- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 5, 2002

In choosing to mount a second full-scale version of John Galsworthy's epic novels known in their entirety as "The Forsyte Saga," PBS obviously hopes that success breeds success.

The new eight-part "Masterpiece Theatre" series, which debuts in two parts on local stations tomorrow evening, is a much "quicker" and somewhat racier take on the well-received original that was broadcast in this country 33 years ago. The same themes are paramount property and propriety as consummate values in a changing Victorian England, butting up against the need for love and a willingness to sacrifice for one's beliefs centered on three generations of a monied English family that, to modern eyes, has more than its share of dysfunctional folk.

In this dramatized form, "Forsyte Saga" became the grandfather of all those eye-gripping soaps and miniseries that followed, from other highbrow Masterpiece Theatre epics on down to "Dynasty" and "Dallas." The new series is worth a look if only to appreciate the history of this and other wonderfully realized television series. The acting is superb and the story line perfectly adapted from the 1932 Nobelist's three novels and two "interludes" that make up the whole. (Another series, a sequel, now is in production.)

The scenes and costumes alone are worth the time. Viewers will be mesmerized by the close-ups in color this time around of the magnificent interiors of stately homes and haunts. Hats, hats, beautiful hats tall top hats, feathery and flowery gravy boats covering women's heads (a trick to kiss under them) shielding and framing emotions evoked in the lift of an eyebrow, a frown, or the slightest of smiles.

To see how Corin Redgrave, who is Old Jolyon, patriarch of the grasping clan, ages over the years and how his personality changes is a treat. Damian Lewis (of "Band of Brothers" fame) as Soames Forsyte, his obstinate perverse solicitor son, is the unheroic central character whose peculiar obsessions are the focus of the plot. His smugness, smirks and silences can seem slightly redundant after the first hour, but there is a sympathetic quality to his persistence and obtuseness as well.

Soames' rebellious wife Irene, a penniless and artistic beauty pushed by her mother into this loveless marriage of convenience, is beautifully played by actress Gina McKee ("Notting Hill" and "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"). There isn't a bad apple among the supporting cast of characters unless it is the slightly anemic Rupert Graves in the role of Young Jolyon.

The era portrayed, at least in the beginning of the series, is one in which a peripheral character can say with complete conviction in an aside that "The loss of a husband is nothing to the loss of a good butler."

Russell Baker introduces each episode in a dry unencumbered monotone that leaves a viewer wishing for a livelier announcer. He could be Galsworthy himself intoning from the grave, urging us on. A "must-see" period piece such as this doesn't come along very often. Cheers to WGBH and underwriter ExxonMobil.


****

WHAT: Masterpiece Theatre's "The Forsyte Saga."

WHEN: First two hours of an eight episode series begins tomorrow Sunday Oct. 6 and continues on subsequent Sundays through Nov. 17 at 9 p.m.

WHERE: PBS-TVMAXIMUM RATING:FOURSTARS

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