Times change, often without our noticing. Just over 50 years ago, the dramatisation of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga gained an audience of 18 million viewers when it was shown on BBC1.
Broadcast every Sunday for six months, it had the unintended effect of upsetting several vicars, who complained that their congregations had abandoned Evensong in order to watch it.
One episode was particularly striking. In it, the crusty Soames Forsyte (Eric Porter) discovers that his beautiful young wife, Irene (Nyree Dawn Porter), is conducting an affair with an architect called Bossiney. When she returns home, he corners her. ‘Where have you been? Tell me at once, where have you been?’ he cries.
Soames Forsyte discovers that his wife, Irene is having an affair
‘In heaven,’ she replies, luxuriating in the memory. Soames sees red. They tussle, and he chases Irene down a corridor. She tries to close a door, but he jams his foot in it. His intentions are all too clear.
‘Don’t!’ she screams. ‘Kill me if you like! I’d rather you killed me!’
‘There’s no need to kill you — anybody can have you, can’t they?’
Soames rips her dress. ‘You’re my wife!’ he shouts. ‘You’re my wife, you’re my wife, you’re my wife!’ The viewer is left in no doubt as to what will happen next.
After this controversial episode was broadcast, the current affairs programme Late Night Line-Up asked 100 people in London’s Oxford Street who they supported — the rapist Soames, or his unfaithful wife, Irene?
Today, the results may be surprising to say the least: 54 per cent of those interviewed were on the side of Soames, and only 39 per cent for Irene, with 7 per cent ‘Indifferent’.
Gender didn’t come into it, with each side split equally between men and women.
In the vox pop interviews, the Oxford Street shoppers explain why they blame Irene, rather than Soames.
‘She’s a bit of a bitch really, always trying to get her own way,’ says one woman. A man next to her agrees. ‘Very selfish. You wouldn’t want to have married her.’ An older woman also takes Soames’ side. ‘I think he’s very much misunderstood. I think he is nice underneath.’
After this controversial episode was broadcast, the current affairs programme Late Night Line-Up asked 100 people in London’s Oxford Street who they supported
A very jazzy young woman goes even further. ‘I sympathise throughout with him. He’s my type, very nice.’
‘He’s a very good man, he’s very kind,’ agrees an Asian man.
An older woman in a hat says, ‘I think he’s very nice as men go. I think he’d make a good husband. He doesn’t deprive her of anything, does he?’
A West Indian lady disagrees. ‘A woman likes a little bit of romance before the animal act,’ she argues. Asked if he feels sorry for Irene, a middle-aged man says: ‘No, I feel sorry for him. That’s why he had to rape her — because she was no good to him.’
There follows a panel discussion, chaired by the young Joan Bakewell, with two people arguing for Soames, and two against.
One of them had already written that Irene ‘would be best buried at the Kingston by-pass roundabout with a stake driven through her heart’.
Another, a woman, agrees with this judgment, saying that the rape scene ‘leaves me with a much greater distaste for Irene … To me, Soames is the ideal husband.’
The most prominent of the panel is Sir Gerald Nabarro, known for courting controversy and espousing the flogging of muggers and the repatriation of immigrants.
As such, he might have been expected to take Soames’s side. Instead, he comes down firmly on the side of Irene, condemning Soames as ‘not a companionable, matrimonial type’, and incapable of love.
The Forsyte Saga gained an audience of 18 million viewers when it was shown on BBC1
One of the women on the panel disagrees, saying that Irene should have forgiven Soames. ‘I say it was a crime passionnel, which means it was innocent — surely she could have forgiven it?’
It’s hard to imagine that many people would admit to these views today. And, even if they did, would the BBC ever broadcast them?
Yet, at the time, they were obviously middle-of-the-road, and delivered with a cheery matter- of-factness.
Fifty years from now, which of today’s mainstream opinions will appear similarly outlandish?