“Old School Soap just wrapped up on PBS”
“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.” –Damian Lewis (Soames Forsyte, “The Forsyte Saga”)
If you still believe it’s impossible nowadays to showcase old-school melodrama in a variety of tomes and tones, from high-brow to Middle America, then you haven’t been watching the second in a series from John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga” on PBS lately.
I have. I missed most of February Sweeps for ABC Daytime and primetime across the dial, because my mother-in-law passed away and I was away from home and hearth. However, I managed to squeeze in quality time with my favorite actor and the most perfect specimen of manhood in the galaxy, Damian Lewis (Soames Forsyte), along with the rest of the solid cast, in this melodrama about beauty and proportion, love and property and, inevitably, brilliantly played, the triumph of humanity to overcome a troubled, poisonous past.
For a brief second, I worried that the same tendency to downplay the older for the younger plaguing American television would do the same to British fine art, because the promotional preview for the series heralded a thoroughly romanticized look at the children of Soames and Irene, as the introduction to the newer, younger generation.
I groaned then, anticipating a Brian-Fronsian nightmare of Jessica proportions, all kewpie doll pouting and giggle posturing, the elders used as props, wallpaper and insignificant memorabilia... just another aging mother-in-law too drawn, weathered, and ugly with her gaping maw for one last drag, pull the fucking plug already on that old bat.
Whatever would they do to my precious Soames? Gray his hair, force him in a wheelchair, drooling to himself in the background while the shiny happy young beautiful people mucked about, way past their bedtime and their welcome?
Thankfully, this was a British production, and over there, they do things differently, as in better, as in always keeping the historic, the classic and the true in whatever entertainment vehicle present. They did not disappoint me in this, the “The Forsyte...” case.
For those unaware, the Saga chronicles the lives and loves of the Forsyte family in the late 1800s to early 1900s, focusing primarily on Soames’ obsessive, all-too-consuming-feeling love for Irene, who felt forced to marry to relieve the burden of her stepmother, but refused nonetheless to even try to love in return, keeping – at her own confession – him at arm’s length until – at his own confession – he “took her” in bed one night, an act of rape so atrocious as to change them forever, decades later.
This is the kind of change worth pimping, as opposed to the dreadful cheesy CE on GH, or the last-ditch efforts of a dying soap breed in the rumor of Sonny raping Carly as revenge, more a matter of making up shit to fit a ratings lack, than carefully following core characters through time, space and relationships.
In the second of the “Forsyte” series, their children, by other people they later married, must overcome that past nobody is willing to discuss and teach by example, what it truly means to evolve from hardship, betrayal and a love that was never meant to be.
From the beginning, I knew just how much Soames loved Irene, he saw an entire lifetime with her, their Robin Hill mansion in the country, their children, a boy after him first. When she dashed those hopes time and time again, taking an architect lover, the one who would finish Robin Hill amidst much controversy and legal action, my sentiments remained as steadfastly obsessively with Soames as he with the dream of Irene. Like him, I, too, could not fathom her not even giving him an iota of a chance, but mocking him at every opportunity, as if he came from low-brow, retarded stock. One kind word, one moment of opening her eyes and really looking at this man who could change for her, be better than the rich stereotype... could’ve changed everything.
Time, and children, it seemed, had changed very little between a still-smitten Soames and a cold made of stone Irene.
Through the exploits of Soames’ daughter Fleur, who fell in love with—and was loved as madly in return by—Irene’s son John, seemed would promise more by the end of this phase.
It took three Sundays, the first two an hour extravaganza, the final a two-hour ordeal—which made HBO’s “Sex & the City’s” finale look like soft-porn pretension—but the dramatic pay-off came after both Fleur and John were forced by the rape of their parents to seek other avenues of bliss, she a husband, he a new life in New York.
Their heartbreak finally taught Irene to really look at the first husband she was always so quick to spurn as a callous, shallow, grotesque shell of a common rich man, and Soames, the greatest transformation of all in the most subtle of hues (testament to Mr. Lewis’s malleable but practical ability to realistically depict beauty in ugly truths), to really love – without strings, demands or wants.
The fruition of such self-revelations happened in the final scene, back at Robin Hill, when Soames paid a second visit to Irene on behalf of his daughter—without the near-violent confrontation of revisiting history mere beats before.
Fleur had married a war hero hand-picked by Soames (who, nevertheless, asked her to be sure, so she would not make the same mistakes as he and Irene). John, unable to be with Fleur after what her father had done to his mother, broke down in his older half-sister’s arms before announcing his intentions to move to America to help him forget.
Before leaving for her honeymoon, Fleur had Soames destroy a painting of a young woman trying on hats, because it reminded her of better days when John loved her. Instead, in an act unlikely of a younger Soames who always viewed art and such as property, to be owned, he decided to give it to someone who would appreciate its beauty and proportion, and meaning, Irene’s son John.
Coming full circle from their date in a gallery full of art Soames could never quite appreciate outside the monetary value and Irene could never quite bring herself to teach him otherwise, their final scene together spoke volumes in symbolism, quiet conversation, stolen glances, surprised smiles and the enlightenment of a forgiving woman and a remorseful man who finally let go of their past, the way their children were made to.
Soames greeted her at the door of Robin Hill, inquiring about the mansion up for sale or let, mentioned that he thought about buying it, and stumbled over the value versus importance of the piece no longer in his daughter’s possession and proffered up for Irene to give to her son.
To which Irene gave a smile of recognition, instead of revulsion for once.
This little give signaled an end to the past’s litany of misunderstandings, abuses and hatred. Through the reactions to John’s torment, her dying husband Jolie’s sacrifice, her own battle with hypocrisy and finally, an obvious shift in perceiving Soames as a monster, to a lonely old man who always meant well, Irene—a character I never warmed to and never grasped as very sympathetic—allowed the rest of her to show forth, when she, by reaching out to shake Soames’ hand warmly, generously, holding there seconds longer before he respectfully pulled away (normally, he’d have taken that as an invitation to slobber all over her).
Through that one act, a lesson could be learned by America’s soaps in how to handle a reformed rapist, OLTL’s Todd, GH’s Luke... not instantaneously turning them into blanket heroes or whitewashing past crimes against women, but forcing them to face what they did and WHY, giving them a tiny out by giving them a human face, after making them pay time and time again.
An opening in that forgiveness and gradual, believable transformation made itself known prior to Fleur’s wedding. At the time, she’d been treating her father like “a pig,” because she blamed him and his past rape for breaking up her and John’s love affair. In forlorn agony, Soames tried to make amends and only when Fleur turned as stone cold as Irene always had, did he break down about being broken down by a woman he loved who never loved him back, who cheated on him, who never gave him a chance to learn to be the kind of man she could love, and one fateful night, who undeservedly got raped by him – a “terrible” act heinous in and of itself, but also one that forever prevented Irene from EVER getting past her assumptions into the heart and soul of this damaged man.
That break-down scene should be de riguer study for ABC Daytime soaps’ head honchos.
“The Forsyte Saga” did much to restore my faith in quality acting, writing, production values and the precursor to the kind of entertainment we view today on the big and small screens: old-school soaps really do still exist.
I just watched one.
“Some [Fusion] friendship”
“before Graham Kerr”
“It’s called ALL My Children, and it is”
"About a Forward"
“I love— Ah, shaddup!”
“Lawyers, you’ve been replaced.”
“No one notices the rebounder.”
“Ten bucks a day?!"
“Is it too late to change my major?”
"docked in tinsel"
“God blessed us all with gifts. Or... did He?”
“cancer as aphrodisiac”
"you in the choir?"
“AMC, kinda sorta maybe better”
“an audience of one”
“add a real dose of reality-TV to soaps”
“Bianca sucks, let’s rape her!”
"What Happened to My Erection?"
Coggie on SARS
What It's Worth"
Soap Town USA
"General Hospital News and Gossip"