Soames Opera

Can the Forsyte Saga on radio have the same impact as the television version in the Sixties? The star power of Dirk Bogarde, Sir Michael Hordern, Diana Quick and Alan Howard could make its 23 episodes another classic, says Esdale MacLean.

Mention the name Forsyte to anyone old enough to remember the classic BBC2 serial of 1967 and it conjures up an immediate mental picture of actress Nyree Dawn Porter shrinking away from the ghastly clutches of Eric Porter's Soames, as he forces himself upon his reluctant wife in John Galsworthy's epic saga of the declining years of an upper-middle class family. It is powerful remembered images like this famous rape scene, though tame enough by today's standard, that Radio 4 is up against in its new production of The Forsyte Chronicles, which begins its mammoth 23-week progress tomorrow at 7.45 pm. Perhaps that is why £250,000 has been spent on the production - peanuts for television, but not the sort of sum radio producers are used to handling.

However, Janet Whitaker, who headed the production and writing team, has no doubt she is delivering value for money. And with a cast that includes Dirk Bogarde, Sir Michael Hordern, Maurice Denham and Dorothy Tutin, with Alan Howard and Diana Quick as the ill-fated Soames and Irene, expectations are high.

But how did Ms Whitaker persuade Dirk Bogarde - whose last acting part on radio was in 1955 in Doctor at Sea for which he was paid 15 guineas (£15.75) - to take the role of Galsworthy as narrator? "I just asked his agent," she said.

Fortunately, somewhere along the line, the scope of the project was not fully conveyed to Bogarde, who took the part thinking it involved only "some topping and tailing".

"It was a bit of a shock when he saw what was involved and he said that had he known he would have said no. His performance, though, was exactly what I wanted.

"He has a gentlemanly demeanour, a slightly upper-class accent and he is very British - exactly the qualities I was looking for. I was delighted with his performance."

Despite his standing as the star of films like The Servant and Death in Venice and author of three novels and four volumes of autobiography - two of which he has read on radio - Bogarde surprised Ms Whitaker.

"He was actually very shy about being with such established radio actors as Michael Hordern, Maurice Denham and Rachel Kempson. As far as radio is concerned he is the new boy on the block."

The nine volumes which make up The Forsyte Chronicles and span the mid 1880s to the 1930s mirrored Galsworthy's own wealthy upper-middle class family. His marriage to his cousin's wife, Ada, after they scandalised polite society by living together before her divorce, was the inspiration for the fictional union between Irene and Soames's cousin, Young Jolyon. Old Jolyon, the family figurehead, was based on Galsworthy's father, and aunts often complained they recognised themselves in print.

Whereas television saw the story through the eyes of Young Jolyon, the radio adaptation will stick more closely to the original and "give the feeling of the books", says Ms Whitaker. "We worked to retain Galsworthy's ironical commentary. He takes a particular stance towards the Forsytes, observing them as a family and a section of society."

The Forsytes made their radio debut as far back as 1945 and as the TV serial was last seen in 1969 there is a new audience waiting to be introduced to Soames and Co.

Although the publicity ballyhoo has centred on Bogarde, the first weeks of the production stand or fall on the performances of Alan Howard as the cold and possessive Soames and, to a lesser extent, Diana Quick as Irene, who falls for Bosinney, the architect designing their country house. Does Howard, an award-winning former member of the RSC, last seen on film in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, match up to television's Eric Porter as an ideal Soames?

"I'm not worried about comparisons," says Ms Whitaker. "The TV version looks very dated now but the performances were good. On radio Alan is the star of the show. He is there for 16 episodes so it is quite a long performance and, although Soames starts off as a cold character, in the end the audience is sympathetic towards him. It is a delicate transition and he does it really well. On his death scene in episode 16 there wasn't a dry eye in the studio."

So will television-fed audiences of the Nineties be persuaded to desert the box for their radios over the next 23 Saturday evenings?

If quality counts they ought to. The opening episodes, introducing the family and its foibles, are hallmarked with elegance and craftsmanship, with commanding performances from Bogarde, Hordern, Maurice Denham and the late Fabia Drake, who died only hours after recording her short part as Aunt Ann.

Howard and Diana Quick light the sparks as Soames gets the "not tonight or ever again" treatment from Irene, which plunges the family on its downward spiral of division, bitterness and scandal. Gripping stuff.

Esdale MacLean

The Evening Standard, 28.9.1990.