Play it again, Soames

Can 'The Forsyte Chronicles' bring back radio theatre audiences? Gillian Reynolds reports on Radio 4's gamble on the perennial appeal of galsworthy

BBC Radio drama is about to embark on a major attempt to give the audience what it says it wants. The Forsyte Chronicles begins on Saturday, a 23-part adaptation of John Galsworthy's dynastic cycle of novels, it is epic in scope, familiar in tone, style and subject, and has the biggest, most star-studded and expensive cast to be assembled in Broadcasting House for many a long year.

The aim is simple: to bring the audience back. Saturday Night Theatre, the aural stage The Forsyte Chronicles will occupy, is a hallowed institution. It is, however, beloved more in listeners' memory than in actual fact. The trend away from radio drama had been apparent for years. In the last two or three, this has become a source of much worry. Thinking caps were put on. The solution was declared to be Galsworthy.

When BBC television screened The Forsyte Saga on Saturday nights in 1966, the effect was electric. Streets cleared, curtains were drawn, the nation sat on the edge of its sofa to see what would happen to Old Jolyon (Joseph O'Connor), Young Jolyon (Kenneth More), Soames (Eric Porter) and Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter). Since then the television Forsytes have become part of media history, the most requested series for repeat, a cherished memory from the last great days of black-and-white TV.

But even then the magnetic power of Galsworthy was by no means a novelty. Twenty-one years before, in 1945, Muriel Levy's adaptation of A Man of Property, the first novel in the sequence, went out in half-hourly episodes on the old Home Service on Sunday nights. It starred Griselda Hervey as Irene, Ronald Simpson as Soames and Leo Genn as Young Jolyon. It, too, became a classic, a legend, a fabled winner of the national ear.

The decision to go for Galsworthy again, this time to do all nine books for the first time, to give them the best possible radio casts, and put them in the two most celebrated radio drama slots (Saturday Night Theatre for the origination, the Classic Serial spot on Friday afternoons for the repeat) was not universally welcomed inside Broadcasting House. Indeed, among drama producers, there was some outrage. The project was seen as a betrayal of a tradition, of the audience, of writers, of a vast slice of the departmental budget.

The other side of the argument had the brute force of necessity. Unless people start listening regularly and in considerable numbers to drama on Radio 4 on Saturday nights, there would be neither tradition nor budget left. Plays may be A Good Thing, but, like flannel vests, if people don't like them, they won't wear them.

So, once again, a great deal is riding on the back of Galsworthy. Janet Whitaker, the executive producer, knows it. She was given the project in March last year, and the plan was to have it on the air by last Christmas. It was an excruciatingly tight timetable and, as events turned out, an impossible one. The writers were David Spenser and Shirley Gee. Gee was ill, suffering from ME. The scripts became a major concern. The other logistics of such a vast undertaking - casting, booking artists, the right studios and technical staff - all led inevitably to postponement.

A new script deadline was set for September. Another writer, Elspeth Sandys, was brought in. David Spenser defined the overall style. There would be a narrator. There would be lots of interior monologue. In late summer two contract producers, Sue Wilson and Tony Cornish, were also hired. They were to join full-time in January, working until then with Whitaker on reading scripts and casting.

They hadn't worked together before, but got on well from the start. "No tantrums," says Whitaker. "No major fights." Even on casting? "Only occasional differences of opinion."

The BBC Radio Drama Company, "the Rep", was to be the backbone. Tony Cornish considered this a great strength. "They are a strong element, with proper roles, not just peripheral lines." But even with the RDC, in order to get the people you want when you want them, you have to book early.

Then there were the lead roles. Soames and Fleur both figure in 16 episodes. Actors love radio and the freedom it gives, but 16 episodes are a heavy commitment for star actors.

Whitaker knew what she was after for Soames. "I didn't want him to be too likeable. You've got to feel that coldness to begin with. Alan Howard can be quite chilling." Alan Howard has to combine passion with the ice, to age from his late thirties to his seventies, and develop an interior voice which explains why he came to be the character Galsworthy grew to love. It is a complex and compelling role, a real challenge, and Whitaker considers Howard does it wonderfully.

For her story-teller she wanted "not just a bland narrator", but someone who could reflect and project the Forsyte-Galsworthy world of upper middle-class values and judgements. Dirk Bogarde was her ideal. He came in first, in February, separately and ahead of the rest of the cast, worked for all three directors, and recorded some 500 inserts. When everything else was finished, he came back for a day of re-takes. There were less than two dozen.

A radio play is made like a film, in short, separate scenes, with carefully directed movement and effects. The difference is that it is played to the microphone, not the camera. The creak of a garden chair, the rustle of a taffeta skirt, an entry through a shop door, must all be precisely staged, timed, delivered. Lines have to sound as if they come from the heart, not a rustling page.

There have been dramas. Fabia Drake plays Aunt Ann in the first episode, and clearly enjoyed it very much, professionally and socially. Maurice Denham, playing one of the uncles, brought in photos of plays they had done together in their twenties. There was much laughter. Her booking was for four days, two to rehearse, two to record. It went so well she got all her scenes recorded in a single day. She went home, rightly pleased that at 86 she could still come in under time. The next day's scene in the studio was Aunt Ann's funeral. Whitaker, rehearsing with Sir Michael Hordern and Maurice Denham, was called out to the telephone. Rachel Kempson (who plays another Aunt) was on the line to say Fabia Drake had died in her sleep.

Whitaker broke down. She then faced the decision of how and when to tell the others. She went back into the studio, rehearsed and recorded their scenes. Only then did she break the news.

There have been battles, principally over the telephone, with the famed drillers of Broadcasting House. "Where are you doing this drilling? In the ladies' loo? Where? The one right under this studio.......How long will you be? Seven days???"

When they finished at the end of May there was a party. Sir Michael Hordern, the oldest member of the cast, and Sophie Thompson, the youngest, cut the cake. It was shaped like a book, a large book, the same book that it is hoped will hold Britain by the heart-strings until Christmas. If it doesn't, Saturday Night Theatre and The Classic Serial will certainly have had a blockbusting send-off.

Gillian Reynolds

Sunday Telegraph '7 Days' Magazine, 23.9.1990.