass the original. There were also lots of up-coming actors in the bbc original as well as established one’s. Terence Alexiander,before Bergerac. John Bennett, Margaret Tyzak, Nicholas Pennel, June Barry and Susan Hampshire after portraying ,’what Katy Did’.
    Though Kenneth More still seemed to be in his ‘Bader’ mode. They don’t make programmes like this anymore. Never watched the ‘Crown’. No competition for the Forsytes or the Pallisters.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It was a truly fabulous series, wasn’t it! I agree that they just don’t make programmes like that any more. The Pallisers is possibly my favourite of all time – I adore it. I think it was 26 episodes, and I guess TV producers just don’t get budgets for such length any more.

  2. Alexandra Young

    I love the Forsyte saga, read the books and watched the 1967 version when I was young as my parents loved it and then watched the later version with Damian Lewis and Gina McKee.
    I thought Damian Lewis was so “stiff upper lip” English, eek imagine having to be married to him. I liked Gina Mckee but agree with you she was a bit “wooden”, however loved Ioan Grywffd as Philip. Wonderful story, I’m now inspired to re read it.
    Also Susannah, some years ago I attended some of your wonderful series of talks at the Art Gallery where you talked about listening to “TalkingBooks” and I started getting CDs form my local library listen to while driving . I had read a lot of the Poldark stories and found quite a few CDs in the library, borrowed them and absolutely fell in love with listening to wonderfully read talking books. Since then I have now got an App on my phone which is from the local library and can borrow so many wonderful talking books. Have enjoyed the joy of long walks listening to fabulous books. So glad you alerted me to this.


    • Susannah Fullerton

      You have made my day! I always love to hear when I’ve got someone else hooked on audio books. They give me such joy that I want to share the pleasure. The Forsyte novels would be fabulous on audio, and I’ve not listened to the Poldark books either. There are always so many wonderful books to choose on audio. It certainly makes going for long walks more enjoyable.

  3. Jenny Harkin

    In 1968 I was in England staying at a wonderful country house with grandparents of my Nursing friend, Susie Laurie. The Forsyte Saga was airing on television at that time and the family strongly resembled those with whom I was staying!Including first cousin’s marrying. I soaked up every episode. It was like life imitating Art!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      What a lovely story, Jenny. I can just imagine you in a nice English country house, watching the series. Do hope I can get to see you soon!

  4. Peter Windeyer

    Hi Susannah
    How interesting to read your comments and appreciation of The Forsyte Saga. These were some of the early novels I read and really enjoyed. I have the full set of the series published by William Heinemann – the 1932 print. Also A Modern Comedy published about the same time. These books all have my Mother’s name written by her on the fly leaf. The purchase price is written on the fly leaf of each book – 5/6!!
    When Louise and I were married in 1971 she brought with her the Penguin printed edition of 1968 – 9 books – with the different actors and actresses of the 1967 series on the cover of each different book. She was also a fan of John Galsworthy. We remember watching each episode on the black and white TV when we were first married AND before we had children so consequently we did not miss an episode!
    What a journey into the past. You have inspired me to read them again……and I will.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      And there I was thinking that people had maybe forgotten about the Forsyte Saga! I’ve had so many lovely comments from people who have loved and reread the books and loved the old TV series. Do reread them, and maybe another watch of the series.
      Thanks for your comments.

  5. Margi Abraham

    The Forsyte Saga was my mother’s favourite set of novels. I too watched the 1967 TV series in the 1960s on our black and white TV with my family, but I was only 9 years old. Unfortunately, I took my time to read the novels themselves, despite my mother’s urging over the years. I found myself reading her copies some 20 years after watching the series. And yes Mum, you were absolutely right! It was a real thrill to see Galsworthy’s beautiful sketch plans of Robin Hill and hand drawn Forsyte family tree in the British Library, when viewing the Writing Britain exhibition in 2012.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh I missed that exhibition. How amazing to see his plans for Robin Hill.
      I am glad you got to the books in the end, Margi. I also missed the series when young, so was in my 30s when I finally watched it. Paddington Library had the video tapes of it all. Bliss!

  6. Hi Susannah

    As you know, we agree on our admiration for Galsworthy and The Forsyte Saga, but differ in our opinions on the merits of the two TV series. I agree that Eric Porter was superb, probably unsurpassable as Soames, who I must say I regard as being reserved and introspective rather than aggressively icy, but I do feel that Gina McKee was the better Irene Hudson/Forsyte, as she portrayed the uncertainty and vulnerability of Irene, together with her inner strength whereas Nyree Dawn Porter failed to convince me that she was Irene. I also preferred Rupert Graves as Young Jolyon to Kenneth More, who to me fails as an actor by showing a very limited range of emotions. I do also agree with you that Susan Hampshire was an almost perfect Fleur.

    As you know Galsworthy’s wife, the wonderfully named Ada Nemesis Galsworthy, was clearly the model for Irene. After the death of John Galsworthy, who she always referred to as “Himself”, and the subsequent death of her first husband Major Arthur Galsworthy, she wrote a letter to a friend where she referred to her first husband as “Major Soames!”

    Three final comments: My favourite illustrated Forsyte Saga is a 1950 Heinemann edition with wonderful impressionistic illustrations by Anthony Gross.

    Readers should also note that if they are going to buy a copy of The Forstye Saga, they should ensure that it contains the two “Interludes”, Indian Summer of a Forsyte and Awakening, as well as the three novels, as the Interludes are sometimes omitted.

    Finally, I can highly recommend another short Forsyte “On Forsyte Change” (1930) which was re-published more recently as “Uncollected Forsyte”.

    Thanks for another great newsletter.


    • Susannah Fullerton

      Every time I get comments from you, Chris, I wish we could sit down in your library and have a long chat over wine! It’s always so fascainting to hear different points of view. I think I agree with you about Rupert Graves and I felt that Ioan Gruffyd was a much more handsome Phillip Bosinney, but we will have to agree to disagree about Irene.
      Thanks for letting me know about the illustrations. Oh gosh, I really do need to visit you agian so I can look into all these treasures that you own!!!

  7. Wendy Gray

    I can remember watching the 1967 series on ABC TV with my family as a teenager. It was excellent and we couldn’t wait for the next week’s episode. Although we had the books, I hadn’t read them then. We all loved Susan Hampshire as Fleur and Kenneth More was always a favourite in whatever he did. I can’t remember when it was broadcast but we didn’t get a black and white TV until about 1970 so it must have taken a while to get to Australia or else it was a repeat. The TV was a hand me down from my grandmother. Dad refused to get a colour TV until he saw the cricket in colour at a friend’s place and then we had to have one. Other English favourite series from around the same time were ‘The Onedin Line’, ‘To Serve Them All My Days’ and ‘When the Boat Comes In’. We always watched out for “Fleur” and adored her as Madame Neroli in ‘The Barchester Chronicles’.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Wasn’t Susan Hampshire gorgeous as Fleur. A friend of mine was so in love with her that he named his daughter Fleur as a result. It must have been her first major role.
      I love so many of those series you mentioned. There was a certain excitement about having to wait a whole week for the enxt episode.

  8. Joeanne smith

    I too have read the saga.
    The illustrations in my copies are fabulous
    Return to them now and then especially to see the pictures
    Have always felt sorry for Soames

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh I’ve never seen an illustrated edition of the Saga. Who did the pictures?
      Yes, I too feel sorry for Soames. He does his best, according to his nature and upbringing.

  9. Beatrice Yell

    Loved the 1960s BBC series and read all of his books I could get hold of. Love to revisit. Bea

      • Sharon Herbitter

        Oh my! That is exactly what I think about Gina McKee in that role, too — she was terribly miscast! I’m going to hunt for that older version. I’ve read all the books (although I should probably revisit them since it’s been a few years).

        • Susannah Fullerton

          I remember when the series screened, one critic commented that Gina McKee looked as if she had just undergone very painful root canal surgery! I felt that summed her up pretty well, though I have enjoyed her in other roles. She just wasn’t Irene for me.

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