Anticipates the Television Miniseries Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The broadcast of The Forsyte Saga on American television increased the interest in entertainment programming on public television and helped launch PBS the following year. It also led to additional imports of British television programs, as well as the evolution of the TV miniseries.

Summary of Event

Although what has come to be seen as the British invasion of American television began with the first broadcast of The Forsyte Saga on what was then called National Educational Television National Educational Television (NET) in October, 1969, British imports had long appeared on American commercial television. The most significant of these programs were The Avengers, a spy spoof that ran on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) from 1966 to 1969, and The Prisoner, an allegorical drama dealing with a British spy banished to an island from which he could not escape, which appeared on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1968 and 1969. These programs, produced by Independent Television Independent Television (ITV), the United Kingdom’s commercial alternative to the state-supported British Broadcasting Corporation British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), were notable for showing that entertainment programming could be created with a style, wit, and intelligence missing from typical American series. Forsyte Saga, The (television program) Television;miniseries Miniseries (television) Television;public broadcasting Television;dramas [kw]Forsyte Saga Anticipates the Television Miniseries, The (Oct. 5, 1969-Mar. 29, 1970) [kw]Television Miniseries, The Forsyte Saga Anticipates the (Oct. 5, 1969-Mar. 29, 1970) [kw]Miniseries, The Forsyte Saga Anticipates the Television (Oct. 5, 1969-Mar. 29, 1970) Forsyte Saga, The (television program) Television;miniseries Miniseries (television) Television;public broadcasting Television;dramas [g]North America;Oct. 5, 1969-Mar. 29, 1970: The Forsyte Saga Anticipates the Television Miniseries[10470] [g]United States;Oct. 5, 1969-Mar. 29, 1970: The Forsyte Saga Anticipates the Television Miniseries[10470] [c]Radio and television;Oct. 5, 1969-Mar. 29, 1970: The Forsyte Saga Anticipates the Television Miniseries[10470] Porter, Eric More, Kenneth Porter, Nyree Dawn Hampshire, Susan Calderwood, Stanford Sarson, Christopher Schmertz, Herbert Cooke, Alistair

Attempts at so-called quality television also did not begin with The Forsyte Saga. Television adaptations of famous plays and novels were common on American television in the 1950’s. As ratings became more and more important, however, commercial television broadcast fewer such dramas and fewer arts programs as well. Public television in the 1960’s was known as “educational” television and consisted mostly of instructional programs, interview shows, and occasional dramatic programming such as NET Playhouse, which presented classic and contemporary plays, a few of which were purchased from the BBC. Clearly, something more was needed.

A report by the Carnegie Commission on Public Television Carnegie Commission on Public Television calling for a publicly funded network offering the type of public-service and cultural programming unavailable on the commercial networks led to the Public Broadcasting Act Public Broadcasting Act (1967) of 1967 and the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). In 1970, the CPB formed the Public Broadcasting Service Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to replace NET and link these local systems into a network.

The effort to change the public’s perception of public television was given impetus by the broadcast of the twenty-six episodes of The Forsyte Saga over the 167 stations affiliated with NET from October 5, 1969, to March 29, 1970. Written and produced by Donald Wilson and directed by David Giles and James Cellan Jones, The Forsyte Saga was a monumental undertaking. Featuring 120 characters speaking 300,000 words of dialogue, the series was adapted from six novels published by Nobel Prize-winner John Galsworthy Galsworthy, John between 1906 and 1928.

A television version of these novels seemed striking in the late 1960’s; the program, which over a period of several months presented the slow decline of generations of a large family, had a scope unprecedented on television. The Forsyte Saga was shown once on the BBC without much fanfare, but when it was repeated, the series became a national passion, attracting seventeen million viewers each week. Since the program was shown on Sunday nights, churches throughout the United Kingdom scheduled their services earlier. Following the last episode, one London newspaper published an article about the death of the protagonist as if Soames Forsyte were a real person. Similarly enthusiastic responses occurred abroad after the BBC sold the series to fifty countries, including the Soviet Union.

When The Forsyte Saga was first offered to broadcasters in the United States, however, there was no interest. American commercial broadcasters understood programming only in terms of series that might continue for years or one-time-only specials. If The Forsyte Saga were successful on a commercial network, American executives wondered, how could the broadcaster follow up on something that had an irreversible conclusion? (The series was also rejected because it was in black and white.)

When NET purchased the American rights to The Forsyte Saga for only $140,000, however, the program garnered enthusiasm similar to that displayed in other parts of the world. As in the United Kingdom, the series was more popular when repeated than it was during its initial showing. The repeat broadcasts in Washington, D.C., for example, were shown three times a week for the convenience of viewers with busy schedules. The Forsyte Saga began the public-television tradition of attracting viewers who watched few if any programs on the commercial networks. Critics praised the drama for offering writing, characterizations, insight, and acting of a quality rarely seen in American programs. The popularity of the series in the United States may also be attributed to the show’s characters, who had recognizably human failings and clearly defined motives, and to its setting in the comfortably distant past. The Forsyte Saga seemed somehow reassuring at a time of political, social, and sexual turmoil.

The Forsyte Saga presents the divergent destinies of two sides of the wealthy Forsyte family. Soames (Eric Porter), a successful lawyer, lives according to the conservative, materialistic values of the older generation of Forsytes. Soames sees acquiring and keeping property as the purpose of life. His cousin Jo (Kenneth More) conducts his life at the other extreme, taking risks the other Forsytes find shocking. An unsuccessful painter, Jo leaves his first wife for his daughter’s governess. Meanwhile, Soames marries the beautiful but poor Irene Heron (Nyree Dawn Porter). Irene longs to escape her oppressive home life, but she finds living with the cold, humorless Soames even worse. When Soames hires the architect Bosinney (John Bennett) to build a mansion, Irene finds someone to share her passion for living. After Bosinney is killed in an accident and Soames rapes Irene, she runs away.

Years later, Jo and Irene meet and marry. Soames, meanwhile, acquires a second wife, who leaves him after giving birth to their daughter. Fleur (Susan Hampshire) grows up to marry the dull politician Michael Mont (Nicholas Pennell) and then initiates an affair with Jon (Martin Jarvis), the son of Jo and Irene, bringing the two sides of the family into conflict. Fleur attempts to dominate Jon the way her father had his mother, but Jon leaves her alone with her selfishness.

The Forsyte Saga captivated audiences by combining the best elements of soap opera, the irony and symbolism common in literature but unusual on television, and social history. It showed how the class represented by Soames was doomed for refusing to change with the times. The series was also praised for the excellence of its casting and performances; Susan Hampshire won an Emmy Award Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Fleur.


With PBS supplanting NET, more such programs were needed to continue the momentum created by the Galsworthy dramatization. Stanford Calderwood—a former Polaroid executive who became president of WGBH-TV, Boston’s PBS station, in 1970—was impressed by the quality of BBC programs he had seen in London. Calderwood and Christopher Sarson, a British-born producer at WGBH, sought a corporate sponsor for a series of BBC dramas. After several rejections, they found a sympathetic executive in Herbert Schmertz, a vice president for public affairs at the Mobil Oil Corporation. The subsequent agreement with Mobil occurred at a time when corporate sponsorship of public broadcasting was unknown. (NET had received funds from the Ford Foundation.)

With $400,000 from Mobil, WGBH began acquiring BBC serials, and Masterpiece Theatre Masterpiece Theatre (television program) was born. With Alistair Cooke, a veteran British journalist and broadcaster, as host, Masterpiece Theatre debuted on January 10, 1971, with the first of twelve episodes of The First Churchills. First Churchills, The (television program) The program was followed by dramatizations of novels by Henry James, Fyodor Dostoevski, Honoré de Balzac, Thomas Hardy, Leo Tolstoy, and Stella Gibbons. In its early years, the program emphasized adaptations of classic novels and historical dramas and was immediately a hit with discriminating viewers and the critics. Susan Hampshire won another Emmy for The First Churchills; Keith Michell received one for starring in The Six Wives of Henry VIII; and Elizabeth R, with Glenda Jackson as Queen Elizabeth I, won five Emmys.

Over its first twenty seasons, the most highly regarded Masterpiece Theatre presentations were Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs (television program) shown in fifty-five episodes from 1974 to 1977; I, Claudius, I, Claudius (television program) whose thirteen episodes were shown in 1977 and 1978; and The Jewel in the Crown, with fourteen episodes broadcast in 1984 and 1985. Upstairs, Downstairs was a departure for Masterpiece Theatre, since it was not based on a literary or historical source and was not produced by the BBC but the commercial London Weekend Television. A soap opera with a sense of humor and irony, Upstairs, Downstairs depicts changes in the lives of a wealthy London family and their servants from 1904 to 1930, encompassing many of the social and political upheavals during the period.

I, Claudius, from the novel by Robert Graves, was another departure, since this depiction of four Roman emperors dealt with a much earlier and more exotic period than did other Masterpiece Theatre productions—and also because of the series’s emphasis on sex and violence. Many American viewers received their first glimpses of televised nudity from I, Claudius. The Jewel in the Crown, based on novels by Paul Scott and produced by the commercial Granada Television, focuses on tensions between British colonials and native Indians in the years leading up to India’s 1948 independence, offering yet another look at the broad sweep of history.

The success of Masterpiece Theatre led WGBH and Mobil to create a sister series in 1980. Mystery! Mystery! (television program)[Mystery (television program)] was designed to feature stories of murder, detection, and espionage. The backbone of Mystery! was formed by series with recurring characters, such as Peter Lovesy’s Sergeant Cribb, John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Mystery! also included highly regarded closed-end series such as Malice Aforethought, Charters and Caldicott, Mother Love, and Prime Suspect.

Many popular and critically acclaimed British imports have appeared on PBS independent of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!, including War and Peace, Jenny, The Pallisers, Brideshead Revisited, and Mapp and Lucia. Nor have the British imports on public television all been dramatic programs. Such fare as art historian Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, BBC science documentaries on Nova, and several natural history series hosted by David Attenborough became familiar to PBS viewers in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

American commercial television was not immune to the British invasion. The Six Wives of Henry VIII appeared on CBS before it was broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre, and that same network created the ill-fated Beacon Hill as an American version of Upstairs, Downstairs. The most profound influence of these programs, however, was to convince commercial executives of the value of multi-episode, limited-run series. Such American miniseries as Q.B. VII, Rich Man, Poor Man, and Roots would not have existed had not The Forsyte Saga and Masterpiece Theatre preceded them.

The success of The Forsyte Saga also led to the further internationalization of American television. Many programs have been imported from countries other than the United Kingdom. In the 1970’s, PBS showed a French miniseries about the playwright Molière, and CBS broadcast an Italian series about Leonardo da Vinci. Masterpiece Theatre has also included productions from Australia, Canada, and Ireland. From a black-and-white dramatization of Soames Forsyte’s greed grew a major component of the American television industry. Forsyte Saga, The (television program) Television;miniseries Miniseries (television) Television;public broadcasting Television;dramas

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooke, Alistair. Masterpieces: A Decade of Masterpiece Theatre. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. A collection of Cooke’s introductions to Masterpiece Theatre series. Heavily illustrated with photographs, drawings, and stills from Masterpiece Theatre productions. A chronology of the series unfortunately has omissions and misspellings in the program credits.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coppa, Frank J. “The Global Impact of Television: An Overview.” In Screen and Society: The Impact of Television upon Aspects of Contemporary Civilization. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979. Excellent overview of how broadcasting systems worldwide export and import programming and how the imported programs affect these systems. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Timothy. The Universal Eye: The World of Television. New York: Stein & Day, 1972. Explains how television broadcasting evolved in various countries, with the emphasis on Europe. Traces the development of the BBC and ITV in Great Britain. Shows the effect of American and British programs abroad.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macy, John W., Jr. To Irrigate a Wasteland: The Struggle to Shape a Public Television System in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. A brief but thorough history of the creation and early years of public television. Traces how The Forsyte Saga and Masterpiece Theatre came to public television.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, Martin. About Television. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. A lengthy chapter on public television outlines its creation, goals, strengths, and weaknesses. The effects of the popularity of The Forsyte Saga and Masterpiece Theatre are discussed. Mayer argues that such dramas should be only on commercial television.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Jeffrey S. Something Completely Different: British Television and American Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Discusses the direct effects of The Forstye Saga on American culture, as well as its influence on the importation of other British television series. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, John J. “Masterpiece Theatre: A Retrospective.” Television Quarterly 22 (1986): 31-37. An account of the origins of Masterpiece Theatre and a critical overview of its first fifteen years, with particular attention to Upstairs, Downstairs and The Jewel in the Crown. Analyzes the program’s influences on the concepts of television held by audiences and broadcast executives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Saga.” The New Yorker 45 (January 10, 1970): 15-17. Excellent account of The Forsyte Saga phenomenon in Great Britain and the United States. Includes numerous statistics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zukerman, Ed. “The Legacy of Masterpiece Theatre.” American Film 3 (December, 1978/January, 1979): 10-15. A history of Masterpiece Theatre based on interviews with Stanford Calderwood, Christopher Sarson, Herbert Schmertz, and Joan Wilson, Sarson’s successor. Explains how the series was created and how the programs are selected.

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