Fans of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “Downton Abbey” and other high-toned British costume productions of that ilk, have one widely acknowledged 1967 BBC series to thank for paving the way and setting the standard for all multi-character, serial melodramas to follow.
That would be “The Forsyte Saga,” a landmark, black-and-white TV series starring Eric Porter and Sir Kenneth More that was a smash hit in England and virtually invented the “Masterpiece Theater” template when it came to America on public television in 1970.
So when the series was resurrected in lush color in 2002 with a vigorous new cast of British thespians (including the hot “Homeland” star Damien Lewis), many “Masterpiece” fans were a bit nonplussed.
Far more visually lavish than the original adaptation of John Galsworthy’s celebrated novels, this new series was handsomely mounted and respectfully decorous but somehow less surprising and compelling than the 1967 production. By comparison, the Emmy Award-winning original version still retains its iconic status.
Nevertheless, “The Forsyte Saga Collection,” a two-volume, five-disc, 10-episode compilation of Granada Television’s polished remake is out in a posh DVD package, complete with a series sequel, “The Forsyte Saga: To Let” from 2003. And both long-time “Masterpiece” devotees and newcomers to the genre will find much to admire here.
The newest version stays true to Galsworthy’s vision of comfy, stuffy upper middle class life in Victorian and later Edwardian England.
Essentially, the story focuses on two warring factions of the prosperous Forsyte family – lead by cousins Soames Forsyte (Lewis) and Jolyon Forsyte (Rupert Graves).
Soames is a straight-laced and ruthless solicitor whose only weakness is his obsession for the beautiful, remote Irene (Gina McKee) and later his love for his pampered daughter Fleur (Emma Griffiths Malin). Young Jolyon, on the other hand, is a freethinking artist who shockingly abandons his stiff wife to live in sin with his children’s spirited nanny and thus is cast into a bohemian exile.
Over the course of 30 years, the lives of these two very difference cousins intersect in some dramatically intricate and surprising (and sometimes all too coincidental) ways, resulting in great love and joy for one and in frustration and tragedy for the other.
Bonus features in this new collection are less than opulent – a thin, 20-minute behind-the-scenes promotional documentary, plus a photo gallery and some text notes.
“Forsyte Saga” freaks will likely want to add this new set to their video libraries, but the 2002 remake will always stand in the shadow of the richer, deeper and more satisfyingly complex version from 1967. Call if “The Forsyte Saga Lite.”
- Dennis King