Everyone of a certain age remembers the landmark adaptation of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga. It made television history in the 1960s, casting its long shadow over various radio dramatisations of the same story, and reaching 100 million people in 26 countries. Now, Granada Television is presenting a lavish 21st-century take on the first two books of Galsworthy's epic, The Man of Property and In Chancery. A later collection, On Forsyte Change, might have been a more interesting choice, or the last volumes in the Forsyte trilogy, The Final Chapter, but the producer Sita Williams is bullish about revisiting a story that comes with so much baggage. "It's 35 years on. Inevitably, it will be different. Each generation sees it in its own way and we bring our present-day perceptions."
Comparisons will inevitably be made, but, displaying a confidence worthy of the Forsytes themselves, Granada has already given Williams the go-ahead for a second series, To Let, completing the first part of the trilogy. That's just as well since the BBC covered rather more ground in its 26 episodes, tracing the fortunes of the Forsyte dynasty from 1879 to the 1920s. Although she persuaded the schedulers to increase each of the six episodes from 60 to 90 minutes, Williams stops short in 1901. It's both an end and a beginning since it includes the birth of Fleur (a part which gave Susan Hampshire her big break in the original).
Quite rightly, Williams wants to avoid the word "remake". After all, we don't refer to new productions of classic operas as remakes. (What a fascinating operatic subject this would make, by the way: the Forsyte Cycle.) With a completely new script, cast and interpretation, as well as all the advantages of modern technology – not least colour film – at its disposal, the Granada team has breathed new life into the passions, feuds and foibles that flow through Galsworthy's roman fleuve. The 1960s version, viewed from a distance, clunks rather stiffly and stuffily along, with cramped, creaking sets and loads of noises-off. The 2002 brand is a handsome, high-quality costume drama that manages to combine a modern feel with a reasonable degree of period detail. And shooting the series in the North has allowed Granada to show off Cheshire's grand estates, Liverpool's elegant town houses and cobbled streets, and Frank Matcham's delightful Opera House at Buxton.
Casting was bound to be controversial, particularly Irene, the female lead. The author doesn't offer many clues – "a heathen goddess", "a shadowy smile", and, to her husband Soames, "an enigma from the day that he first saw her... an enigma still". The fact that she is probably based on Galsworthy's own wife – with whom he had had a 10-year affair before she divorced his cousin and married him – may account for his reluctance to give too much away. "She's an object of beauty and we had to cast someone who could be mysterious and aloof yet appealing," explains Williams. In Gina McKee, betraying traces of the Geordie accent familiar from her doughty performance in Our Friends in the North, Irene is more of an ice maiden, less the Victorian victim, than Nyree Dawn Porter in her fluffier portrayal.
Galsworthy's Soames wore "a habitual sniff... carrying his nose as though despising an egg which he knew he could not digest", and Eric Porter was magnificently memorable as the dark and chinny man for whom property and propriety were the essence of Forsytian values. Step forward Damian Lewis, fresh from Band of Brothers, facing the challenge of recreating the repressed and wintry husband best remembered for raping his own wife in the once most controversial scene depicted on television. It must help in this version that the writer of that episode (and two others), Jan McVerry, is not only story consultant to Coronation Street, but also co-wrote The Innocent, which revolved around a rape and involved McVerry in detailed research with rape crisis centres.
As a writer experienced in contemporary issues, how big a gulf did McVerry find between soap and saga? "Nearly everything I've done has been based in the North [Playing the Field, Clocking Off], and I was keen to demonstrate that I wasn't a professional rape-scene writer, or that I could only write about women's football teams or machinists in Manchester. I was honestly surprised when I read the book. I expected it to be quite dry, worthy and sententious, but instead I found something very witty, with a carefully drawn collection of characters I could tap into."
But where the primal, tribal and acquisitive relatives doubtless have their modern-day parallels – since when did sex, money and betrayal not colour family life? – the Forsytes' supreme belief in themselves and their class superiority is harder to convey in today's society. McVerry put her trust in Galsworthy, who clearly disapproved of middle-class Victorian morals and the hypocrisy of prolonging loveless marriages, "He saw himself as something of a socialist and a bit of a feminist, and he took a critical view of what his class represented. I was surprised to find him attacking something that I'd rather assumed he'd be celebrating. We're not putting a modern spin on anything, and I'm content that we've been quite faithful to the tone of his novel and its characters."
As part of the adaptation process, she and co-writer Stephen Mallatratt had to fill in some gaps. "I wanted to know the state of people's minds after certain events, how and why certain things happened and what others felt about them. Galsworthy seemed to present those opportunities and we simply grasped them, fleshing out the bones a little. We worked really hard to be true to the period, and it was a much slower business than a drama in which you're dealing with your own time and vernacular." But Galsworthy is modern, even down to the use of "Dad" in his narrative, albeit coming from Young Jolyon, the black sheep of the family, here Rupert Graves taking on the role that Kenneth More originally made his own.
Where a voice-over sets up various aspects of the story and characters in the BBC's version, as if introducing a rare species in a wildlife programme, directors Chris Menaul and David Moore have plotted at a brisker pace (though not quite up to West Wing speed) without sacrificing either description or meaning. Though it's still character-heavy, don't expect to find the extensive line-up of whiskery aunts and curmudgeonly uncles, the twittery ancients that dominated so much of Donald Wilson's version. Williams defends her emphasis on the younger family members: "They're meant to be young and sexy and good-looking. We've gone for the youthful passion."
Where BBC television went for title music with a period swagger – a kind of crown imperial meets crown court called, with delicious irony, Halcyon Days, from Eric Coates's suite, The Three Elizabeths – radio opted for an Enigma Variation. Now, Geoffrey Burgon has brought his experience in atmospheric pastiche with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Brideshead Revisited to this family outing, elaborating on a nostalgic salon waltz. Pulling out all the stops, Granada booked Bryn Terfel to sing the title theme. So, in addition to The Forsyte Saga Official Companion, there's also the promise of a bestselling soundtrack. And those who aren't old enough to make sage references to the previous TV production, or who are at too sensitive an age to admit to having seen it in the 1960s, can check it out on BBC videos, as Forsyte fever again grips the nation.
'The Forsyte Saga' starts tomorrow on ITV at 9pmReuse content