DVD Notes: The Forsyte Saga

Forsyte saga dvdA few years ago, I watched the 2002 TV adaption of The Forsyte Saga with Damien Lewis. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I was impressed by this series, which looks at an upper middle-class English family and the events that unfold as people in the family stop conforming to tradition. From a trilogy of novels by the hugely prolific Nobel-prize winning author John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga is, to be blunt, a high-class soap opera, but in the style of Marcel Proust or Henry James.

I was therefore tempted to go back to the BBC’s 1967 television adaptation, which shows the trilogy in 26 episodes, rather than the twelve episodes of the freer adaptation of the later version.

This work looks at the truth behind the veneer of an established, monied family, and how some of its members break with tradition. A son falls in love with his daughter’s governess, and goes off to live with her, giving up his life of comfort to eke out a living as a painter. His daughter later grows up and falls in love with a bohemian architect. Another of the sons makes a bad marriage. A daughter marries a gambler who loses too much money.

But throughout the entire series – and trilogy of novels – this family is seen as losing its anchors as modernity catches up with it, and as people begin questioning the sacrosanct idea that “He’s a Forsyte,” as though that will get everyone through the tough times.

This TV series bears the mark of the times. Shot in black and white, it’s fairly rigid, because of the type of cameras used. Some of the acting is a bit melodramatic, but the direction is interesting and, in some ways, innovative. While most of the series is shot like a play on a soundstage, some shots look like those used in French nouvelle vague films.

It’s a fascinating series, a bit like Downton Abbey on a lower budget (I’m sure that Downton Abbey was strongly influenced by this series). While it shows its age, it still stands up today.

The Forsyte Saga runs 1295 minutes on 7 DVDs, and is available in the UK at the astoundingly low price of around £13. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) The US edition is about $55, but if you’re in the US, and have a multi-region DVD player, get it from the UK.

If you wish to read the books, you can get them in Penguin paperbacks, but there’s also a decent Kindle edition of all of the Forsyte Saga novels, plus Galsworthy’s later series A Modern Comedy, which follow the Forsyte family through the 1920s, and The End of the Chapter, which goes on even later. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)