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Remake Is Heir to the 'Mother of All Miniseries'

October 04, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Forsyte Saga" has come full circle. In 1969, PBS aired the 26-part BBC series based on a trilogy of novels by Nobel laureate John Galsworthy. It told of the lives, loves, scandals and financial acumen of a London family from the 1870s through the 1920s. Think of it as a Victorian version of "The Sopranos" without the violence.

The series was a huge success by PBS standards, although it lost the Emmy for best dramatic series to "Marcus Welby, MD." In the next several years, the black-and-white series was repeated numerous times on PBS.

"It is the mother of all miniseries," says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre," which is presented by WGBH in Boston.

"It really gave birth to 'Masterpiece Theatre,' " she says. "WGBH thought there was maybe more shows where that came from, and they created a relationship with Mobil Corp. Then WGBH started looking into the BBC archives."

"Masterpiece Theatre" began on PBS in fall 1971 with "The First Churchills," and now the venerable dramatic showcase kicks off its 32nd season Sunday night with a lavish new version of "The Forsyte Saga." The eight-hour series begins with a two-hour premiere and then unfolds in weekly one-hour episodes for the next six weeks. (On Tuesday, Acorn Media releases the show on DVD and video.)

The original series "was done in a very old-fashioned way," she says. "It was over 30 years ago and the whole technology of television and the sensibility of television dramas was so different. I knew doing this again it would look completely different."

The cast includes Damian Lewis ("Band of Brothers") in the key role of Soames Forsyte, along with Rupert Graves, Corin Redgrave, Gina McKee and Amanda Ooms.

The actors, Lewis says, worked hard not to represent Soames and Irene as the archetypal villain and victim, and to create "a greater ambiguity in their relationship and their relationship with the audience as well."

"I think it is a testament to Galsworthy's writing that he is able to create this character that no one likes but kind of feel sorry for at the same time," Lewis says. "He's kind of an antihero."

McKee sees Irene as a victim of her time. "She doesn't have a lot of choices," the actress says. "When we first meet her, she's a young, almost naive young woman; her naivete comes out of her lack of life experience. She hasn't been educated in any practical sense. She's been brought up to be a wife, to be a lady, to be beautiful and to be non-challenging.

When Soames won't let her leave the marriage, Irene says she feels trapped, and she shuts down emotionally. "She's a possession, and her spirit is crushed."

"The Forsyte Saga" was a hit with audiences in England when it premiered last spring. "The young have been the most avid audiences," producer Sita Williams says. "The story appeals to them."

The cast is again in front of the cameras, making the sequel to "The Forsyte Saga," based on Galsworthy's subsequent books in the series, which "Masterpiece Theatre" will air.

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