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The Forsyte Saga series

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An interview with the 34 year old actor, Damian Lewis (Soames Forsyte) and his co-star, the 28 year old Ioan Gruffudd (Phillip Bossiney), also Gina McKee (Irene Forsyte), talking about the Forsyte saga series.

That rape scene is very famous.

Lewis: It's famous because in 1967 it was so novel to see something that explicit on TV. Now we're used to images like that, and the question in everyone's mind becomes, how graphic will it be? Our rape scene isn't at all graphic. It's suggestive, but still terribly shocking within the context of the drama. It should be shocking -- psychologically and emotionally shocking.

Gruffudd: God, I feel so sorry for Damian, he just raped his wife! (pause) That's far more interesting.

Is it very difficult to do a scene like that?

Lewis: Yes, it's horrible to do. We were just acting...

Any scene that you can remember that was horrible?

Gruffudd: The love scenes! (Gruffudd laughs) No, I remember....that scene where my character, Bossiney, dies. Or gets killed by a cab..that's more exactly. And it was all the more horrible because we happened to be filming it on September 11th. Damian, Gina and I were doing that harrowing scene as news was filtering in about what was happening in New York. It was a very weird, very upsetting day. We were just acting, just like Damian said, and meanwhile this real thing was going on.

Lewis: Yes, I remember that. It was actually horrible, I know it sounds funny, but it was! (Lewis laughs) I can remember your face Ioan, when the director was giving orders to you, to get killed by a cab!

Have you read all of Galsworthy's Forsyte novels?

Gruffudd: Yes, I have.

Lewis: Yes, absolutely. I also bought a couple of books on Victorian mores and social customs. And I have some quite useful printouts from the Internet about the roles of wives and husbands in Victorian England. So I've got a wealth of information to go on.

Who is Soames Forsyte?

Lewis: He's fastidious, smug, and conceited. But he's also a person capable of love, though unfortunately unable to express it in a satisfactory way, especially to a young woman. He understands life in terms of contracts, property, and duty. And if any of those things is threatened, he falls apart. He can be cruel and small-minded, but that's often generated by this repressed passion that he's unable to express fully, or successfully, or healthily.

Who is Phillip Bossiney?

Gruffudd: Philip Bosinney was known to be a young man without fortune, but Forsyte girls had become engaged to such before, and had actually married them. Let me think, he's an passionated architect. Who is engaged to June Forsyte. Well, he first falls in love with June, then falls in love with Irene, who falls in love with Bossiney. Irene is married to Soames, and he won't let her go. It was actually June's fault that Irene and Bossiney met. Yeah. That's a bit complicated...

How do you perform such a conflicted, complicated characters?

Lewis: I went to English boarding schools and grew up around people very much like Soames and in a milieu very much like the Forsytes's, even down to wearing tails, and stiff collars, and cravats. So I feel quite at home in the environment in which The Forsyte Saga takes place. But I'm a more ebullient person than Soames is.

Gruffudd: You're hitting at a central point about acting, which is that for all the research you do, acting is finally an instinctive craft. My responses are not governed by some piece of information I have, but by what Gina McKee or Damian Lewis or Rupert Graves is saying to me on the set. The scripts helped, and also the conversations I had with Sita [Williams], the producer, and Chris [Menaul] the director.

Do you think Irene is a little hard on Soames?

Gruffudd: The best way to look at it is that Irene has married under duress. Her stepmother has said "we are poor, we need to make this marriage, he's a good man, and he loves you." But she can never love him. They don't share any of the same passions.

Lewis: Perhaps there's an element of self-loathing in her repugnance of him. She has agreed to do this thing that she really doesn't want to do. And it's for her convenience, really. In the beginning, there's no reason for her to hate him. He hasn't done anything bad, wrong, ugly, or cruel. He just represents something that she knows she can never love.


Did you watch the 1960s BBC adaptation as part of your research for your roles of Soames and Phillip?

Lewis: No, though Ioan and I have seen little clips of it. That was a seminal piece of work, and a whole generation loved it. But I find that television dates very quickly. The language of the camera has moved on since then, audiences have become more sophisticated. We would find it very sedentary compared to what we expect now. Our cast is a lot younger than theirs, I mean, I'm 34 and the other Soames was like...60! And just look at Ioan, you know; that's what I call a lot younger than the other Bossiney, that was 50! And I think the relationships are scripted in a slightly different way, more ambiguous perhaps. I'll see it someday, but I don't feel the need to go to it for guidance.

There are hints that the Forsytes have an inferiority complex about their origins as farmers. Is this an important element in what makes them tick?

Lewis: Yes. They're only two or three generations into the money. They're not an old family with standing, and they certainly don't want to be reminded of that. Old Jolyon Forsyte, played by Corin Redgrave, is a bit of a maverick, more of a fully rounded, loving person than the other Forsytes, and he likes to stir up the family on this score.

Gruffudd: At the dinner party in the opening episode he alludes to their humble origins. The pride and snobbery of the Forsytes is such that no one wants to be reminded of that. They want to feel they've always belonged to the upper class. It's that very English thing of "clubability," that obsession with belonging to the right places.

So, Gina, how was it to do The Forsyte saga, series II?

McKee: Yeah, it was really funny. Some new actors and actresses. They are very young and they are very talented. Especially Lee Williams, the guy who played Jon Forsyte. I think I missed Ioan when I was filming The Forsyte saga, series II. I remember how nervous I was about doing those love scenes (on series I), until I meet Ioan. It took us a whole day to film those love scenes. Luckily, we were'nt filming those scenes on September 11th! (McKee laughs) He's lovely to work with. He treats everyone with respect and it's not an act.

Lewis: Ioan is terribly hard to ignore, isn't he?! The danger is I'll sound very sycophantic, but he's got a lot of good characteristics and it's hard to separate his best. He's nice. It sounds crap, but he is. (Lewis laughs)

Did you like the second series?

Lewis: The second series is quite different from the first. It's become more of a romance between the two children -- my child and Irene's child and it's about us preventing them from coming together. There's a lot of bitterness and animosity getting in the way. Soames is still pretty repressed and caught up in himself and motivated by self-interest. But he has been softened a little bit by his daughter... softened in the way that she can wrap him round her little finger and he enjoys letting her do that. Beyond that, he's in a loveless marriage. There is respect in their marriage but there is very little love, because he is still in love with Irene. He has changed in his attitude in that there is another woman in his life that he loves and that's his daughter. Otherwise he remains the same.

Gruffudd: The first series was such a huge hit.  I loved to play Bossiney and I loved the series because it's a different type of drama. It doesn't follow a formula quite so much. It's usually a story of young despairing love and a villain and the best friend falls in love with the wrong man and then the man runs off with the heroine. The Forsyte Saga is different because it concentrates on the whole family and then it takes you through the generations and everyone is featured strongly.

McKee: People compare it to a soap opera and it does have soap elements in it in the way that the plot intertwines with different characters. It's not just about young lovers - it's about middle-age love and old love as well. In the first series, if you were to call anyone a villain, it would be Soames -- when actually it is a big love story between him and Irene. So that breaks the mold straight away.

Lewis: You should always love your characters, just look at Ioan! he loved to play Bossiney! (Lewis laughs) I don't think I would like Soames if I met him. But I love playing him! And there is no way I'm anything like him!

What do you think audiences find appealing about The Forsyte Saga?

Part of its appeal is that every very single character is hypocritical, which makes them all incredibly real. But first and foremost, it's a great story. It's a ripping yarn, as we'd say.
Gruffudd: It's melodramatic, it's glamorous, it's got people falling in and out of love. It has everything an audience wants: lust, betrayal, deceit, joy, ecstasy. So it appeals on many levels.

The series where originally published in three volumes between 1906 and 1920, The Forsyte Saga was the most popular book on American college campuses during the Roaring Twenties, and it helped win Galsworthy the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932.

The book garnered a new generation of fans through the celebrated twenty-six part BBC adaptation starring Eric Porter and Susan Hampshire, which premiered in the United States, on public television, in 1969.