The Forsyte Saga (BBC, 1967), based on the series of novels and stories by John Galsworthy, was initially scheduled to be produced by Donald Wilson for the BBC in 1959 as a 15-part serial adapted by Constance Cox. It soon got bogged down in protracted negotiations with MGM, who have held rights in the material since the 1930s. After a distribution arrangement with the American company was reached in 1965, what eventually emerged under Wilson's supervision was a groundbreaking 26-part behemoth, depicting the fortunes of the aristocratic Forsyte family between 1879 and 1926.
Wilson took over the reins of the writing (although Cox, Anthony Steven, Lawrie Craig and Vincent Tilsey also contributed scripts), carefully shaping the narrative so that each episode feels self-contained and ensuring that each instalment ends on a cliffhanger. The most celebrated of these comes in 'Decisions' (tx. 11/2/1967), when, in a jealous rage, Soames (Eric Porter) rapes his beautiful but cold and unfaithful wife Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter), a powerful and surprisingly forthright scene that elicited considerable comment at the time.
Although Kenneth More, as the kindly Young Jolyon, was the series' big star, Porter's Soames, an altogether darker and more complex anti-hero, ends up dominating it, partly because his character considerably outlives Jolyon. The series also consolidated Susan Hampshire (as Soames' daughter Fleur) as a TV star of the first rank, while offering John Bennett, usually cast in villainous parts, the chance to play Bosinney, the sympathetic (albeit doomed) architect.
After the death in episode 15 of Young Jolyon, the serial, now set in Edwardian times, becomes noticeably slower and occasionally feels protracted, the interplay of the characters and their business and romantic affairs coming perilously close to resembling a middle-brow soap opera. The concluding episodes, however, all scripted by Wilson, bring the mammoth serial to a fittingly dramatic finish, with Soames dying after saving the life of his suicidal daughter.
Made on a budget of £10,000 per episode, The Forsyte Saga was a tremendous gamble for the BBC, which cannily used it to encourage viewers to switch on to BBC2 (which required television sets to be retuned to receive the signal). It paid off handsomely, however, and BBC1's repeats the following year did even better, with viewing figures regularly reaching 18 million, leading to complaints from publicans and the clergy that their respective establishments were empty on Sunday nights as a result.