People worth knowing - if you had the right set

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"THE opening tonight on BBC2 of The Forsyte Saga, that immense chronicle of what is sometimes called John Galsworthy's England, has all the marks of a great adventure in British television," wrote one critic in January 1967. "It will be with us for six months; one hears of owners of BBC2 sets inviting their friends in for Forsyte parties."

He was right: it was a great adventure. For 26 Saturdays, from 8.10pm until Whicker's World came on at 9pm, half the country was hooked on the doings of Soames, Irene, Uncle James, Winifred, Monty Dartie, Fleur and the various Jolyons. No costume serial before or since has been so intently followed. A measure of its legacy is that, when Eric Porter died last week after half a century as a distinguished actor, he was still universally identified with the role of Soames he created 28 years ago.

The first screening was controversial, partly because of the liberties that the producer, Donald Wilson, had taken with Galsworthy's novels, but more because it was not on BBC1 but on BBC2, which at that time was just three years old and reached only three in five of the country's sets.

This was deliberate. The Corporation's managers felt a big attraction was needed to raise the profile of its new channel, and The Forsyte Saga, costing an unprecedented pounds 10,000 per 50-minute episode (although still shot in black and white), was the biggest it could manage.

Deprived viewers - The Val Doonican Show was BBC1's Saturday night alternative - bombarded the BBC and the newspapers with furious letters, announcing that they would cancel their Radio Times subscriptions or boycott BBC2 for ever.

The channel's controller, David Attenborough, was obliged to defend himself by saying that, although it was called BBC2, this did not mean its output had to be second best. It was not until September of the following year that the series found its way on to the first channel, and even then it drew an audience of 18 million.

But the public arguments were nothing to the heat generated by the drama itself. The tortured marriage of the ambitious, repressed Soames and the beautiful but infuriating Irene, leading to the sensational rape scene in episode eight, provoked the greatest excitement. Was he a monster or had he been pushed too far? - the debate was every bit as frenzied as that over last week's murder verdict in Brookside. In later episodes the forbidden passion of Jon and Fleur made as tear-jerking a love story as any seen on the small screen.

It was a worldwide hit, sold to dozens of countries and eventually seen by 160 million people. The actor Martin Jarvis recalls being accosted years later in the Bavarian Alps by a couple who asked: "You are Jon Forsyte, ja?" A British foreign correspondent, visiting Mongolia in the 1970s, reported entering a traditional yurt to find the extended family within sitting in rows before a television, spellbound by the English tribal saga.

The series was first shown on the centenary of Galsworthy's birth, and probably marked the pinnacle of the writer's fame. Although he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1932, he is now unfashionable.

"You still see his books in paperback, and I think they have a steady sale," says Michael Holroyd, the literary biographer. "But it is true that he has fallen out of favour in the universities. That is probably due to his plainness: academics like to take a text to bits, but there is not much room for that with something that is basically narrative.

"When you are reading Galsworthy you are desperate to turn the page, not because of the poetic power of the writing but because you want to know what happens next. It is not at all surprising that it was such a success on television."

Or, as Martin Jarvis puts it: "It was basically high-class soap opera, with the period flavour thrown in."