LOS ANGELES, Oct. 16 (UPI) -- How good is PBS's new version of "The Forsyte Saga?" So good that I may once again become a loyal "Masterpiece Theater" viewer, even though I'd sworn off the series years ago when Alistair Cooke retired as host and retired newspaper columnist Russell Baker was brought in to replace him.
The casually erudite Cooke didn't simply summarize the story so for. He'd actually read the books, was familiar with the world of the authors, and -- without ever making a fuss over how much he knew and you didn't -- shared his insights with the audience.
Baker, who apparently knows no more about British costume drama than some schlub off the street, just reads from a script about the plot that someone has written for him. It's ridiculous and unbearable, if you remember Cooke.
I recommend covering your ears and humming when Baker is doing his host spiel. Luckily, I had the luxury of fast-forwarding through the Baker bits for "The Forsyte Saga," an eight-part series that premiered Oct. 6 and runs Sunday nights through Nov. 17.
This new version, based on the John Galsworthy novels about love, lust, betrayal, hypocrisy and bourgeois self-importance in an extended upper-middle-class family in Victorian London, is even better than the seminal original BBC series, which aired in the United States on PBS in 1969 and ushered in "Masterpiece Theater" as we know it.
Those who remember and love the old series (and I am one) may blanche at the notion of remaking a classic. But wonderful as the original was, these new Forsytes are even better -- more romantic, less static, played by actors whose youth helps make the characters' foolishness seem tragically inevitable rather than simply obtuse.
The original "Forsyte Saga" spanned 26 hours and covered all six of the Galsworthy novels; this installment spends eight hours on the first two books, so it's really not that much more streamlined. But one big difference is that in the early parts of the story, the actors are close in age to their characters.
"That was a deliberate choice on my part," said producer Sita Williams at the PBS press conference. "You could get away with having actors in their 40s in the 1960s play 20-year-olds. You couldn't do that today."
The story so far (and if you've missed the first couple of episodes, I suppose you might as well uncover your ears and let Russell Baker recap them for you): Soames Forsyte (Damian Lewis), the stuffy, controlling family scion, loves and marries beautiful, penniless Irene (Gina McKee), who can never love him in return.
Tragedy ensues when Irene develops a passion for dashing architect Phillip Bossiney (Ioan Gruffudd), who the Forsytes see as "as one of those rare and unfortunate men who go through life surrounded by circumstance, property, acquaintances, and wives that do not belong to them," as Galsworthy put it.
Bossiney is engaged to Irene's friend June Forsyte (Gillian Kearney), the daughter of Soames's artistic cousin Jolyon (Rupert Graves), who was disowned by the rest of the family when he left a loveless marriage to run off with the governess.
Eric Porter's original performance as Soames was peerless, and it's praise indeed to say that Damian Lewis doesn't suffer by comparison. Rupert Graves is far less priggish than Kenneth More as Jolyon, who in the old version often came across as morally superior to the point of insufferability.
But it's Gina McKee who really alters the tone, and for the better. She gives a luminous, sensitive interpretation of Irene that -- unlike Nyree Dawn Porter's three decades ago -- manages to overcome the character's icy quality while preserving her elusive mystery and reserve.
She's helped by the new script, too. McKee's Irene doesn't say -- as Nyree Dawn Porter's did -- insufferable lines like, "Women don't have friends ... they have lovers." (Yes, I still remember that one, verbatim. It was a very shocking notion to an 11-year-old.)
The problem of Irene's unsympathetic rejection of Soames -- who, after all, was only driven to villainy by his frustrated love of her -- was not lost, by the way, on Galsworthy.
"Readers, as they wade on through the salt waters of the Saga," he noted in an introduction, "are inclined more and more to pity Soames, and to think that in doing so they are in revolt against the mood of the creator. Far from it! He, too, pities Soames, the tragedy of whose life is the very simple, uncontrollable tragedy of being unloveable, without quite a thick enough skin to be thoroughly unconscious of the fact."
"But in pitying Soames readers incline, perhaps, to animus against Irene," Galsworthy continued. "After all, they think, he wasn't a bad fellow, it wasn't his fault; she ought to have forgiven him, and so on! And, taking sides, they lose perception of the simple truth, which underlies the whole story, that where sex attraction is utterly and definitely lacking in one partner to a union, no amount of pity, or reason, or duty, or what not, can overcome a repulsion implicit in Nature."
Irene is an inherently difficult character to play. She's described at one point in the novels as like "a heathen goddess," and she's never present except when viewed by other characters.
"The descriptions of her are always through the eyes of other people, particularly through Soames, and in some ways she's idealized," noted McKee. "So there is an enigmatic quality about her, and somehow, not having all the answers seems to draw people in."
Lewis observed that part of the Forsytes self-satisfied rigidity comes from their fairly recent acquisition of bourgeois gentility. "They're only two or three generations into the money," he said. "They're not an old family with standing, and the pride and snobbery of the Forsytes is that they certainly don't want to be reminded of that. They want to feel they've always belonged to the upper class."
Part of the story's appeal, Lewis added, "is that every single character is hypocritical, which makes them all incredibly real."
"The Forsyte Saga" won Galsworthy the Nobel Prize in Literature and was a huge best seller in the '20s, especially on American college campuses. But his success, and essentially middlebrow sensibility, were regularly sniped at by his contemporaries.
"The thing that strikes one about Galsworthy is that though he's trying to be iconoclastic," wrote George Orwell, "he has been utterly unable to move his mind outside the wealthy bourgeois society he is attacking." D.H. Lawrence thought that Galsworthy "faltered, and gave in to the Forsytes."
Maybe so. And yet, they are such amusing company, why not give in? Few other writers created scenes of such absurdly self-satisfied complacency and privilege. So let's allow Galsworthy to have the last word. Here he is, on a typical Forsyte family gathering:
"No Forsyte has given a dinner without providing a saddle of mutton. There is something in its succulent solidity, which makes it suitable to people 'of a certain position.' It is nourishing -- and tasty; the sort of thing a man remembers eating. It has a past and a future, like a deposit put into a bank; and it is something that can be argued about."