Insights into the Forsytes

Alan Howard is Soames Forsyte in The Forsyte Chronicles starting tonight on Radio 4 at 7.45 pm. It will be the first time all nine volumes of John Galsworthy's epic novel sequence have been dramatised but not, of course, the first time the Forsyte family has stepped on to the airwaves.

The version that apparently burned deepest on the national retina was the BBC television version of 1966. In that, Soames, the cold and violently possessive Forsyte, was played by Eric Porter. "I remember," says Alan Howard, "being impressed with how good he was, but I can see him more than I can hear him, a ramrod sort of creature."

Soames, he thinks, gets more of a chance as a character on radio because you can hear his innermost thoughts. "Out loud he is rather restricted. He can't, he won't allow himself to express himself. In his internal speech you can start to hear the agony underneath."

Soames in the novels is the linchpin character, the action impelled by him on purpose and by accident. When we meet him he is married to the beautiful Irene, but there are rumours of a rift. His subsequent brutal marital rape and her fracture of the marriage are the springs of a dynastic split in the Forsyte family and the source of troublesome secrets which last through the generations to follow.

At the beginning Soames is in his mid-30s. When he dies he is 71. As he gets older, Alan Howard believes, he begins to be redeemed, "to loosen, to become vulnerable". Certainly Fleur brings that about. But there is a great richness supplied in this version by the narrator. We hear a great deal more about the characters and their lives. The narrator is Dirk Bogarde. Fleur, Soames's adored daughter by his second wife, is Amanda Redman. Irene, Soames's first wife, is Diana Quick. Young Jolyon, whom she eventually and happily marries, is Michael Williams. Old Jolyon is Sir Michael Hordern. "It felt very strange," says Williams, "calling him dad."

They are all part of one of the biggest casts of famous names ever assembled for a radio series. And as radio series go this one, on size as well, is a blockbuster: 23 weeks of Saturday nights with Friday afternoon repeats, a wholesale takeover of both "Saturday Night Theatre" and "The Classic Series".

As a piece of drama this certainly has its challenges, not least in the portrayal of the outer and inner sides of the characters. Transposition from the written to the spoken word is not, with Galsworthy, an automatic process.

"A lot of the dialogue is not easy," Howard says. "They are all hiding behind what they say. Underneath, they are full of fear and doubt. That's why I think the narrator is vital."

Wasn't it a gamble, I asked - 23 weeks of the decline and fall of an Edwardian dynasty?

"They seem to encompass some of the same problems we have today. The sort of problems they're wrestling with and in our estimation coping with very badly, raised the question: do we do it any better today? Look at Soames's obsession with property. People always have and always will be that kind of possessive. We think we are less proprietorial than they are - but are we? It will be interesting to hear what people say about the rape, now it's been made, and I think rightly, an offence."

The dramatisation has been a huge challenge. Three writers, three directors, three studio teams were just the start. Even getting all the scripts typed and ready for the studio was, on its own, a vast task. The text itself, Alan Howard considers, has in a curious way gained.

"Because it's such a massive thing and it needed so many cuts it acquired a slightly dreamlike quality that makes it far less patronising than when you read it. Galsworthy's own distance from people comes over. You share his feelings about objects, about becoming involved. You start to understand how human beings can get themselves tied into the knots of society."

Producer Janet Whitaker is delighted with Howard's grasp of Soames. Her choice of motif for this production is a peacock feather, the linking device between stages of the plot is a peacock's cry, proud, watchful, melancholy. It captures what Galsworthy says of Soames at the end of To Let - "He might wish and wish and never get it - the beauty and the loving in the world."

Gillian Reynolds

Daily Telegraph, 29.9.1990.